A small story toward the back of the Evening Standard last week
sent a chill through London’s top restaurateurs. It was the news that
two of the City’s biggest employers, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and
stockbroker Merrill Lynch, have put a pounds 30-per-head limit on
expense account lunches.
While this may prompt sneers of derision among the majority who just pop
out for a sandwich, the significance is that it could herald the end of
the UK’s London-led restaurant boom.
In the same week, the restaurant group most closely associated with the
renaissance in eating out, Conran Restaurants International (CRI), hired
its first dedicated senior marketer.
Dominic de Vetta, a marketer with six years’ experience at Lancome,
L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble, joins in the new year. His arrival comes
at a time of international and UK expansion for Sir Terence Conran, who
is clearly not a man to be put off by a mere world recession.
David Loewi, CRI managing director, said the appointment signals a more
focused approach to its marketing.
’For a long time we relied on public relations to raise awareness of our
restaurants, but as our client base expands and the economy softens we
need to target our message more carefully,’ said Loewi.
De Vetta, the man responsible for taking Lancome into the database era
by developing a relationship marketing strategy, will be given the task
of developing the first Conran loyalty card.
’We need to know who our top customers are and reward them
Hotels have become very good at this but restaurants are way behind,’
The move comes at a time when Conran is close to adding hotels to his
portfolio. Next autumn he opens the Great Eastern Hotel, which will
feature seven restaurants alongside hundreds of guest rooms and
Loewi says the Conran Group is moving into a new phase of business
development and must now ensure that all its different businesses work
more closely on a cohesive marketing strategy.
Conran’s seven-year roll-out of swanky, individualistic London
restaurants is drawing to a close. What began with Pont de la Tour in
1991 and developed into the mega-eateries of the mid-90s - Quaglino’s,
Mezzo and Bluebird seat a total of 1200 diners - has more recently
His three restaurant openings this year - Sartoria, Orrery and Coq
d’Argent - have been closer to 100 seats and there are no plans for any
new large London restaurants. Instead, Loewi says we will see the
nationwide expansion of the Zinc Bar and Grill format.
The rationale is that the Zinc’s modestly priced food and drink in a
cafe environment is more appropriate to pre-millennium Britain.
’In an economic downturn, larger restaurants will look emptier and this
will deter customers,’ says Mark Sheppard, restaurant analyst at ABN
AMRO. ’They can go into a vicious circle. People will look to
’downtrade’, seeking equal quality at a lower price.’
For this reason CRI may find itself competing with publicly quoted
groups such as Group Chez Gerard, which spends 2% of its turnover on
marketing, and the brewer/catering chains such as Whitbread.
Loewi is adamant, however, that the group can retain that ’Conran
He says that while the marketing will be more closely integrated, the
restaurants will retain their individuality.
’Customers who go to Pont de la Tour are different in profile from those
at Mezzo. We don’t just want a washover effect.’
Paul Hickman, a restaurant analyst at Peel Hunt, suggests that
merchandising may be a useful extra revenue stream. ’Merchandising is a
valid development for an upmarket restaurant company.’
Indeed, Damien Hirst’s The Pharmacy Bar & Restaurant is looking at
opening a separate retail outlet for a large range of medically-themed
While the UK restaurant scene gets darker, Conran sees a bright spot
across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. As a result De
Vetta’s role is likely to be increasingly international.
Next autumn Conran opens the Bridgemarket under the gothic arches of a
bridge in Manhattan, New York, which will be a complex of restaurants
and shops in the Bluebird mould. He has already opened the Alcazar in
So perhaps it is a time of consolidation for Conran in his native land
while the rest of the world is about to feel his entrepreneurial
The recruitment of an ex-Procter & Gamble marketer to aid Conran’s
global plan indicates the seriousness with which he is taking the
All De Vetta needs to do is make sure the brokers’ pounds 30 finds its
way into the tills of Conran-owned restaurants.