Restaurants are difficult businesses to start, keep running, and pull a profit on. In fact, industry insiders used to say most restaurants don’t see any money earned until they’ve hit the 10-year mark. But 10 years until you start making money? Who can wait that long and stay afloat?
I visited London this month for their second annual London Restaurant Festival. The festival is designed to keep businesses well-seated and making money. My last trip to London was 11 years prior, and most of the small businesses I once frequented were long gone. Creating a festival to help similar restaurants sounded like an ambitious task.
Except this time around, London’s food scene had changed remarkably. I couldn't believe how much the quality, charm, innovation and customer service had improved. In one decade, the restaurant industry had transformed. The food was not just palatable, it was delicious. The service was excellent and the ambiance was more than present. Better yet, with the dollar weak against the pound, the lack of a tipping culture still existing was a breath of financial fresh air.
“Two years ago my partner Fay Maschler and I realized there is no kind of cohesive celebration of London’s restaurants,” said festival co-founder and co director Simon Davis. So he and Maschler, a well-known food writer, started the London Restaurant Festival in 2008 and their business, A Private View, to help restaurant owners stay relevant and in business.
“Everyone is finally talking about how much London’s food scene has improved, and how much more diverse we are. We have some of the greatest chefs in the world setting up here. But if you talk to people in America or France and ask what’s the worst thing about London, they will still stay that the food is awful.”
According to Davis, the concept and strength of the festival is that it keeps small businesses doing well in the current economic climate by creating a community of restaurant owners, restaurant-goers and chefs for the epicurious to sample and spend their money on. He maintains that festival-type events can help keep businesses afloat and prosperous by exposing them to untapped customers.
Small businesses should take industry events and festivals like the London Restaurant Festival to their advantage. Here's why it's a smart business move to jump on board:
An industry festival, convention, or conference can create community. London’s restaurant scene has improved dramatically and, until London Restaurant Week, it didn’t have an organization officially recognizing and celebrating it.
Industry festivals can include the little guys. The London Food Festival isn’t just about top chefs like Gordon Ramsay; it’s also about letting the smaller and lesser-known chefs and restaurants into the spotlight as well.
Industry festivals are an affordable way to get a lot more business. 550 restaurants participated this year and paid only $160 each to be included.
Events are a great way to showcase your business. For London’s Restaurant Festival, there is a schedule of events. Some events enable foodies to meet and experience the top chefs in ways they otherwise wouldn't in a typical dining experience. Events included a dinner and food quiz, as well as a food debate.
“Chefs can be like celebrities and superstars. People want to meet the movie stars and rockstars of the culinary world,” says Davis.
The festival covers the culinary spectrum. “This year we have businesses from Pizza Express to the big names participating,” says Davis.
The marketing and publicity hype around a restaurant festival are priceless. “The combination of the restaurants marketing their festival menus and all the press we get for the festival averages up to a 30 percent increase in sales for these restaurants during the festival period,” says Davis. “They kept up to 10 percent more business after the festival last year.”
Ninety percent of the restaurants that participated the first year returned to participate again this year.
Industry festivals bring new business. “We’re putting bums on seats,” says Davis. “At the end of the day, this is a tool to get lots of people trying restaurants they might not have otherwise, which is bringing these restaurants, these businesses, more business.”
Industry festivals can change perception and preconceived notions. If everyone thinks food in London is terrible, the only way they’re going to think otherwise is to try the new food or read about what people think of it.
Festivals can encourage tourism. For the London Restaurant Festival, the founders/directors are working to put London on the map as a food destination. Planning vacations based on events around the world has become an increasingly trendy way to travel, too.
Industry festivals can be a great way to celebrate diversity within the sector. The London Restaurant Festival is a gateway to learning about different cultures and cooking styles. “You can walk down the street and see a Nigerian restaurant next to a Lebanese restaurant. On another street, an Iraqi and Polish restaurant. And inside all these restaurants aren’t just Nigerians, Lebanese, Iraqis and Polish. Everyone is trying them out,” says Davis.