Jane Bradley: Restuarants can be hit by chain reaction

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A popular brand name draws in diners who want familiarity, but a single identity can also cause problems writes Jane Bradley

Given the choice of a cosy, neighbourhood restaurant, or one of the big chains, where would you eat?

I would wager that you woudl all opt for the independent place - after all, locally sourced food and supporting independent retail are today’s buzz words. Aren’t they?

Actually, the statistics suggest otherwise.

Figures released this week by market research firm NPD showed that 56 per cent of UK restaurant visits last year were to a “branded” outlet, compared to just 44 per cent at an independent eaterie, with chains generating 1.2 billion extra visits than eight years before.

I rarely opted to eat in a chain restaurant - until I became a parent. Now it makes life infinitely easier.

While I know, through trial and error, that my daughter would be happy to scoff her favourite gnocchi in red pepper sauce at our local independent Italian - or chomp through bowls of Japanese dumplings at my preferred sushi joint in Edinburgh. If we are travelling out of town, it is more of a risky endeavour.

An attempt to recreate gnocchi heaven at a restaurant near to my parents-in-law’s place in Northern Ireland was met with tears because it was a bit fancier than she was used to at home and came with artfully draped salad - not something that is top of a then-two-year-old’s wishlist.

But had we chosen the chain option, we would not have had the same problem. At Pizza Express, whether it’s in Braehead or Barnstaple, they do a darn good dough ball and serve babyccinos as a standard part of a kids’ meal. At Nandos, the chicken has a mild spice version for more sensitive small palates and Jamie’s Italian offers an unrivalled activity pack with crayons and plantable herb seeds to keep little ones entertained.

You see, you get to know these important things when the alternative is a toddler with the food grumps and a mad dash around an unfamiliar Asda in search of rice cakes before bedtime.

Yet, even many non-parents enjoy the reliability of a chain restaurant, particularly when dining in groups. No-one is thrown by an unexpected menu or overly expensive bill at the end of the evening. You can plan in advance.

This predictable familiarity is why business is booming. Cyril Lavenant, director of food service at NPD, explains that it is not just parents who are keen on chains, claiming that independents are “struggling to be relevant and appealing to consumers on the British high street and clearly do not ‘speak’ well to young adults”.

He also warned that local restaurants are likely to find it more difficult to compete against the big brands over the next decade.

In short, people like chain restaurants. They like knowing what to expect.

And they are often pleasant - if not mindblowing - dining experiences. Chain restaurants have the financial firepower to choose locations which are central and have a lot of passing footfall. Many have online booking facilities, but keep tables back for on-the-night walk-ins. They are convenient for a quick bite, or a relaxing meal. They have the marketing campaigns and the social media presence.

Scotland is quickly becoming the beneficiary of many London-based chains’s expansion plans, with Irani-Indian restaurant brand Dishoom set to open its first Scottish branch in Edinburgh later this month and Mexican street food eatery Wahaca opening its doors nearby last month.

However, Wahaca’s Scottish launch did not go quite to plan, coinciding with a suspected outbreak of vomiting bug norovirus in its restaurants. The Edinburgh branch, at first not believed to be affected by the illness - which struck down around 350 people and saw nine branches of the chain closed - shut its doors temporarily after it emerged that some customers north of the border too had fallen ill.

Owner and former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers will have been reading press cuttings from the US in horror as her team battled to identify the source of the illness.

For just under a year ago, an outbreak of the same nasty bug started in a branch of American chain restaurant Chipotle on a Boston University campus - its third in a year in various locations countrywide. Although the chain shut all of its branches and retrained staff in food hygiene and safety, it never revealed the source of the outbreak. It later faced an even more serious problem with an outbreak of E.Coli in some of its outlets.

Since the string of outbreaks, Chipotle, which is listed on the stock exchange in the US, has struggled financially. Its turnover and profits have plummeted as customers have only very slowly begun to return.

Nine-year-old Wahaca, which has previously enjoyed an almost universally positive press - tapping into the street food concept before the hipsters, who now own the genre, were old enough to grow their bushy beards - must be worried.

The chain has, as yet, given no indiction of how the illness spread - it is easily passed on by infected people, particularly if they handle food - or if the Edinburgh closure is directly linked to the shutting of its other branches. However, an incident like this serves to show that what attracts people to chains can just as quickly turn them away.

While what happened at Wahaca Edinburgh - which is now open again, after consultation with Public Health England who dealt with the outbreak south of the border - has been resolved, the brand has been hit.

Comments on news stories reporting on the closure show the extent of the effect.

“I will not be eating there,” said one commentator. “Actually devastated, I love this place,” added another.

It will indeed take time for people to forget, for the trust to be built back up.

Wahaca, which seems to have handled its ‘mense horribilis’ well, will hopefully bounce back.

It should - in fact, its hygiene procedures are probably second to none right now.

Yet, if this had happened at a small, single branch, neighbourhood restaurant and a handful of people had been affected, it’s unlikely we would have heard about it. It is only because this is a big business that it makes headlines - or indeed that affected customers make complaints.

What makes chain restaurants popular is also what can potentially be their downfall - their fame.