Midlands Retail Forum

EXPERTS SERVE UP THE FUTURE OF HOSPITALITY

A panel of leading experts set out the future of Birmingham’s food and drink scene last week, when Midlands Retail and Hospitality Forum (MRF) hosted its first event of 2020. Led by famed chef Alex Claridge (The Wilderness), the panel explored the challenges and opportunities facing both independent and chain restaurants across the city in an event focused on ‘How to Increase Loyalty and Footfall in Hospitality’. 

Creating loyal customers is a challenge that many businesses face, and this event took a deep dive into how hospitality businesses can drive footfall and encourage a more reliable customer base through its doors. With increased competition creating more choice for consumers, changing trends in how people want to experience food and drink, and the ongoing issue of no-shows, it’s a subject that’s key to a city with a seemingly thriving hospitality scene. 

MRF welcomed a leading panel of experts to the event, which was held at Maribel Restaurant in Brindleyplace. Alex Claridge, Chef Owner at The Wilderness is known for pushing boundaries and reinventing traditional dining experiences, and he led the discussions with his notorious honesty. He was joined by award-winning journalist and blogger Ellen Manning, who writes for titles including Guardian Small Business, Yahoo! News and i newspaper; as well as Catherine Gywnne, Creative Director at 2G Design & Build, the company behind venues including Chakana, Tap & Tandoor and The Wilderness. 

The line-up was completed by Harvey Perttola, one of Birmingham’s youngest head chefs who sits at the helm of host venue Maribel Restaurant. He commented: “The key is a combination of product and consistency. Customers become loyal when you regularly deliver a great meal and want to come again and again,” which was said during the discussion of loyalty not being measured in a single transaction but over a longer period of time. Harvey laboured that restaurants need to be willing to invest in their own success long-term.

The discussion, which was chaired by Tara Tomes, MD of PR, marketing and events agency, EAST VILLAGE., also talked about the challenge of working front of house and dealing with demanding customers – who often take their experiences online – as well as the heat of the kitchen environment. Speaking about this, Alex Claridge added: “It’s often long hours and you genuinely need a real passion to do this. It can certainly be rewarding though; we love the fact that I can contribute to red letter days for so many of our guests.” The need for true passion – and not quick reward – was echoed by the panel, especially when it comes to working for an independent, when budgets are tighter and resources even tighter still. 

Overall, the panel was positive about Birmingham and the future of food and drink. From its six Michelin-starred restaurants to world-renowned street food, the city champions businesses delivering top quality and service. A focus on quality ingredients, taste and presentation of your restaurant and the food was highlighted as key. Whilst independents were struggling, chains didn’t have it much easier and the trap of competing with the middle-market chains was something that the panel recognised as a route to failure. Instead, the discussion looked at the need to focus on customer expectation; for independents, in particular, the relationship isn’t purely transactional and they are visiting for more than just food. Customers might be celebrating an occasion or simply creating a memory, but they want an ‘experience’ that goes beyond having a ‘selfie spot’ for them to post on Instagram; there has to be a story told and a level of service upheld. 

“Once your customers come to you, look after them and ensure the reality is just as good, or even better, than the perception. Don’t fail at this hurdle. It all comes down to customer experience, which is something that the hospitality industry is learning from retail; customers want touch points that make them feel special. Even fast food chains recognise that it’s not about a transaction of ‘I am hungry, I will buy and eat food’, but instead they’re looking at the whole customer journey; from spotting the restaurant sign by the roadside right through to every single experience that associate with your brand,” concludes Naeem Arif, Co-Founder and Chair of MRF. 

The first MRF event of the year was a huge success and welcomed guests from across the city’s hospitality sector; both independent and national brands. It was hosted by members of MRF’s new-look committee, which has seen a number of notable professionals join the group; including Ifraz Ahmed, co-founder of Birmingham Awards, Birmingham Food Drink & Hospitality Awards and Midlands Women in Tech Awards; entrepreneur Mark O’Sullivan, investor in brands including banana export company Banabay and Purely plantain crisps; and chef and food consultant, Nitisha Patel. In addition to celebrated businessman, Professor Paul CadmanTara Tomes, owner of retail and hospitality PR agency, EAST VILLAGE.; and Tony Elvin, centre manager at Touchwood Solihull and owner of The Wine Events Company. They join co-founders Khalid Karim (NA Consulting), Naeem Arif (NA Consulting), Shindo Barquer (in Equilibrium), and Tim Hammond (Make Sense Accounts). 

MRF launched its events for Q1 of 2020, with the next event – the first MRF event outside of Birmingham – being held in partnership with Coventry BID on 17 February and focused on “How Can Town Centres Survive the High Street Revolution?”. The group, which champions the evolution of the retail and hospitality sectors by providing a local platform for education and engagement, has also released details of its first major customer experience conference: ‘Unlock Your CX Potential’, which is taking place on 25 March at Jaguar Experience in Castle Bromwich. 

To find out more and book your place on future MRF events, visit www.midlandsretailforum.co.uk and follow @MidsRetailForum on social media. 

Tara Tomes