The burning question for Jane Treasure, food and beverage director of PizzaExpress, is: what is the next margherita pizza?
“I think it’s a big question, it’s the biggest selling pizza probably on the planet and in all of our competitors,” she said. “So don’t be afraid to ask the big questions, as you will never know where you are going to end up and actually you get some great products when you ask big enough questions.”
She noted that staying true to your brand and the customer is of course key in food development, but so is assessing the right moment to debut a new dish.
“I think with some of the up-and-coming trends, it’s really important to get your timing right, because if you are too early then customers might not be ready for it and if you’re too late you look like you’re a copycat.”
The reason for innovating is also crucial to the process, whether it be for grab-and-go, taste or to get more customers in.
“One of the biggest questions within innovation before I personally do anything is: what is the purpose of the work I’m doing? If I don’t know the answer, then it’s probably going to end up somewhere in the bin. So if I know what I’m doing, that opens up the innovation and makes it so much easier,” she commented.
Treasure revealed that seasonal menus are popular at PizzaExpress, with more vegetables in summer and indulgent eats at Christmas. For Valentine’s Day, the chain introduced heart-shaped dough balls, but she said food developers have to be careful not to be gimmicky. However, these special days are also a good opportunity to test out trends.
Observing customers, eating in and talking to teams in restaurants is central to Treasure’s work – she pointed out that it’s free research and an absolute must to see how people interact with menus and meals in-store.
Additionally, she visits competitors three to four times a year, although she stressed the importance of not getting distracted by their offering, particularly if you have an innovation brief of your own.
Chairman Alex Reilly said that he could see the all-day dining brand growing to 500 sites in the UK and was proud to note that Loungers is in locations where even Wetherspoon and Costa Coffee don’t have a
He believes the group has a unique offering in the market, because it doesn’t sell just one type of cuisine, and that it attracts a “democratic” customer base who can come for a morning coffee, a bit of breakfast, lunchtime tapas with a glass of wine or drinks in the evening.
Highlighting the amount of food programmes on TV, he said that “whilst people aren’t necessarily cooking these things themselves, people are becoming educated about food and they are aspiring for more.”
“We come in with a broad offer, we are not wedded to any one particular cuisine, so we can manipulate our menu to ensure that we are reflecting trends that we are experiencing that are maybe coming out of London, for example, and it means we can keep it very fresh,” he added.
Innovation is not only about new dishes, but can also involve how to improve the bestselling dish for the last 17 years, he said.
“Businesses that stop and then have a massive brainstorm about how they can improve and then change their offer will generally confuse their customers,” he commented.
Over the last two to three years, Loungers has seen significant like-for-like growth in food sales, particularly during the day, when brunch is a substantial contributor. Wet sales and evening trade are marginally up in like-for-likes.
Reilly leads a “feedback obsessed” culture at the brand, including being sent all customer emails, as he says it’s critical to see what is happening at sites. He claimed that it was genuinely difficult to point to a direct competitor, citing a recent survey of 1,700 customers that saw 71% dubbing the format unique, rather than choosing options like pub, bar or restaurant.
With 25 new sites opening a year – a rate of one a fortnight – the Loungers co-founder believes the group can grow to 400 sites and 100 Cosy Clubs – although you will never see the concept in zones one or two in London.
Bowl food is still a massive trend for Steven Mangleshot, who is looking at how to use it more often while keeping it fresh, vibrant and true to the brand.
According to the Wagamama executive chef, the Asian-inspired chain tries to lead on trends and instigate some of the great things happening on menus via its Noodle Lab.
“The great thing about the Noodle Lab is we are trying things out six months before they roll out to the estate, so it gives us carte blanche to come up with the weird, the wonderful, the stupid ideas, the great ideas, the bad ideas – all the way from crockery and cutlery right through to food,” he said.
“Customers don’t just want to see new food on the same old plate, they want to see the innovation with the plates, the bowls, the cutlery and the surrounding area to get the whole authenticity, the ambience of the place to actually make it feel like a special occasion.”
Mangleshot said while chains have been given a bad name, they offer consistency, and despite the well-documented challenges in the industry, casual dining is an exciting place to be right now.
“I think the UK as a whole, as a food business, is in a cracking place. We have some talented chefs, we have some great food offerings, I think we are head and shoulders above the rest of the world,” he commented.
Smoked flavours are capturing the interest of Glenn Evans, head of food development at Las Iguanas, as is the final look of a dish, owing to the influence of social media.
He says the roll out of new menus twice a year across the brand’s 60 sites is an ordered process involving recipes, methods, spec pics, videos and three days of training.
But why has the perception of chains turned from good to bad?
“I think it’s a combination of things. If you go on a website and you’ve never been to one of these chains and you look at a menu and go, ‘This is not for me, I’m hip and want to go to the independent places,’ or you’ve had a bad experience from a service point of view – I think that’s where it’s not gone so well and given chains a bad name,” he explained.
“But everyone has had to up their game, because we know everyone is a competitor now: street food, eating at home, Deliveroo, the ready meal boxes – everything is a challenge. So you need to up your game, from an innovative food offer, to service has to be absolutely – I’m not going to say Michelin-star – but it has to be there. It has to be attentive and be knowledgeable to keep a customer coming back.”
There is a formula to Indian food, says founder Nisha Katona, with three spices at the heart of every curry.
But with Indian cuisine now number one in the UK, why has this not translated commercially into chains around the country?
“One of the reasons is being dependant on an Indian cheffing population… My philosophy is I take current virgins and we hand train them, so my chefs are all people who love food and love curry, but don’t know how to cook curry, because it means we can move quickly,” she said.
Despite leading the eight-strong chain, which is largely based in the north of England, Katona is also responsible for all social media accounts and reads every tweet within four minutes of it being posted. “You are only as good as your last bowl of curry,” she explained.
Consistency of food is her biggest fear when she is scaling up and they do everything they can with the methodology of recipes. It has been so finally honed that if a 10-year-old walked into the kitchen, they could cook the food in about 24 hours, she joked.
“What I have to do and what I tell my chefs is when you are cooking my curry, it’s like you’re creating paracetamol in the apothecary – it is that formulated, you don’t mess with the spice one iota… The downside is there is no opportunity for them to meddle with the dishes!”