When Holly Davies joined The Restaurant Group, she was responsible for product innovation in the leisure arm, working across Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquito and five smaller brands. In the space of a year, however, her role has expanded to include the growth arm of the business too, which is focused on delivery and the off-trade. There are big plans bubbling away in this space, says the director of product innovation, particularly delivery-only brands and concepts.
While drama was her initial calling when she left school, Davies got sucked into the world of food and hospitality and boasts a number of notable mentors that she has met as she has risen up the ranks. These include Emma Woods and Zoe Bowley, CEO at Wagamama and PizzaExpress respectively, as well as Iceland’s director of product, Neil Nugent.
She describes cooking as her therapy – her shelves are jammed with cookbooks and food magazines, though she leaves the kitchen to the chefs when it comes to work.
Here, Davies chats about menu testing and her dream to have her own style of Noodle Lab for brands like Frankie & Benny’s, as well as popular dishes and why chains shouldn’t shy away from shouting about consistency.
It’s no secret that delivery is a massive area of growth for the sector and a real opportunity, so I’m working specifically on that as a project, with a different team to look at ways we can leverage that opportunity and make that channel work as best it can for us.
We use insights from multiple areas inside and outside the business, from commercial insights and team insights – operationally how easy or hard something is or how we can improve the way we land it – to customer insights, which might be a specific bit of research or feedback through our guest feedback app. Or it might be simply me sifting through verbatim comments from our guest experience team or comments made on social channels. Obviously, we do tend to take a look at market reports and industry trends to see generally what’s going on out there. I also spend as much time as I can out and about with the network of suppliers and development teams.
We do look at competitors as well, not obsessively, but to ensure we are on top of what everyone is doing.
When you have a brand that has been around for a certain amount of time, it’s both a gift and a curse. You get this amazing sense of dishes that people know and expect to get from you, but you can also get lost in all the things that have happened over the years and doing things a certain way because that’s how it’s always been. You have to keep challenging and listening and evolving.
With a new menu, ideally we will get it into a subset of restaurants and test it with guests directly. It means we can genuinely see how they behave... We might do some other things ahead of that: we might do a focus group or small-scale product testing where we invite people along to particular events. We might talk broadly with them about our menu or ask for detailed feedback when we are trying to get the nuances of a recipe.
I’d love to have a couple of sites or a particular space where, when the brands are ready and humming, we can put things in a bit more quickly or test them in front of guests and throw things in there. I think there’s some fantastic examples of brands doing that, like Wagamama with the Noodle Lab.
We actually have a couple of trials coming up in Frankie & Benny’s this year. I think it’s such a fantastic opportunity to be constantly challenging what our next menu will be and getting influence from the guest, but the key is to not trap yourself into trialling everything.
The [May] menu launch in particular was around continuing to offer choice, which is something we are proud of at Frankie & Benny’s, but being genuine about the breadth of range. Choice doesn’t have to mean a massive menu, which I think we have been guilty of in the past. With each menu change we are making sure the right food is on the menu, while also more clearly articulating Italian-American as our culinary start point.
It’s really important to double down on the stuff that matters to people about Frankie & Benny’s. Familiar food that is comforting, making sure that it does have that Italian-American leaning and product that has a certain sense of nostalgia about it. There is a lovely richness from people having affection for the brand and we have really tried to hone in on this for the menu.
One of the new dishes we have got for Frankie’s is a mozzarella and tomato salad, and this is the type of dish that I think you could mistakenly write off as too obvious or simple... We are using this basil pesto from Belazu, which has this lovely colour and zingy flavour; we have a new balsamic glaze as well and when you combine these with great ripe sweet tomatoes and creamy mozzarella... this is the type of dish that for me, you absolutely have to have on your menu. If you can get it right it’s the kind of dish that people will keep coming back for again and again.
We have introduced a new meatball dish for a starter and we have worked really hard to get the product right. So there are these soft, succulent meatballs that almost collapse underneath the fork and come in this lovely chilli and tomato sauce. It’s really simple again, but I feel like if ever a product was to say Italian-American, it’s meatballs.
What I would like to see us do more of this year is to have a bit of a fun when it comes to our specials, create some great food but not take ourselves too seriously. Get some stuff out there – maybe we will surprise people.
When it comes to the larger brands I work with, you tend to want to get everything right before it even goes near the guest. The trouble is if you do this, you can end up killing an idea too soon, before it’s got to the right people.
One of the most important things we are trying to hang on to here, which can be tough, particularly if you think of the scale of the business I work for, is to just give things a go even with the risk of failing, just keep trying things and either find out our guests loved it or move on from it.
Some of the ones that disappoint me when they don’t work is when you put together a really recognisable and delicious combination, like pear and gorgonzola or figs and parma ham in a salad, and it doesn’t fly. I think sometimes new ingredients and dishes can really struggle to be up there with the big hitters on your menu, so you can bring in a really gorgeous dessert but it’s going to be a hard push to do better than the chocolate fudge cake or the chocolate brownies of this world.
In terms of your bigger brands, you’ll end up with these dishes that will always stay. The build-your-own tortilla and fajita space works really well on the Chiquito menu, and steak and fries at Frankie & Benny’s is incredibly popular – it’s a huge seller for us.
The dishes that are popular are also the ones that guests have come to trust. They know what they are going to get when they order it. I think having a consistent experience really makes guests happy and products popular.
Consistency can be a word that people become scared of, because it’s not the sexiest word, but I think knowing what you’re going to get when it’s good, it’s a really great comfort to people. We shouldn’t underestimate that.
What I have been pleased with that is performing really well recently in Frankie & Benny’s is the new vegan range. What is quite interesting for me is there were already quite a lot of vegan products on the menu, so it wasn’t necessarily a completely new thing, but it was obvious the products we introduced in January – and we went big – spoke more to what vegan guests were looking for.
Innovation is an absolute must and it has to be a part of how we fight back... Since I’ve joined it definitely feels like there is an unwavering understanding that innovation is absolutely necessary when it comes to driving the business forward and there is a real focus on change being imperative to any success we have and that there is no option to stand still.
Maybe there was a time, when all you had to do was open the doors and people were walking in, but I think now people’s expectations are so much greater and that’s a great thing for innovation, it’s so important and puts it at the heart of the business.
It definitely feels like it’s been a particularly challenging time in the sector, but I think the result is everyone has been pushing harder and looking for innovative ways to overcome those impacts, and I think from an innovation perspective, every time someone steps up, the next person has to do the same. When people are being better around you, you want to do more, to be better.
I’m hopeful that the focus on waste and the trend towards sustainable eating will continue to grow, anything as simple as eating more plants, caring about where food comes from, throwing less food away. I like the ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ approach in casual dining, not being afraid to hold less and run out more, or use specials more intuitively – that to me is interesting. I love the idea of a trend like that meaning everyone could have an influence. We could be such an important part of having the right conversations and driving the right behaviours.
Global flavours don’t show any signs of slowing down. The trend of international tastes has become so much more the norm and has become increasingly familiar for us. It means there is such a diversity of taste and flavour profiles that weren’t accessible before. I think people are really enjoying themselves and the opportunity to explore and try new things.
I think that’s only helped by other additional trends like food halls or pop ups or that market hall approach, where you literally have access to multiple kitchens in one place. If you can imagine in one sitting you have tried three or four different cuisines with a group of your mates, I think that’s insane – that feels like something that was simply never an option before
There are of course more specific trends such as Filipino and Nordic, a few people have tipped those to be hot for 2019.
Anything that is too much to do with messing around with food I hope is a fad and it moves on. Because for me – and I know I’m going to make it all sound way too simple – for me there is something fascinating about food as it is and it doesn’t need to be played with for a passing gimmick.