Two brands really struck me this week as representing the epitome of fantastic casual dining restaurant chains – not that they would particularly want to be described as chains – Honest Burgers and Hickory’s Smokehouse.
Honest Burgers commercial director Meg Ellis gave a brilliant presentation at the RM&I conference on Tuesday that was, well, honest. It’s a brand with a story and that’s critical to where it is now and a clear and relevant lesson to us all. When a brand has moved on from its founder for whatever reason, someone has to stand up, own and fight for that brand, keeping its story alive. It’s difficult when a restaurant chain moves from owner to owner and one marketing director replaces yet another one to remember why it all started in the first place.
The brand story has to be the starting and reference point. This story should give the brand “owner” the power to say “no, that’s not happening with this brand”, allowing them to resist the influence of accountants, investors, the City, a new chairman, financial journalists or the loudest voice in the room – all of whom may want to make a change for the wrong reason. Many of these interested and influential parties can fail to understand the emotional pull of a restaurant brand. They only see spreadsheets.
Without that North Star, brands can die in increments. Those in power don’t always realise their request to replace 1% of meat in a burger with cereal would come on top of last year’s (and previous years’) demands to remove 1% of meat. At what point do you stop? At what point does someone stand up for the brand and say “no more”.
I joined one brand some time ago where the meat content in its sausage had been cut to 17%. I doubt it could even have been called a sausage by then. Increasing the meat content to a respectable 75% would have bankrupted the business. No-one had ever thought to stay “stop”. Needless to say, that brand doesn’t exist today.
Honest’s methodology means it doesn’t compromise on what was important to its founders. Honest Burgers’ DNA reads: “From day one we wanted to make the best British burgers on any menu, anywhere. We’ve always made our burgers from chuck and rib cap. At our butchery we chop our beef, not mince it to oblivion. Our chefs season every burger as it cooks. Our chips, rosemary salt, veggie fritters, iced tea, pickles and sauces are all made by us, by hand. Our chips are always fresh, not frozen.” They don’t compromise on the reason why they started a restaurant in the first place.
Meg said in her presentation: “We sell a feeling.” That’s so true. Customers don’t eat in a restaurant because they’re hungry – they can use quick service, delivery, takeaway or retail for that. They eat in a restaurant to capture an emotion and all a brand should do is help them feel that emotion, with guests always feeling better when they leave than when they arrived.
I loved it when Meg talked about the brand having “humility” and “never being done with quality”. She talked about the brand needing to be “relevant, interesting and true”. She mentioned being human, giving true autonomy to restaurant teams, to having personality, that it all had be humming, celebrating when delivery was spot on and the whole team standing shoulder to shoulder, working together.
Every restaurant brand needs a guardian and to be guarded – a brand is a precious thing. Of course brands have to evolve and change in line with guests’ dining habits but to thrive they have to keep true to the values and story of their founders.
I look at some of the fantastic new concepts in Market Halls’ sites, for example, and want the founders to remember those early days. I want them to understand why they started in the first place. They need to take some time out before it’s too late to document what’s really important to them and to keep that spirit alive if they become “chains”. If they don’t, no-one else will, and we all know what happens then. Great presentation, great team, great brand.