Trends Report

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5 Key Lessons from Successful Hospitality Leaders

In 2018 I wrote an article exploring the UK restaurant landscape which was at that time undergoing dramatic change as many household names ceased to exist.

Apart from these causalities there remained however some outstanding brands, flourishing while others failed. These were McDonald’s, Flat Iron, Honest Burger and Nando’s. Fast forward through the pandemic to 2024 which food heroes are still flourishing in the UK and who are the new hot prospects, challenging the status quo?

Learnings from the best, an article by Jon Blakeney, Group MD, I-AM.

Recent years have been far more about survival than growth. Most of the current challenges faced by Hospitality operators are largely outside their control with high inflation making borrowing expensive, utility bills escalating, labour shortages continuing and supply chain increases causing pressure on margins. 35% of UK hospitality firms report that they could be operating at a loss or cease trading completely by the end of 2023, according to a recent survey by UK Hospitality and BBPA. Consumers are also feeling the pinch with 60% reporting in a recent Barclaycard survey that they are lowering the amount they eat out to help manage increasing energy bills. Running parallel to these issues, as we belatedly realise the damage we have done to our planet, consumers and the government are increasingly expecting ever higher standards of sustainability, which inevitably comes at a price. Against this background, surviving is tough, never mind innovating. However, during this time strong brands have emerged that seem resilient to these economic challenges and are not only growing but blossoming. I am interested to see what links these hero brands and how have they achieved such success during challenging times. I want to dig a little deeper, to understand the secrets behind their success.

Image courtesy of Big Mama Group

Big Mamma Group: Redefining Italian Cuisine

The first brand that I currently really admire is the Big Mamma Group. Founded by Victor Lugger and Tigrane Seydoux in 2013 they opened their first site in London as recently as 2019. They now have five London restaurants and have succeeded in immediately transporting you to Italy the moment you walk in the door. It seems odd, after all this time, that such a prevalent food offerings such as Italian could have been presented in such a transformative way but Big Mama have achieved it.

Their restaurants are never the same, not even the names, but they share the same irreverent DNA, distinct character and stand-out features that live long in the memory. Above all though, they offer an amazing experience with great food, served at reasonable prices and presented with real panache. Their hero dishes such as Gran Carbonara, served from a wheel of Pecorino at the table, for only £16.00, set the tone. Their restaurants are fun, authentic, different and enriching experiences. They also seem to have a real commitment to maintaining high standards, as shown by this quote from Victor Lugger in Restaurant Magazine: “They have to always look good. Over time if you don’t maintain them they start to fade”.

I can’t think of another restaurant brand that has arrived in London and made so much impact, not since Wagamama and Yo! Sushi, maybe. Interestingly though there doesn’t seem to be a ripple effect of would-be brands emulating their approach.

What’s really lovely about The Big Mamma Group is that they prove that you don’t need to charge a fortune to host a great experience and build a hugely valuable business, which was recently acquired by McWin for €270 million. It will be fascinating to see what happens next but if the sensitive growth of Gail’s, one of WcWin’s other investments is an indicator, that more good things are in store.

Key Learning: Great team culture, unique family of formats and an elevated experience, at a fair price.

Image courtesy of Coppa Club

Coppa Club: Creating Community through Elevated Experiences

The brand was founded in 2014 by Hugh Osmond who has an outstanding history within F&B including the floatation of Pizza Express and the creation of Punch Taverns. Their growth to fourteen locations though, has mainly happened over the last four years. There is something so powerful about the core idea of Coppa Club. It feels like a members' club, but for free, you can go along any time of the day and even stay the night. There are hardly any UK restaurant chains that managed to successfully own each day part, however, Coppa has achieved this nirvana. As with Big Mama, they offer an elevated experience at a reasonable price point, with Coppa though the experience is more driven by the design and guest experience, than the food theatre. It feels a bit like Soho House but in an accessible way, however, features like the alfresco dining pods create a sense of drama and a point of difference.

They manage to span that very difficult gap between somewhere you can pop into regularly, for coffee or a light bite, and somewhere special for a Saturday night treat. There is little hint of them being part of a chain, each venue seems to have been crafted into their locality even though the branding remains consistent. They also seem to become part of each community in a meaningful way, hosting yoga workshops, and wellness sessions, and they even have an ongoing personal development series of talks. It’s great to see an F&B brand confidently step outside its core purpose and seek to become a lifestyle-led brand.

Surprisingly, more restaurant brands haven’t explored the idea of adding accommodation to their offer to create a more immersive experience and another revenue stream.

Key Learning: Lifestyle-led, become part of (and create) a community, own day parts.

Image courtesy of Ivy Café

Ivy Café: Setting the Standard for All-Day Dining


Although the original Ivy restaurant first opened in 1917, it wasn’t until 2014 that the Ivy Café concept was launched. Since then it has grown rapidly and there are now 40 locations within the UK.

The concept builds on the heritage of the original Ivy but at the same time has created an all-day, accessible experience that not only makes guests feel special but also doesn’t break the bank. I can’t think of a UK restaurant roll-out that has maintained such high standards in every aspect of the experience. Over half the locations are outside London and more often than not, they quickly become one of the most popular destinations in town, setting a new benchmark for service. The key to the experience is that the interior feels luxurious, the staff make you feel special, and there’s a great cocktail list but at the same time, the menu is packed with familiar favourites that are surprisingly affordable. Ivy fish and chips, as an example, is £18,95, probably no more than the local pub.

In many ways the recipe for success is similar to Big Mama, offering a great experience but in an affordable way. It’s an all-day concept so they have the day parts covered but it feels like a treat, not perhaps somewhere that you’d pop in every week, unlike Coppa Club. To hire and train teams, while growing this quickly, and maintaining such high standards of guest experience, is remarkable. This is alongside delivering a luxurious interior and great food. Inevitably when others have scaled at this speed, standards drop, across the board. Ivy café manages to deliver sparkle to people’s lives and has set a new UK benchmark.

The ownership and oversight of Richard Caring seems to be the key ingredient in delivering excellence, as is shown by the other Caprice Restaurant brands such as Sexy Fish and Scott’s, few other pioneers are setting such high standards in the UK.

Key Learning: Offering accessible luxury and making guests feels special at an affordable price.

Image courtesy of Gail's Bekery

Gail’s Bakery: Nurturing Neighbourhoods with Sustainable Practices

The first Gail’s bakery opened in Hampstead in 2005 and for the first 10 years grew slowly, perfecting its art, however with external investment, they have now accelerated their growth to 211 UK sites. As with Big Mama, Ivy Cafe and Coppa Club, their success can be traced to the curatorship of their founder(s), in this case, Tim Molnar. A great quote from Tim in an article published by the British Baker sums up this approach beautifully: “As you grow – and we’re embarking on our fourth decade of growth – you need to keep focused on what made you fall in love with it in the beginning, which for me was great bread and amazing bakers. We won’t lose sight of that. What we’ve done is to bring in new partners who understand us and can add value”. There is something special about what Gail’s represents, a business that is passionate about one thing, that also believes deeply in the importance of revitalising neighbourhoods and building communities. Pre-pandemic this was a topic rarely discussed, but post-pandemic it is at the very centre of the way many people want to live their lives. It’s great to see the effect that the arrival of a Gail’s Bakery has on a neighbourhood high street, perhaps only the Waitrose effect, is similar.

Gail’s bake fresh bread on site every day providing an essential resource, they deliberately use local suppliers, have a long-standing commitment to sustainable packaging and contribute their surplus food back to local charities. This approach sets a new benchmark for what it means for an F&B brand to genuinely be part of a local community. Gail’s sustainable ethos runs through the very heart of its brand from the food they create. to the materials they use in its properties. The design of their bakeries is also now a benchmark for sustainable design in their use of materials, zero carbon products and a great collaboration with RAW Furniture Workshop, an organisation that helps people from challenging backgrounds regain a career path.

Key Learning: Relaunching neighbourhoods, a commitment to sustainability and putting something back into communities.

Image courtesy of Caravan

Caravan: Innovating All-Day Dining with a Purpose

Caravan was founded by three Kiwis, Miles Kirby, Laura Harper-Hinton and Chris Ammermann. When they opened their first in Exmouth Market in 2010, pioneering relaxed, casual all-day dining it was like a breath of fresh air in London. They now have 7 London sites and are about to open an 8th site in the North of England. As with Gail’s, the early years of Caravan’s existence saw them perfecting their art and growing slowly, before external investment arrived in 2018, via Active Partners, facilitating the quicker expansion of further sites. The design of the restaurants has played a key role in their success, enabling them to ‘sweat their assets’ by transforming throughout the day, from an early morning pastry right through to a late-night Espresso Martini. They have also chosen their sites carefully, ensuring that each one has a unique sense of place, while also retaining a consistent brand character. Their menu has also had a big impact on their success with an eclectic selection of dishes from around the world, prepared freshly every day. At the heart of Caravan though sits it’s a roasters, which not only provides a clear point of difference but also a completely separate business-to-business income stream.

Caravan are also defined by their approach to supporting local communities, nurturing their team and thoughtfully helping to reduce their impact on our planet. Their Caravan of Love initiative is a great example of how they help and support good causes in a meaningful way. In a post-pandemic world where we are searching for brands that have a deeper purpose and represent a force for good, it feels like Caravan is leading the way within the F&B sector.

Learnings: Relaxed all-day dining style, eclectic high-quality well-travelled menu and a force for good in the world.

SO, WHAT ARE THE LEARNINGS FROM THESE FOOD HEROES?

When you analyse these five brands and look for consistent themes, it is in my opinion no coincidence that they are all in their own way, highly successful. Based on the learnings from these great benchmarks, I have drawn together my top tips for success, not only for start-up restaurateurs but also for the big behemoths who have lost their mojo.

ALWAYS GUARD THE SPARK.

Martin Scorsese once said that his best tip for budding filmmakers was: when you’re making a film, always protect the spark of the idea, because, throughout the process, you will be bombarded with other people’s opinions and reasons to change what you are doing. Restaurateurs should take note. It is exactly the same with any restaurant business, someone has to guard and protect what is special about the brand. It isn’t a coincidence that all of the five hero brands still have the founders carefully guarding ‘The Spark’. The quote from Big Mama’s founder Victor Lugger captures this beautifully – “They have to always look good. Over time, if you don’t maintain them they start to fade”.

CREATE A BRAND, NOT JUST A LOCATION.

This factor links these five food heroes. When we talk about ‘brand’ we mean the thoughts that you put into people’s heads, how you make them feel, think and act. This all needs underpinning with core values and a personality that helps you express your essence, memorably, in other words, your way. This approach leads to a strong, clearly defined culture which ultimately will be a brand’s biggest defence against competition. Caravan scores highly on all counts as typified by its Caravan of Love programme.

BECOME THE COMMUNITY, NOT JUST PART OF IT.

Things have changed significantly since 2018 and in a post-pandemic world people are looking for brands that walk the walk, not just talk the talk. The role that an F&B brand can play within a community is extremely powerful if it chooses to exercise it. This means connecting with local good causes, using local suppliers, hosting events and playing an active role in society. Coppa Club’s approach to community building and hosting events is a great expression of this approach.

NEVER STOP INNOVATING.

Too many brands are far too eager to speed into roll-out and just replicate their model. This approach inevitably leads to failure as gradually standards drop, and customers start to leave. What’s needed is an almost obsessive focus on improvement, never being content with “it’s OK”. I can remember many hours working with Julian Metcalfe, founder of Pret and owner of Itsu. He’d already achieved more in the restaurant world than many others could only dream of, however, every day he would pour over the details, obsessively challenging his team to innovate and achieve excellence. This approach requires a love of what you do, a drive and a determination to be the best. For me, no one exemplifies this approach better than Gail’s Bakery and the quote from their founder Tim Molnar says it all – “As you grow – and we’re embarking on our fourth decade of growth – you need to keep focused on what made you fall in love with it in the beginning, which for me was great bread and amazing bakers, We won’t lose sight of that.”

CREATE A VALUE ADDED EXPERIENCE.

One of the foundations that link all of the brands mentioned is that they go beyond just offering a good value product, they add value to their products by wrapping them in an overarching experience. The effect is to elevate the experience beyond what customers would normally expect, hence increasing advocacy and loyalty. By crafting distinct ‘moments of joy’ throughout the experience, it’s possible to focus a brand’s energy where it will make the most impact on a guest, consequently creating the best return on investment. These elements of added value aren’t about spending big bucks, they are about the effect they have on the customer. Big Mama’s Gran Carbonara, served from a wheel of pecorino at the table is a great example, as is the way Ivy Café makes every guest feel.

HAVE A PURPOSE BEYOND FOOD.

The five hero brands all share an obsessive approach to delivering great food, service, value and elevated experience but to survive long into the future is this enough? Many people are looking for brands with a deeper meaning and a more clearly defined purpose in the world. Brands that leave a positive impact on the people and the places that they serve, a force for good in the world. The work done by Gail’s Bakery with suppliers and local communities exemplifies this approach. In summary, these five UK food heroes definitely share common traits and it’s no surprise that they are flourishing while others are suffering. In many ways, the threads that link these brands could be applied to almost any restaurant business to either launch a great new venture or breathe life into a tiring leviathan.


An article by Jon Blakeney, Group MD, I-AM.