Get the location wrong for a new restaurant and you can kiss goodbye to it being a success – but just how on earth do you get it right?
Words Chris Maillard Photography Laurie Fletcher
Location, location, location – so good they named it three times.
And even if that smug couple from the TV programme make you itch with fury, you can't ignore the idea behind their series.
If you're looking for a new site, thinking about changing an existing one, or just mulling over a rough idea, location is the single most important factor you'll have to consider. It will make the difference between huge success and abject failure.
So here are the three simple rules that you'll need to know. Learn these and you can't fail. They are… Sorry. That was a lie. There are no simple rules. If there were, everybody would be a site-spotting genius and every restaurant in the world would be permanently full of glamorous high-spenders and immensely profitable.
And as we know, that only applies to your own restaurant, not all those hopeless incompetents just down the road.
There are, however, some principles, a smattering of hints, and a few useful pointers that you can use to make your gamble on a site less of a blind leap of faith and more of a considered business move. So with the aid of a gaggle of experts and restaurateurs who've experienced the highs and lows of location-hunting, we've tried to put together a rough guide to the black art of restaurant geography.
The first expert we tackled was Stephen Wrather, a Partner at commercial property specialists Mason Owen. They specialise in finding and obtaining sites for the very biggest high street names. If you've been out shopping lately, it's highly likely you'll have been in one of the sites they've sorted. So if anyone knows about what makes a successful site and what doesn't – it'll be Stephen.
Over a coffee in the Starbucks near his office (a good secondary location, decent traffic and very near a major shopping street with a high pedestrian footfall) he outlines the importance of the right location. And not just nearly the right location, but exactly.
"Just two or three shopfronts the wrong way can make a huge difference," he explains. "It can literally be a matter of a few metres. If you look at many high streets, there's a point where the passing trade suddenly peters out. In some cases, it's almost as though it falls off a cliff. You go from a healthy trade to nothing.
"This is usually due to a big draw – a major shop or amenity that people will be aiming to go to. That's why big shopping centres often stand or fall on the quality of their flagship stores. If they have a major brand to bring people in – a John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and so on – then the whole place will do well. Which is why small specialist shopping centres rarely succeed.
There's no single major reason for droves of customers to go there.
"Of course, that can change. I've been looking at a development in a major shopping street recently – sorry, I can't tell you where – which has the classic high street pattern; at one end trade just dwindles to nothing. But I know that a little further down that street, permission is about to be given for a very big name store.
When that opens, the previously deserted end of that street will fill up with shoppers, and the businesses there which were struggling (and probably paying cheap rents as a result) will get very busy. That sort of insider information is invaluable in my business."
It is, of course, all about footfall. That's the first rule (or as close as you can get to it in this vague and wobbly area). If your restaurant is in the middle of an area crammed with hungry people going about their business, you stand more of a chance than if you're in a cul de sac behind the gasworks. Bleeding obvious, really.
Not that everybody agrees, and some have done well by ignoring that advice – examples include Harvey's, the famous place in thengrubby Wandsworth that spawned those monsters Marco and Gordon; Sat Bains' place in Nottingham, described memorably in a review by Matthew Norman as being in "the more rustic end of an industrial estate in Nottingham"; the late-lamented Thyme in Clapham, which was almost impossibly difficult to find, and many more – see our sidebar on what must be one of the most remote and lovely restaurants in Britain. It's worth the trek.
But succeeding off the beaten track involves becoming a destination in your own right, which is decidedly complicated and deserves a dedicated feature all of its own.
For most of us, being somewhere which customers can happen across without an Ordnance Survey map, a native guide and a week's supply of Kendal Mint Cake is a much simpler and more reliable method. But here's the problem – unless you're launching a restaurant chain 30 feet from your front door, you can't know every area like the back of your hand.
Here's where rule number two comes in – Do Your Homework. Thoroughly.
There are several ways to find out about a site's suitability. Rather obligingly, our retail property guru Stephen has come up with a list of useful ways to get your head around some of the tricky bits, and even steal a march on your rivals – see our ‘Sources and Resources' boxout .
But once you've found out about planning consents, lease values and so on, you still haven't got the whole picture. And, though you've got a million things to do if you're planning a launch, and even more if you're already running another site somewhere else, there's no substitute for actually being there.
Prowl around the area, talk to local shopkeepers and other businesspeople, sit in your potential rivals' restaurants. Make notes of the sort of people that wander past and what they're up to. Are they looking for somewhere to eat? Or are they just walking the dog? Are they the type of customer that your would-be operation will be looking for? Or are they more likely to sit at home with a bucket of KFC?
Go to your chosen area at different times of the day; particularly lunch and evening, but also first thing in the morning and mid-afternoon. Is there a potential trade in breakfast or afternoon tea? Or is there a horrendous school run traffic jam which makes the site a no-go area for hours? The only way to find out for sure is to get off your backside and go there. You won't find this sort of thing posted on the internet. And, of course, somebody trying to sell you a dodgy lease won't let on if there's a problem.
You don't need telling, of course, that a site with the wrong sort of customers is as bad as one with none. You may have found a lovely double-fronted site with exactly the layout you've dreamed of at an affordable price, but that's as much use as a chocolate frying pan if what you're offering is totally inappropriate.
Fish'n'chips or foie gras? You need to know.
Which is where doing in-depth research comes in. This is at the root of the classic roll-out problem which has been the death of many a high-profile wannabe restaurant chain.
Once they've got a successful local presence somewhere they know inside out, they try to roll out the concept nationwide.
However, the stresses of running a restaurant or two, raising the capital for expansion and doing all the admin to grow the company often means that the founder(s) – the people who have the instinct for what works and what doesn't, which is why they've been successful – take their eye off the ball. Their research is disorganised and skimpy, their visits to potential sites are fairly fleeting, and before you know it, they've signed on the dotted line for a site, or several, that might have looked good one afternoon, but are in the wrong place, attract the wrong crowd or are busy at the wrong times.
Many big names have got this wrong. Chez Gerard struggled with some of its sites; even the mighty Pizza Express has had its site-related setbacks. Both Fish! And Fishworks (what is it about fish restaurants?) hit the rocks when their hasty rollouts rolled over and sank.
One chain that has been glowingly successful, however, is Carluccio's. And that's largely down to the formidable – and formidably thorough – Priscilla Carluccio. Her chain is unashamedly aimed at the affluent middle classes, and she has a laser-guided eye for finding places where they're plentiful. In case you didn't know, she happens to be the sister of Terence Conran, whose eye for middle-class taste has been unerring. It must run in the family.
If the site's not right, Priscilla won't open. "We look for places that are perfect for our type of restaurant," she says. "We don't just open all over the place. That would be a disaster.
"We are mainly looking in the South-East, partly because we don't want to make the chain of command too long, but also because that's largely where our market is. We think there is potential for expansion in many of the better-off suburbs and the nicer regional towns, but we are very particular about the right sites."
If you're a high street operator, there are some good pointers you can collect about your intended site. First, what are the shops around it? Iceland, Poundland and Asda? Maybe you need to reconsider the Michelin-starred fine dining concept. Scented candle shops, an exoticlooking artisan bakery and somewhere selling expensive baby buggies? Quick, get Priscilla Carluccio on the phone… Still, some sites look good on paper, have the right surrounding businesses, and check out with raw footfall figures. But they're deathtraps and suffer from Doomed Site Syndrome.
DSS is difficult to diagnose, but it's suprisingly easy to spot – it's all in the history. How many owners have had the lease you're being offered?
One for the last 25 years? Lovely. Two or three in that time? Perfectly reasonable. Or one every 18 months since 1963? Oops.
The best way to find out is to ask the locals.
The landlord may look shifty and change the subject, his agent may simply not know or care, and the previous tenant may well already be heading towards the horizon in a van full of halfpaid- for catering equipment and red bills.
But the old lady who lives over the road, the bloke in the newsagents or the landlord of the pub down the street will have counted them in and counted them out. Play Sherlock and dig up as much dirt as you can.
If you can, track down an ex-employee who's worked at the site. It's a small world – you probably know somebody who knows somebody who, and so on. A sacked chef or a disgruntled ex-GM may well have an axe to grind with their former bosses, but they've got no reason to tell porkies to somebody else (who might be a future source of work).
Everybody knows a Doomed Site. Stephen Wrather mentioned one in Battersea. I know of a perfect example in Islington. Wherever you are, there's bound to be a restaurant that's been Indian, French, a fun pub, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Thai, a wine bar, Moroccan and Japanese. That's just this year. Beware… One more interesting quirk of the location game is rooted in the hoary old saying ‘one man's problem is another's opportunity'. In other words, taking on a site that has had previous problems doesn't necessarily mean you'll suffer from the same thing. Particularly if you're buying in what you hope is an up-andcoming area. That's a whole different game.
There are, of course, plenty of obvious sites available in the UK, thanks to the slow death of the local boozer. Every town has plenty of old pubs that are staggering into oblivion with a clientele of bedraggled old drunks and desperate karaoke sessions on a Sunday night. If you can fight off the developers trying to split it into 43 identical hamster-cage-sized flats, an old rundown pub is a ready-made spot for anything from a quick and dirty boho gastropub to a fully naperied fine-dining establishment.
But how do you spot which ones are diamonds in the rough and which just need dynamiting?
And again, how can you work out which ones are in an area set to explode and which are stuck in a social minefield?
Yet again, do your homework. Look at the local listings magazines. Is your particular slice of urban dereliction humming with underground artists, hipper-than-hip clubs and web designers with double-take haircuts? Congratulations, you've found the next Shoreditch. And if you've been off the mark quickly enough, you might be just in time to get in on the ground floor at a bargain-basement price.
Or if you're looking somewhere more suburban, take a wander round the streets. If it's a winter night, take a sniff. No, really. If you can smell woodsmoke, that means that the middle classes have fired up their carefully restored Victorian grates. Or check the skip count. If a good number of houses are hurling avocado bathroom suites into the street and installing butlers sinks and stripped-pine kitchen units, then you've found a promising rich vein of potential restaurant-goers.
The business pages are full of potential opportunities too. The residents of Salford Quays in Manchester, for instance, are bracing themselves for an invasion of BBC people when the new studios are built. And when the executives arrive, they'll need somewhere to eat.
Which is true of any large-scale office move. Big companies are relocating all the time, often away from London to cities like Bristol or Norwich.
Then there's the stretch around the M4 – Reading, Newbury, Maidenhead and so on – often unimaginatively dubbed Britain's Silicon Valley. As the web economy comes of age, all those sharp-suited database wranglers will start settling down and looking for somewhere in the area to have nice lunches. No FT? No idea.
Just remember – there's absolutely no substitute for doing your homework. Pay a visit to a potential site. Then visit it again. Ask questions, find out facts. Knowledge is power.
But after all that, you might still manage to make a success of that wildly unsuitable site you just fell in love with. In which case, hats off to you. The French have the expression ‘coup de coeur' – literally, blow to the heart – which means the sudden headrush when you know something's perfect for you. But they also have the equally succinct expression ‘coup de foudre'
– describing a decision taken on a whim, and often one that leads into a great steaming pile of trouble. Try to remember which is which…
SOURCES & RESOURCES
- upmystreet.com - one great resource for getting the rough lie of the land in an area is Up My Street – it's got a decent snapshot of an area's social make-up, house prices and so on. But remember it's only looking at what's happened in the past, not what's going to occur in the future.
Finding out business rental details on an area can be tricky – the best idea is to check the big agents' or organisations' websites. Try these:
- rics.org – the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. It's a good site for general information and values
- cbre.co.uk – CB Richard Ellis, a gigantic commercial property agency. Check out its prices and also take a look at what it has planned for the future joneslanglasalle.co.uk – another huge megaagent; good as an information resource for out-of-town developments
- cushwake.com – yet another huge property specialist. They all have highly detailed and searchable sites, though. It's a good idea to have a rummage about to find the best one for your specific needs
- brc.org.uk – the British Retail Consortium has all sorts of useful surveys and facts, including regional footfall figures in this goldmine of data The restaurant sector has its own specialist agencies, who tend to know what's going on before anyone else. If you're in the market for an agent, then here's where to begin your search…
- daviscofferlyons.co.uk – probably the largest specialist restaurant property agents. All the big names in the industry have used them at one time or another
- intrinsic-property.co.uk – Another restaurant specialist; it's had some excellent press lately If you need to know which areas are likely to have big developments, or find out all about what the planners have in mind, you need to investigate the Local Development Framework, which is the council's plan that governs all future building and use.
Find your local council at directgov.uk (go to Directories) then hunt about in the planning department's website for further details about what the developers are up to.
And one trade secret which Stephen, our expert, divulged after a lot of arm-twisting, is the Land Registry. The main site landreg.gov.
uk is highly useful for finding the right location, with house price data and much else, but the real gem in its crown (and Steve's priceless professional secret) is the linked land locator at landregisteronline.gov.uk.
With it, you can simply pick out a property you're interested in buying, zoom into it using an aerial photo or map, then pay £6 to get a detailed list of information including who owns it, how much they paid for it and what the site covers. Amazing!
Britain's Worst Location?
The Fox & Hounds at Goldsborough, near Whitby, in North Yorkshire is rather lovely. We're sure you'll love it – once you finally get there.
To find it, you have to turn off an already fairly obscure A-road, then follow a single-track lane through some alarming twists and turns, past a burnt-out house, through the middle of a working farmyard (mind the milk tanker!), turn right at an unsignposted T-junction, then just before the road gives up entirely and turns into a sheep track, there's a tiny old pub wedged between the sea cliffs and the hills. And outside is a sign saying ‘Sorry – we're full'. How did they do that?
The answer is probably something to do with ex-Ivy chef Jason Davies and his stunning cooking, using fresh local ingredients to produce a small, constantly changing menu for a highly selective 30 covers – his wife Sue looks after front-of-house in an efficient and friendly manner. They're busy, often fully booked at weekends, and making a decent living.
"This is our third year," says Jason, "and though it was a bit of a slow start, we're doing really well now. We've never advertised, but early on we had a write-up in the Yorkshire Post which really helped. Alastair Sawday put us in his guidebook and we got in the Good Food Guide, then off the back of that, reviewers from The Guardian and The Times came up. But we've really tried just to attract customers by word-of-mouth.
"There are plenty of people round here who have holiday cottages, so we're busier in the summer, but we get a lot of locals from Whitby and thereabouts, and it's not bad even in winter.
"We haven't got big overheads; we keep the number of covers down so it's manageable and we don't have to employ too many staff.
"We found the place in the local paper; the building's owned by The Mulgrave Estate, a big local estate, and we put a bid in and won it. We haven't changed it much at all!"
Too right. A coat of paint over the swirly Artex walls, a few carefully chosen posters and lamps, and that's your lot. But even though the red plush bench seats and the knee-crushing tables are pure Old Pub, the end result's desperately charming, the food's tremendous and, as many people have decided, it's well worth a detour.
That cheeky sign outside, by the way, reads in full: "Sorry – we're full. But come back, everything's fabulous."
Where?The Fox & Hounds, Goldsborough, Whitby, Yorkshire YO21 3RX. Tel: 01947 893372. And no, they haven't got a website. Don't be silly.