Glasgow may not boast a famous castle or a major Parliamentary building like its more easterly-situated sister and international tourist hotspot Edinburgh, but it does have a highly sociable local population that loves to meet up over a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine.
It’s no surprise then that Scotland’s largest city is home to a whopping 674 restaurants, many of them independently-owned, a large proportion of them Italian and a good number benefitting from the UK market’s general shift of eating out once a year for a special occasion to doing so at least once or twice a week.
Fast casual not fine dining
It is the fast-casual restaurant market, or more specifically venues with a spend-per-head of £15-20, who take the lions’ share of the trade in Glasgow rather than their fine-dining counterparts, however.
Ryan James, chairman of the Glasgow Restaurant Association and owner of the Two Fat Ladies Restaurant, reminds us that Gordon Ramsay, a man partially raised in the city and one of the world’s most famous chefs, closed his first Scottish restaurant Amaryllis after just three years.
“If he can’t make it in the city, which fine dining chef is going to crack it?” says James, “One of the main reasons is once people had gone there, they felt they’d done it, there was no reason for a second visit and you can’t run a business like that.”
It wasn’t a problem restricted to Ramsay. Another respected chef, Michael Caines, failed to make his fine-dining restaurant within the boutique hotel Abode work, despite the business winning awards for its food and service. He closed it last year, leaving the big name chefs to operate from Edinburgh or country-house hotels.
So where fine-dining has failed to make an impact in Glasgow, the fast-casual operators are succeeding. Jamie Oliver’s growing restaurant chain Jamie’s Italian may have taken on ‘a big risk’ by opening a restaurant in the city’s old GPO building two years ago, but the company's managing director Simon Blagden, chooses sites carefully and would only have done so if he saw potential there.
“It was a big risk taking on a site of that size, but it’s been a remarkable success,” says James. “I think it’s because the restaurant is right for this market. Glasgow has the second biggest shopping centre in the UK and Glaswegians love to go to new places and show off their designer gear, so these places are perfect for them.
“We’ve also still got reasonable rents and potential sites so it’s attractive for growing operators.”
Other national operators who have recently opened sites in Glasgow include Prezzo and Yo! Sushi. Restaurateur Richard Muir, co-owner of SBG Restaurants, also told BigHospitality earlier this year he was targeting the city because it had the right 'vibe' and was the ideal market for his emerging brand and craft brewer Brewdog, which has ambitious expansion plans, opened its third bar in Glasgow last August.
Operators who are considering Glasgow for their next opening, can also be confident of not only finding available staff, but also that they will be of a high standard.
Part of that is down to the Glasgow Tourism Service Initiative (GTSI), known as Glasgow Service with Style, which is an industry-led scheme, designed to raise standards of service across the whole city.
GTSI project manager Stella Callaghan says: "There's a real buzz to working in the hospitality industry here. We are home to a wealth of leading brand-name businesses and higher education establishments offering fantastic career development and quality training opportunities at all levels.
"There's also a real sense of community within the sector in Glasgow, brought about through close working relationships, regular networking sessions and thriving industry associations, from the Greater Glasgow Hotels Association (GGHA) to the Glasgow Restaurant Association (GRA)"
James agrees, but believes the efforts started further back with Glasgow 'waking up' to the skills gap in hospitality 20 years ago. He praises the arrival of the city's first major international hotel, the Hilton Glasgow Grosvenor, several years ago and the introduction of Glasgow City Council's Culinary Excellence Programme - a scheme which allows secondary school pupils to take work experience in kitchens and learn cooking skills before making career choices.
"The biggest investment ever in Glasgow has been by Hilton. It's arrival really changed things," he says. "It raised service standards because suddenly everyone had to review how they were doing things. It also saw the emergence of banqueting in the city. When it arrived no-one did banqueting, now there are five hotels offering it."
In any case, for those choosing to work in the hospitality industry in Glasgow, there are numerous options and an obvious support network set up. Living costs are also lower than in many other cities, most notably London, claims James.
Which brings us to Glasgow's hotel sector. As mentioned previously, Glasgow may not be on the top of the tourist trail, but it has seen recent investment in this area recently with new hotel brands such as Louvre Hotels and Rezidor set to build and open new properties in time for the city's hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and for a host of other events in between.
"One of Glasgow's great market advantages is that a number of key infrastructure developments must go ahead because of the city's hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Investors know that Glasgow is a safe bet for investment, which is why they are pressing ahead with plans to open some really stunning new hotels - from 2009 through to 2014, almost 1,000 hotel rooms and luxury serviced apartments will have been built in the city shared between eight new hotels," says Scott Taylor, chief executive of Glasgow City Marketing Bureau (GCMB).
The Commonwealth Games may be the catalyst for investment, but recent research shows that hotel bookings have already been rising, perhaps due to the city's burgeoning shopping and leisure scene as well as its hosting of events (It will host eight London 2012 Olympic Football Tournament matches in July and August for example).
According to a recent survey by bookings website hotels.com, hotel bookings have risen 200 per cent over the past four years and the GCMB reports in latest figures available that occupancy grew 1 per cent to 72 per cent in the year to 30 April. A strong performance is also forecast for the second half of this year.
It's all good news for the city's hospitality sector and looks set to continue.
Taylor adds: "Glasgow is Scotland's retail, cultural and entertainment capital. Our shopping is consistently voted the best in the UK outside of London's West End, our world-class museums and galleries are free and we have some truly exceptional entertainment venues. We also have the best civic arts collection in Europe, outstanding architecture, cutting edge music and literary scenes, a vibrant restaurant and nightlife offering and we're home to some of the best festivals and major events in the world, all of which are major draws for international visitors and 'staycationers' alike.
"In recent years, the world's leading publications and renowned travel guides, from Lonely Planet to the New York Times, have consistently ranked Glasgow as a must-visit destination, highlighting the city's warmth, style and energy, which is great news both in terms of the economic benefit and the heightening of our global profile."
Glasgow key hospitality facts:
- The city has 674 restaurants, which is more per capita than any other UK city
- It attracts 2.3 million visitors per year, generating an estimated £600m for the local economy
- More than 1,400 extra hotel rooms and serviced apartments are to be built by 2014 in 10 existing and new hotels in preparation for Glasgow's hosting of the Commonwealth Games
- Hotel bookings have risen 200 per cent in the last four years according to research by hotels.com and hotel occupancy is at its highest in a decade
- The city currently ranks the sixth most visited in the UK by international visitors according to VisitBritain
Return to the site tomorrow for our spotlight on Manchester.