According to a new report released by business advisory firm NPD Group, ethnic restaurants and takeaways attracted 123 million fewer visits between 2009 and 2012. In that period supermarkets reportedly enjoyed rising sales of world foods.
BigHospitality sounded out a number of the country's leading lights on ethnic and world cuisine who said they were not surprised by the statistics and agreed the industry needed to work harder to improve venues, service standards and promotional activity.
The report claims that the decline can largely be attributed to a drop in evening dining visits to sit-down restaurants.
"Ethnic food may not be perceived as the everyday good value it once was," said Guy Fielding, director of business development for NPD Group.
"To compete with the supermarkets, ethnic operators need to change the price/value equation by introducing deals and promotions that resonate with consumers. The recession has made consumers more discriminating in the choices they make," he suggested.
One of the team behind contemporary Japanese concept K10, restaurant consultant Maurice Abboudi said the report was of less concern to operators offering a very specialist product.
“Once Indian food is cooked it stays in its juices for a day or two, the flavour develops and it becomes a great product.”
“Supermarket food is becoming extraordinarily good – restaurant quality. But it is very costly and labour intensive for them to get really good sushi.”
Abboudi said competition from supermarkets was affecting ethnic restaurants and not, for example, pizza operators because of one simple reason – oven temperature.
“A domestic oven will not get to the same temperature as a commercial wood-burning or conveyor belt oven which takes the moisture out of the dough.”
Wake up call
Also of concern for operators will be the fact that, according to the study, 17 million fewer people said they would 'definitely' choose to return to an ethnic restaurant after their first visit.
"These findings are a real wake up call for ethnic restaurant operators to take a hard look at their offering," Fielding said. "This not only includes the décor, atmosphere, layout and cleanliness of their establishments, but their service levels and promotions too."
“If you go into a non-descript restaurant and you get non-descript food when a supermarket can provide the same, you may as well stay at home, buy your own booze, watch TV and have a good time at half the price,” Abboudi claimed.
Vivek Singh, founder of the Cinnamon Club restaurant, said fellow restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab had predicted as far back as 1998 that ethnic restaurants needed to up their game to compete with supermarkets. However he sounded a warning about extrapolating the report’s findings to the entire sector:
“This report and its findings may be true for operators at the lower end of the spectrum whereas those that innovate, use quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients and engage with their audiences continue to thrive.
“Lack of new ideas in the ethnic restaurant scene may have been one of the reasons for customers turning to supermarkets but economy has had as much of a role to play in this trend and watch this space to see how long the romance with the supermarket lasts.”
Abboudi agreed that the game was certainly not up for restaurants: “Where you can add value is freshly-baked Naan bread, homemade chutneys, cooking with less oil, serving brown rice or having a more tailored menu with less options and signature dishes.”
Bangladeshi restaurateur Enam Ali MBE agreed restaurants could fight back by offering smaller portions or by reminding diners that curries could be saved for later in the same way supermarket products can be.
However Ali pointed to the pub industry as he warned that Government policies were putting restaurant operators at risk.
“Business is suffering. The regulatory environment is much, much harder and it is expensive. Staffing shortages are a huge problem. Restaurants are using European staff but it is not working,” he said, referring to the difficulty in recruiting staff from outside Europe.
“The top end of the market is surviving because of resources, management and promotion but the restaurants at the lower end are not doing anything – they are just delivering leaflets, opening their doors and waiting for people to come.
“The business will decline more in the future unless the Government looks after the restaurants – it will be exactly like the pub industry. Every week you see a pub for sale, it is not because people stopped drinking,” he concluded.