Top 5 restaurant brands to watch

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Restaurant magazine picks its five restaurant brands to watch this year
Restaurant magazine picks its five restaurant brands to watch this year

Related tags: Shake shack, Hamburger, London

The market is awash with casual-dining brands, large and small, old and new. Here’s Restaurant magazine's pick of the five you really need to keep an eye on in 2015. 

MeatLiquor

As arguably one of the most influential fast-casual restaurant groups of the past few years, MeatLiquor has ridden the wave of success it created both in the street food space with the MeatWagon and then with its subsequent London restaurants. Yet, with talk of people growing tired of the burger market – although in reality, people’s appetites for the dish are showing no real signs of waning – it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that MeatLiquor’s star might be descendent during the coming years. Yet there’s more to come from MeatLiquor.

The brand’s strength lies in the fact that it isn’t wedded to burgers – its sites are food, cocktail and music-led venues with a strong late-night trade. The company has also shown itself to be adaptable to the market, with a takeaway and delivery option, and able to take on less-coveted, low-rent sites and make them work with low-cost fit outs.

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As such, it now has six sites, four in London under the MeatLiquor, MeatMission, ChickenLiquor and MeatMarket brands, plus one each in Leeds and Brighton, all in off-pitch locations. It plans to open in Islington this spring, with a site in Bristol to follow in the summer, with a further opening secured in Glasgow for 2018. Late last year, the company launched a round of fundraising with the aim of securing £7m to grow from six to 12 sites by the end of 2017. It is set to target key locations in and around London, and in cities such as Birmingham, Cardiff, Nottingham and Dublin.

MeatLiquor’s innovative approach is also likely to keep it ahead of the pack in the coming years. “We aren’t shackled to burgers,” says co-founder Scott Collins. “We’re not a burger restaurant or a barbecue place and we plan to do a lot more specials this year to show this.We want to keep evolving.”

The company is looking to build on burger collaborations it conducted with London-based chefs José Pizarro, with his Iberiburger, and Ross Shonhan, who created the Super Fatty Patty burger for the chain, of which 3,200 were sold in six weeks.

It will also continue to develop its offer and the design of its sites to make them stand out from the crowd.

Rosa's Thai

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British husband and Thai wife team Alex and Saiphin Moore opened the first Rosa’s Thai in London’s Spitalfields in June 2008 – its tagline is ‘born in the East, raised in the East End – but it started life as a street stall on Brick Lane back in 2006. Now with six sites and a seventh in the offing, plus new funding in place, it has grown into a serious Thai brand. The London-based Thai café concept recently secured £500,000 to open two new sites – one in Chelsea and one in Angel – and will continue its move away from central London with a restaurant in Fulham this year.

The aim is to have 10 London locations within the next few years. Rosa’s performance and intentions have not gone unnoticed. It is one of 30 companies out of 15,000 selected by GrowthAccelerator, the UK-based, Government-backed partnership between leading private-sector growth experts, as a HyperGrowth business.

According to GrowthAccelerator, a HyperGrowth business is one that has grown at an extraordinary rate of at least three times higher than the accepted definition of ‘high growth’. Rosa’s latest investment round was secured with help from one of the scheme’s GrowthAccelerator coaches.

The Thai café is in a strong position to capitalise on the continued growth of Thai food in the UK, but is also benefiting from the move to more informal dining. Its sites are bright, smart and simple in design, and its menu is comprehensive without being overbearing.

Dishes are authentic but many are given a contemporary twist to differ from those typically found in many Thai restaurants, such as grilled pork neck with spicy dry chilli sauce; and green curry spaghetti. Its drinks offer, which includes Thai black and milk iced teas and Thai whiskey Mekhong, is equally interesting. The group has also been quick to take advantage of the growing takeaway and delivery sector and offers the service from the majority of its sites.

Shake Shack

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Shake Shack hit the news across the Pond early this year when it filed for an initial public offering, but it will also cause a stir over here when it finally opens a second UK site and puts steps in place to build a further pipeline of UK restaurants in the coming years.

Since launching in Covent Garden in summer 2013 to great fanfare, Shake Shack has been relatively quiet, unlike other US burger import Five Guys, which opened in the capital within a few days of its rival and which already has a UK restaurant portfolio of 21 and counting. Its apparent reluctance to expand over here led some to believe that its Covent Garden site was little more than a flag in the ground, but it turns out that the company has been getting its management structure in place before rolling out. That has now been completed, with business director of Shake Shack UK Nigel Sherwood now in place to oversee expansion.

Shake Shack will open its second site this spring, on the high street by Westfield Stratford shopping centre, and further London sites will follow. It is also eyeing major cities across the UK, the most likely locations being Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow’s Buchanan Galleries development, with sites of about 4,000-5,000sq ft being sought, and is moving towards a UK-only supply chain to facilitate this growth.

Given the US burger chain’s financials, which show its Manhattan-based restaurants have significantly higher turnover and operating margins than its non-Manhattan locations, the chain will want to stick to high footfall locations over here. While Sherwood believes Shake Shack can become a truly national UK brand in the long term, it is likely to only target the major UK cities rather than follow the route of Five Guys and open up in smaller towns. London, however, will be its heartland, with the burger chain looking to open a handful of sites in the capital by 2018, with locations such as St Paul’s, Earls Court and Victoria being the primary targets.

Where Shake Shack believes it has the edge over its burger rivals is its positioning within the emerging ‘fine-casual’ or ‘fast-fine’ market, which Sherwood believes makes it stand out from the current crop. At the end of last year it had a successful tie-up with Massimo Bottura – chef-patron of three Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in Italy -  who created a limited edition burger for the chain, and the company intends to forge links with similar calibre chefs in the future. It is also looking to collaborate with high-profile restaurant groups such as Hawksmoor on other dishes.

“Collaboration is high on the agenda,” says Sherwood. “I can’t think of another casual-dining chain that has collaborated with such a celebrated chef as Massimo, which shows the strength of the brand.”

Red’s True Barbecue

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Red’s True Barbecue co-founders Scott Munro and James Douglas hit their stride last year with a string of awards and new restaurants, with sites opening in Headingley and Manchester, and the pair looks set to build on their momentum this year.

Last month, they opened their fourth site, a £1.1m, 150-cover restaurant in Nottingham, which will kick start a year of national expansion. Red’s plans to launch a further three sites in the next 12 months at least.

The fast-growing smokehouse concept has also strengthened its board and senior management team with the appointment last month of new operations and finance directors, and is on the verge of announcing new bank funding as well as a number of high-profile investors.

What this all amounts to is a company that is going places. On its opening day, the Headingley site attracted a queue of 1,500 people and the business sells more than 40 tonnes of meat to more than 35,000 customers monthly. Munro and Douglas have bold plans to increase this significantly in the future as they aim to grow the estate to 20 sites during the next three years.

Red’s success so far has been down to a number of factors. A combination of high quality food, excellent restaurant design and a strong sense of humour – its Headingley site was a former bank and the sign over the toilets reads ‘deposits’ – has gained it a loyal following among barbecue fans.

The company’s continued drive for new ideas and products has also kept it at the sharp end of the barbecue market. The pair make an annual pilgrimage to the Barbecue Belt of the US where they pick up new trends, with six dishes recently being added to the menu following their most recent trip to Texas.

Red’s also recently launched an express lunch menu to attract city-centre workers, who it believes are “price sensitive and conscious of portion sizes”. The Now Safe For Work (NSFW) lunch is priced at £6.95 and features items such as the Texas Fold’em, a slice of white bread layered with slaw, pit beans, crushed nachos and a St Louis rib; and the Hot Mess, a salt crusted sweet potato topped with smoked Black Angus brisket chili, grated cheese, house-made peppered bacon, chipotle sour cream and fresh red chilli. All include a bottomless soft drink.

“Besides drinking great bourbon, our annual pilgrimage to the States provides invaluable research, insight and ideas for our business,” says Munro. “Our trip in 2013 helped uncover the now famous Red’s Donut Burger, which has gone on to sell more than 100,000 and counting, so we’re confident the NSFW lunch menu will drive increased sales during lunchtime."

Strada

“I want to create something that has a point, which stands for something and can be big,” says Hugh Osmond, the executive chairman and new owner of Strada, the Italian brand he acquired in September. “The idea is not for this to be a two-to-three-year turnaround and sell on. That means it has to stand for something. It has to have a soul.”

Osmond is determined to grow the 43-strong chain, and is a good candidate to do so. The high-profile sector investor founded Punch Taverns, floated PizzaExpress and has a track record of dealing with large companies. However, first he intends to ensure it has a proper foundation on which to grow, and in that respect it is what he describes as a “real brand”. 

For example, if I said to you Nando’s, it pops into your head what it means and stands for. It’s the same with Pret a Manger,” he says. “Strada needs to have its own set of values. Nando’s has it in spades and until it loses it, there is no limit to what that brand can achieve. I think Strada had it and lost it.”

There will be no quick fix for a brand that had lost its way under the ownership of Tragus and private equity company Blackstone. Osmond is damning on how the growth brand of its era was initially allowed to fall by the wayside. However, he has more time for the management team he has inherited, namely managing director James Spragg and finance director Zoe Tindall. 

“I think that James and Zoe correctly identified what had gone wrong with Strada, some of which was obvious, some not so. They had a sensible business plan to restore and fix the brand. But what is needed here is changes that bring real soul back to the business. I am quite certain that if James had gone through with his plan, he would have refurbished and sales would have gone up 20 per cent and someone would have acquired it in two or three years’ time. It does nothing for me to just revive these 43 sites, open another 20 and sell it to somebody. That is not my game.”

Osmond has already changed the menu, including improving the pizza dough and the tomato sauce, and the next 12 months will be about making sure that the core concept works. “PizzaExpress had one store for two years. I am not saying we are going to go really slow, because when we get it right, there is no limit to the ambition, but it will take as long as it takes to get the revised concept right. That is the priority.”

By the end of the first quarter of this year, Osmond is confident the plan for the next evolution of Strada will be in place. 

Related topics: Business, Restaurants, Trends & Reports

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