Continental shift

13 February, 2009
Expanding your retail business with eat-in, particularly all-day dining, can open up new business vistas - but how can you distinguish the hot options from the cold cuts? Paul Gander looks at some working examples
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A high-street shop with a retail front-end and any of a variety of eat-in options could be dismissed as 'neither fish nor fowl'. It can also prove to be something of a phoenix for a business that is marking time.
High-profile examples of bakery-led retail with eat-in tend to be in London, with its higher-spending tourist custom. But the combination is also working with principally residential clientele from Cornwall to the Clyde. As London's Milanese-style café Princi and French-inspired Paul chain demonstrate, basing a business around specific national cultures in baked goods can help build a strong identity. The Italian piadina has also been used as the basis for takeaway and eat-in outlets.For a chain busy establishing new outlets, the business model may not be an obvious one. Boulangerie-patisserie outfit Apostrõphe has a thriving takeaway business, explains MD Amir Chen. But from breakfast to early evening, it also functions as a café, offering everything from porridge to soups, salads and exotic sandwiches on organic bread. So far, he has snubbed night opening.As Chen points out: "If you don't sell alcohol, late opening is of marginal interest. And a licence would have a lot of implications for planning our sites, staff training and so on." Because Apostrõphe's products, baked from scratch in each shop, can largely be defined as "daytime goods", he adds, late opening is doubly inappropriate.For another chain, Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ), eat-in and evening offerings have become more important as the business has developed. Today, the direction taken by the UK franchise-holder Village du Pain differs markedly from that followed in the original Belgian business, by offering hot meal options."At first, the plan was not about having hot food," says Clare Sheppard, who has helped manage the UK business since it launched just three years ago. "It was about supplementing the bread, as in Belgium, with tartines, soup and quiches. But we found that, in England, that wasn't enough."That 'not enough' is double-edged. As she explains, sites in central London, in particular, are so expensive that turnover needs to be maximised. But at the same time, for the evening trade, there is a widespread expectation that a hot menu will be available.That said, each site has its own peculiarities and limitations. Village du Pain targets upmarket residential, business or tourist areas, with different customer profiles and patterns of demand in each. The idea is that the various types of location balance each other out over the course of the day and the year.At LPQ's original Marylebone store, the business is limited by A1 planning use (see panel), offering small meals such as soup and quiche. But the Royal Festival Hall and Wimbledon branches (both with A3 use), for instance, offer full evening menus. The shops are licensed, and even where the menu is more limited, wine-and-bread can offer an alternative evening trade, she adds.Available space is another factor determining the type of operation, with the company putting its ideal size at 80-100 seats.Apostrõphe underlines the benefits of opening cafés rather than full restaurants. "Rents are typically much higher for restaurant-type sites," says Chen. The busy takeaway business means that the additional income that larger meals would provide is not so important. The size of the kitchen can be another concern. "We're not cooking, so we don't have issues with huge extraction systems," he says.Rather than seeing operational issues or even space as the primary potential obstacle to the development of eat-in, LPQ brings the entire question back much closer to home. Sheppard singles out the quality of the bread as the single most important criterion. As she puts it: "Our whole concept hangs on that."For the UK franchise, this means bread part-baked (65%) in the Belgian central bakery, shipped over frozen up to twice a week and then baked-off in each branch for the remaining 35%, says Sheppard. Loaves range from rye, multigrain and walnut to baguettes.Of course, a small, single-site business making its first move into eat-in may be limited by use or licensing restrictions. It is also likely to be looking for growth in manageable stages. This is the case with Glasgow-based Tapa, an operation that includes both the Tapa Bakehouse and the Tapa Coffeehouse, founded by husband-and-wife team Robert Winter and Virginia Webb.As with LPQ's Belgian founder, the bakery base for Tapa began with frustration at the quality of baked goods available, and a determination to do better by bringing production in-house. Says Winter: "Our key selling point is that everything is organic. We even make our own buns for our veggie burgers." Tapa is also part of the Slow Bread campaign. But he adds: "Demand for organic baked goods soon went well beyond our own needs. And the fact that we were out to make the best coffee in Scotland got lost."The bakery has a café attached, but when the couple set up their separate Coffeehouse a few months ago, they had bigger ideas. "We provide a wide range of meal options, from light snacks to as big a meal as you can eat," says Winter. The menu stretches from sweet potato gratin to linguini with seafood and smoked haddock fishcakes. "But there's always going to be bread of some sort on the side," he adds. Tapa is currently applying for a licence for the Coffeehouse, although for now it is bring-your-own.The business has 'organic' credentials in more senses than one: the Bakehouse swallowed up the shop on one side, then on the other - though this second wall could not come down.The café can seat around 35 including outdoor seating, while the Coffeehouse has 65 covers. There are no immediate plans for expanding the seven-year-old business further. "We don't believe in running before we can walk," says Winter. Currently, the couple employ around 30 staff, including managers.Could we see more shops twinning over-the-counter sales with all-day dining, based on German or Polish bakery, for instance? If so, it would be good to think that high-quality, distinctive bread could, as Tapa and LPQ say, be the crucial factor in their success.----=== Business use ===The 1987 Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order sets out the following classes of use for business premises in England:l A1 Shops - including sandwich barsl A2 Financial and professional servicesl A3 Restaurants and cafés - restaurants, snack bars and cafés selling food and drink for on-premises consumptionl A4 Drinking establishments - pubs, wine bars and so onl A5 Hot food takeaways - selling hot food for consumption off the premises.A1 businesses will always need to apply for planning permission to convert to any other type of use, while conversion in the opposite direction does not usually require permission.



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