Monday, 26 May 2014

The Boom and Bust of Business

It was a known brand opening on a prime city centre square and no expense had been spared in adorning the building with jolly cartoon balloons to entice the punters and refitting the inside in rustic fashion. It was a proven fact that people liked a pie. What could go wrong? Certainly it seemed to do a roaring trade for the first few weeks. Yet less than eighteen months after opening, my partner and I noticed Pie Society had closed and its catering equipment was for sale.

We ourselves had only visited Pie Society once, as a break from last Christmas's crowds, to find surly staff who took an age to serve, lukewarm, so what? pies and a drafty upstairs room furnished with uncomfortable metal stools. Our hot drinks were unappealingly contained in retro (none-too-hygienic) chipped enamel mugs, supposedly evocative of the past. The loos were also pretty grim. Great as the view from upstairs was, we didn't enjoy the experience, but assumed we were not the demographic the place was appealing to and the youth of the city probably loved it.

Apparently not. The franchise really had gone feral.

As an ardent fan of Channel 5's The Hotel Inspector and Channel 4's Country House Rescue, I take a keen interest in which businesses survive and thrive and which bite the dust. Western Road has a particularly high proliferation of eateries, takeaways and cafes with almost every second premises occupied by one. They can't possibly all make a living, even in high tourist season, and they don't. In fact the national success rate for food outlets is apparently 1 in 7 surviving for up to three years, so it is is a much riskier business than the wannabe eaterie owner seems to consider when they dream how nice it would be to run their own cafe, probably imagining it is almost a failsafe business as everyone needs to eat, much like an undertakers (of whom there are also a huge proliferation in Brighton and Hove), probably assume a high and continuous demand for their services.

The Just Eat campaign has undoubtedly given the eating out and takeaway industry a boost. However eateries still need to raise their game, particularly in an area of intense competition. And sometimes they provide great food, friendly staff and a unique identity and still fail, such as the lovely vegetarian cafe Aloka, which looked more like a high-class chemist from the outside, presumably trying to ape the Damian Hirst 'Pharmacy' look. Then there is a wonderful ice cream parlour which makes all its own ice cream and cakes and has a fantastic premises quite near the seafront with a funky upstairs, but which seems to be largely empty most of the time, apart from closing off the upstairs for the odd children's party. but what is the point of trying so hard with the food offer if it is signing its own death warrant with a dearth of marketing? Our favourite toasted sandwich cafe has been through hard times but has reinvented itself and seems to be doing a little better now, but again one senses that it suffers from little or no advertising budget, no matter that the product is good and it is one of the cheapest places to eat in the city centre.

I would love to go into business myself, so am noting everyone else's triumphs and tragedies with interest and taking lots of notes, but one thing is for sure, when I take the plunge, it will not be in the catering sector. I bet many of those who go into it don't expect it to be nearly as tough a business as it really is. And let's not forget 95% of pubs now offer food (of which there also many in Brighton), making the local market even tougher.

Meantime I am looking forward to starting a new day job next week, in my professional area of expertise, the housing sector.


Steve said...

Congrats on the new job. Hope these guys treat your properly.

Catering is a cut throat world. Having worked somewhere where a private catering firm handle the café side of things nothing now surprises me about how they treat their customers, staff and their approach to food.

Nota Bene said...

I was amazed when the pie shop looked terrific and the smell was delicious. But as I never ventured in there, I guess I'm partially to blame.

Good luck with the job...catch you soon I hope!


Wisewebwoman said...

Good luck Laura with your new position!

Having been an accountant for many such hospitality ventures I can assure you it is one of the toughest sectors to be invested in. Profit margins are tiny, "shrinkage" is through the roof and hours are horrific.

Avoid. Unless you are 21 and need 2 hours sleep a night and oversee all aspects yourself.