Poor Jamie. The crown prince of casual dining is looking slightly less smug, don’t you think? It seems the world that once was his very public oyster has moved on a notch, leaving him sitting in a lay-by somewhere on the M11, wondering precisely what just happened. His empire has taken a mighty hit, right where it hurts, forcing him to close restaurants and reconsider everything his brand stands for. Things are serious.
The comforting glow of hindsight tells us this was rather more predictable than we might think. When times were good Jamie was showered with cash. His property guys swooped onto every opportunity with unbridled hubris, paid silly rents in stupid locations and raised the costs for everyone in the area. Add to this volatile cocktail a gentle sprinkling of economic uncertainty and the whole damn house of hubris comes crashing down over night. That’s the basic story, but it’s not the whole picture by any means. Trends, you see, aren’t manufactured by big corporates with budgets to match. No, they are forged inside us, and just like Starbucks educated us to ultimately to despise them, so Jamie has done a magnificent job in raising the bar on casual dining…so that now we are in search of something better.
A queue forms outside the opening of Wagamama in 1992
It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in the UK. Cast your mind back just twenty years. Wagamama was still Alan Yau’s proto-Hakkasan tucked away in salubrious Bloomsbury. Yo! Sushi had just opened its first restaurant in Soho and the poshest burger in town was still the Big Mac. If you weren’t privileged enough to have a Pizza Express or a TGIF, eating out for the majority of us was binary: either a table-clothed fancy place or Maccy D!
Within the space of this last decade the market caught fire, crackling with brands that showed us sad, homey Brits that the future of nosh can be fun: open kitchens, open fires, giant sized family friendly menus, communal tables, colourful cocktails, impossible burgers and waiters that say ‘hi’ just like that time you went to Disneyland. (NB. not the Paris one)
At the risk of a sweeping generalization, we Brits single-handedly invented the casual dining sector. Well, the Americans may have invented the relaxed style and the iconic foods, but we Brits packaged it all up into tidy, digestible, bite-sized brands, ready to drop into any high street. So, for the last ten years we have enjoyed being the casual dining room of the world with the likes of Ask, Bella Italia, Byron, Carluccio’s, GBK, Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo, Strada, Wagamama, Wahaca, Wasabi, Yo Sushi, and Zizzi bringing a much needed, ready-made vibrancy to our beleaguered town centres.
But nothing lasts forever. A pincer movement of stupid rents on the one hand, and our never ending quest for ever greater authenticity on the other, has left the sector that invented itself now unravelling in less than a decade. That’s quite some achievement.
While you pat a tear from the corner of your eye, let me take you on a little trip to Brooklyn, the birthplace of the latest food revolution. On the edge of the East River, silhouetted against the Manhattan skyline, Smorgasburg is a weekly (Spring and Summer) food festival, rather than a market, that began life just after the crash in 2009. If I dared to utter the word ‘street-food’ I’m sure I’d hear the whoosh of a thousand pairs of urban eyeballs rolling back into your cynical heads, but understanding this movement is important, so bear with me.
Every week, a hundred ambitious and creative chefs turn up to parade their skills at Smorgasburg in the hope of bringing something new to market. The long lines of hungry, patient, Millennial connoisseurs are here for a reason: they are the public jury on what we’ll be eating next year. Yes, it’s a food fashion show, a catwalk of cuisine. There are a thousand ideas here ranging from weird ethnic hybrids to creative combos, each aiming to ignite your brain cells as much as your taste buds. To associate this grand celebration with the scruffy burger vans at your local fete is like comparing the brothers Roux to the brothers McDonald. No, these chefs are the next generation and they’ve been sharpening their artisan knives in readiness for the revolution we’re beginning to witness.
And so, as analysts do, I coined the term Sophisticasual to separate all this from the far too baggy term, ‘street-food’. Just like trends in the world of fashion, the curves of casualisation and premiumisation have joined forces to bring us highly sophisticated products to enhance our ever more casual lifestyles.
In London alone, this trend has spawned a hundred cool new places including Kricket, Smoke and Salt, Blacklock, Bone Daddies, Duck & Waffle, Gunpowder, Hoi Polloi, Lyle’s, Temper, Padella and many, many more. The focus is now on local ingredients, wherever possible, vegetables with provenance, and plenty of plant based options as well as booze free cocktails. Meat’s become much more macho, with an in-house butcher or an open fire pit. Presentation is relaxed-natural, verging on rustic, so that gone is the Jenga vegetable pile and steel cup of chips. Spoon smudged sauces have been banished to the uncool parts of town. Menus are short to the point of blunt. Prices are pence free and rounded up. Long hand explanations and poetic descriptions have been replaced by a no-nonsense chain of adjective-free nouns.
Small has always been beautiful, but we’ve got to the point now that big means bad. We don’t trust chains the way we used to, and even small chains are eyed with some suspicion. We’re so cynical, so aware of being sold to, it’s as if we can see the shiny cufflinks of the marketing director in the reflection on our laminated menu. We can visualise the agency presentations that conjured up the oh-so-witty tone of voice. We’ve grown tired of the achingly obvious nonsense about the friendly butcher. In short, it’s fake. As fake as the fake hand-written blackboards that you think we think are genuine. We’re more sophisticated than you realise. We can spot your sweaty, corporate fingerprints a mile off on those bars and restaurants that masquerade as naïve independents, with their fake objet d’arts and retro, distressed mirrors. We know that every tiny piece is specified in a fat manual back at head office. Manufactured charm is never very charming.
So, dear Jamie. We thank you sincerely for getting us here. Your enthusiasm, charisma, incredible skill and hard work became the perfect stepping stone for us Brits, but it’s time for you to step aside now mate. It’s time to let real independents take control.
Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants