Comment: Get out of a rut

When it comes to the food business, one size does not fit all

Opinion, Columnists

I’m guilty… Guilty of cookie cutting, copy and paste, call it what you like, but it’s dawning on me that in my early days as a serial conceptualiser, I may have taken the easy route.

The story is that this was back in the dim and distant Nineties with a large hotel group in London. It just seemed to make sense; create a Mediterranean, Asian Med and coffee brand and bang  them all out through the business.

We must have done at least 40 locations with these brands. We had created quite a cool Asian Mediterranean concept (bear with me; that was in vogue in those days) and why wouldn’t it work in the north of England and Scotland, when it worked in London?!

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Well, it didn’t and it’s because we chose the easy route without doing our homework on who the target market was and what they wanted.

In my defence; it was the age of cookie-cutter retail when the brand was omnipotent and, in the words of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: build it and they will come.

Looking back, we did get lucky with the coffee brand; we opened at least 20 of those in the days when Seattle Coffee Company was growing in London and pretending it had nothing to do with Starbucks. Interestingly, that coffee brand still exists in the hotels; a testament to the fact that at least we grasped how people were beginning to seek out the ‘third place’ as Howard Schultz put it.

I was reminded of my guilt on a trip to Armenia recently, where I saw a concept that had been created by a hotel company for mass distribution. It clearly wasn’t working, even in a city centre site. They just hadn’t thought it through; why would rustic Italian food appeal to Armenians? A nation which had been through historical challenges with its sovereignty, was finally established with an aspirational population, brimming with optimism about the future. How would rustic Italian relate to that sentiment for people who had become recently urbanised? After all, the countryside meant poverty and strife; would nostalgia drive them to have a rustic Italian meal at inflated hotel food prices? A good session with a local group of local people would surely have come to the same conclusion. Or was this another case of corporate cookie-cutting; the easy route for owner’s rep, design department, F&B and hotel ops?

So, fast forward to today. At Keane, we make sure we do the early and essential grunt work; research the market, dig deep, find the gap. Then, we do the thing that we all know is the most challenging of all; anticipate how people will behave this year, next year and the next ten years. How crazy is that?!! And yet, that is what we, in developing our industry, are charged with doing; and sometimes, we can choose to go with the flow or strike real innovation.

As strategy and design consultants, our job is to provide direction and find the right business solution.

When I was at E&Y consulting, I recall that one year, we were instructed to no longer give one solution to clients but three; and let the client choose the best; clearly the lawyers had got to the partners at E&Y!

Clients need us to show focus, direction and leadership. In many cases, we have found that the answer is already there and needs extracting from the project team, repackaging and dusting off. One thing’s for sure, in mature markets, the balance has moved from branding and the benefits of scale to a more bespoke solution; a move against copy and paste.

About the Author: Stefan Breg is group strategy director at Keane providing the lead on strategic F&B consulting, master-planning and concept development for Keane’s design studios in London, Birmingham, Dubai, KL and Singapore. Find out more at

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