A perspective from abroad – Do the High Streets need so many brands or should independents rather be encouraged to flourish?

Last week, a senior hospitality professional from France offered an interesting perspective on the UK industry which is worth considering.

“It was Napoleon who described Britain as a “nation of shopkeepers” and he was not wrong. The British have always placed trade first and it has been the same in hospitality. When I am in Britain, the conversation is often about business models, profitability and valuations rather than what makes the industry really tick. Given this, it is not hard to understand that the UK industry was not prepared for the challenges it faces today including staffing, it took for granted the easy flow of EU employees. Now it is shouting for the need to see an easing of restrictions and yet it did so little to be prepared?

There are some encouraging signs, on Instagram, which suggests that the UK is developing a real culture in gastronomy but it still has some way to go; maybe another generation or so.

Of course, I will see things differently. You will never see as many branded outlets in France or Italy. Our philosophies towards hospitality is very different. When London boasted that it had become the leading gastronomic city in the world, we smiled. It may have been true but most of the concepts came from all across the world. It wasn’t about British cuisine but about being an international centre. That is very different.

In France, we still believe in recipes passed down through the generations, through the value of our produce. We possess a world-class wine industry. We are world-class in our own cuisine. The UK does not compete in these areas naturally but it does have a world-class hospitality industry. The difference is the UK industry is founded on bringing in ideas from around the world and building brands. These will never be strong pillars.

Even in the UK, it is easy to see that those businesses with visible and clear leadership are the ones who do well. Customers are no fools; they know which operations are genuine and have heart. Look at the success of The Pig and Robert Hutson; his record of success says much. Look at Nick Jones and Soho House. Look at Corbin and King’s restaurants. The Customers like these businesses as all three businesses have bought something different to being just a brand but a business which can stand apart and has its own spirit.

It all probably sounds like I do not like the UK approach to hospitality. This is not true. There is no doubt that the UK builds world class businesses but isn’t that the point? The task is to nurture 10 x more Robin Hutsons and Nick Joneses and as I say, this may take another generation or two. At the moment it is just not genuine; has no deep roots.

Does it matter? That depends on what you want your industry to be and stand for. If I was going to make a point I would say that the industry does not need so many brands to dominate the streets but more independents which all offer that something different and which makes hospitality that little bit extra special“