Casual dining operators broaden horizons beyond London for their new sites, NPD Group reports

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According to new research from global information company The NPD Group, Britain’s casual dining revolution shows no sign of slowing down. Citing figures from Britain’s eating-out foodservice market (known as out-of-home or OOH), the NPD Group says casual dining sales for year-end (YE) March 2017 increased nearly 6% to £5.3 billion. Visits over the year grew by 4.7% to nudge 520 million – an improvement of some 24 million over the previous year.

But casual dining has a disproportionate penetration in London (nearly 8% of total OOH traffic) compared to the rest of Britain (4% of OOH traffic). Now there are signs of a big change as operators struggle to expand in London’s crowded restaurant market and seek fresh growth from other British cities and towns. The bulk of the 4.7% visit increase that casual dining achieved YE March 2017 came from outside London. The capital stood still managing a tiny 0.2% visit change. The regions recording the most success for casual dining are Scotland, West Midlands, Yorkshire/Humber and Wales – all enjoying double-digit growth.

Cyril Lavenant, foodservice director UK at the NPD Group, said: “Everybody has noticed the explosion in casual dining brands on British high streets over recent years. But London is very competitive and restaurant sites are expensive – it’s beginning to look like a saturated market. It’s no surprise the past 12 months have been flat for London and this is likely to be the picture in coming years. It’s clear the first chapter of rampant growth mainly in the capital has finished and chapter two is underway in new locations. Casual dining operators know there’s significant demand nationwide for this alternative to traditional fast food.”

Appetite for success
If casual dining brands can use growth in Britain’s regions to replicate past success they will do exceptionally well. Casual dining sales and visits have raced ahead over the past eight years and there are now an estimated 4,800 casual dining outlets in Britain*. Sales are up nearly 50% since YE March 2009 while visits are up 36% over the same period. That means casual dining restaurants are pulling in 137 million extra visitors each year compared to 2009. In contrast, again since YE March 2009, the full-service eating-out market (including local Indian, Thai, Chinese and many other types of restaurant) saw sales rise less than 5% and visits decline by around 4%.

Britain’s casual dining operators understand what consumers like and serve a winning formula. Consumers rate visits to casual dining brands as ‘excellent’ more frequently than for the wider foodservice industry. This is true on all sorts of measures – overall experience, quality of service, making customers feel valued, food preparation, atmosphere, child friendly environment, how the food tastes.

Millennials love casual dining
This blend of variety and quality coupled with a modern approach to eating out hits the spot with Millennials – those in the 18 to 34 age group. Millennials accounted for 37% of visits to Britain’s casual dining venues in YE March 2017, much higher than the 29% of visits they represent in the foodservice industry as a whole.

Casual dining operators also understand the power of promotions with 38% of visits involving a meal deal of some kind, higher than the 26% that applies in the foodservice industry generally. However, this may mean that casual dining operators are over reliant on promotions, and that it could prove difficult for them to reduce the importance of this sales tactic if they ever needed to adjust their business strategy in response to strong food-price inflation.

Lavenant added: “Casual dining businesses will never give up on London because the capital is very much the heart of Britain’s eating-out industry. However, any further growth in London will be challenging. In contrast, the push to the regions will deliver the new growth. There are more than 40 casual dining brands in Britain, but some have only a few outlets and these are often in London. If all the brands expanded successfully beyond the capital, casual dining could represent a much higher proportion of the British foodservice industry. Casual dining represents 4.6% of Britain’s foodservice market against the 52% held by QSR outlets. That huge difference points to the scope for the continued growth of casual dining.”