What happens when fast-food and designer settings collide?
Words by Clare Dowdy
The Rise of online sales coupled with rent hikes mean that many conventional brick-and-mortar retailers continue to struggle or are dropping away completely. Recent casualties include Phones4U, La Senza, Blockbuster and Albemarle & Bond.
Last year more than 5,800 high street shops closed, according to research carried out by the Local Data Company for PwC. That equates to 16 closures a day. But the latest Openings and Closures report said there were also 4,850 new openings in 2014. Rather than clothes and phone shops, however, it is other sectors are thriving. 'Our town centres continue to evolve away from traditional shops and services to leisure - food and beverage, and entertainment,' says Matthew Hopkinson, director of the Local Data Company. Mike Jervis, insolvency partner and retail specialist at PwC, adds that: 'The strength of the restaurant and fast-food sectors is... a fillip for the high street.'
Fortnum & Mason's The Bar and Heathrow T5, designed by Universal Design Studio, features a freestanding canopy that references English cutlery
This trend is highlighted in our Bars and Restaurants Focus, which demonstrates that as the sector becomes increasingly crowded existing operators are upping their game and new entrants hope to make a splash with ever-more specialised offers.
So a large chain of garden centres - hardly a sector synonymous with fabulous eating experiences - has introduced a top-notch cafe format in the hope, no doubt, that it will become a destination as much as its garden products; an old-fashioned whisky retailer has a new owner that hopes to reinvent brown spirits and inspire drinkers with a hidden bar; and a 300-year-old grocer's is making its restaurant debut in that epitome of modern dining, the airport.
Meanwhile many operators in the 'fast casual' category and those with 'premium casual' venues are watching with alarm as their two worlds collide. The emerging sub-set is being labelled 'fast premium', and it seems to go against everything that restaurant designers hold dear.
These places are positioned to teach well-heeled diners that good food and speedy service comes at a price, with convenience being the buzz-word. Will it take off, or do traditional restaurateurs still believe that diners prepared to pay for the privilege should be allowed to linger?
What happens when the term cash-rich time-poor manifests itself on the high street? The answer seems to be a crop of businesses keen to part deep-pocketed consumers with their money in the shortest amount of time possible.
Traditionally, highly priced offers have been associated with a long dwell time. Think of the hours whiled away in posh hair salons and over long, luxurious lunches.
Inside Ethos in London's West End, designed by I-AM
But that trend is being bucked, now that the current Holy Grail of convenience has been added to the mix. Some people, these business owners believe, are just too busy to take things slowly. What they want is a quick, well-executed, good-quality fix.
Hence the rollout of Blow, a 'fast beauty' hair, nail and make-up salon aimed at women with hectic lives who like that just-applied look. The concept, launched by venture capitalist Dharmash Mistry and Grazia's founder editor Fiona McIntosh, and designed by Caulder Moore, promises to buff and coif women in a matter of minutes.
This macro trend, believes Mistry, will be based on 'increasingly time-poor, busy consumers who juggle many things' and the 'reinvention of high streets and consumer expectations of convenience'.
The restaurant sector has also spotted the appeal of this approach. The first brand to really embrace it was Five Guys in the USA, which now has a handful of outlets in London. Its restaurants serve good-quality burgers - though no novelty in that as American and European towns are littered with similar concepts, including Byron by Michael Boyd Associates.
But two diners at Five Guys can expect to spend just 15 minutes buying and eating a burger and chips washed down with a Coke, and will pay a total of £28 for the privilege - that's three times as much as McDonald's charges for the same express experience. 'When you analyse their pricing and speed of service it's a freakish model, but it is very successful,' says Jon Blakeney, group managing director of London design agency I-AM.
I-AM sees this trend as the bold collision of 'fast casual' dining with its relatively low price point, like Mexican food offer Chilango, which was designed by I-AM, and 'premium casual' with its stripped-back environment. Pizza Eastis an example of this, which was set up by Soho House's Nick Jones, and the second of which was created by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio. 'Fast premium comprises the convergence of the two,' says Blakeney. 'But this is a new paradigm and the implications are huge. It's quite cultish.'
Such speedy offers as Five Guys benefit from fast and furious service with a smile, and an interior design concept that lends itself to a quick turn-around. These places need to be durable, with lots of hard surfaces. That means floors that can be mopped, tiled walls, booth-style and fixed seating, so that staff don't waste precious time realigning the chairs after customers have left.
Fast-premium formats rely on being positioned in busy locations. 'These are very expensive sites with a huge footfall, so you need to build a quick machine,' says Pete Champion, director of 3D design at I-AM. 'They don't need advertising or marketing because high visibility of locations and huge numbers of customers.'
I-AM's design for Ethos in London's West End applies many of these rules. The premium buffet is vegetarian by stealth - the menu excludes meat but doesn't crow about it. Customers load up a plate from teak drum pods whose marble tops display the food like jewellery. The plate is then weighed and payment calculated accordingly.
At I-AM's Ethos diners select their food from marble-topped team drums.
Such concepts obviously work well on busy streets and in transport hubs, and airports have had their own 'bar' version for some time. A new offer is Fortnum & Mason's The Bar at Heathrow Terminal Five. The menu - including delights such as parfait of Foie Gras with toasted brioche for £20 -is served in a suitably upmarket environment, designed by Universal Design Studio. 'The bar is shaded along its length by a stunning freestanding canopy structure which references English silverware,' explain the heads of the studio Jay Osgerby and Ed Barber.
'The canopy is self-supporting and uses nickel plated steel.' Other materials used include custom-made nickel, pressed ceramic tile, polished pewter, velvet, leather and glass. Blakeney predicts that despite the run-away success of Five Guys, 'the cheap fast restaurants won't change, but the premium ones might speed up. Unlocking the rule that fast has to be cheap could revolutionise restaurants. The industry is very aware of what Five Guys has done. It could be a dynamic shift.'
Whether other restaurant operators dare to follow Five Guys remains to be seen. But that's one format that seems to be unstoppable: it has more than 1,000 locations in the USA and another 1,500 units in development.
But not everyone is convinced that customers will speed-eat pricey burgers ad infinitum. International design agency Frog is working on concepts and strategies for several restaurant and hospitality clients. Hans Neubert, Frog's chief creative officer, believes that fast premium is a commoditisation of luxury and premium. 'As a concept it's only temporary, because consumers are aware of the health issues of fast food. What's now premium will be fast food in the future.'