More and more UK-based operators are turning to international markets for growth. But what does it take to succeed overseas? In a panel session at the recent Casual Dining show, three top leaders—Hawksmoor co-founder Will Beckett, Swingers co-founder Matt Grech-Smith and Social Entertainment Ventures CEO Toby Harris—told CGA vice president Peter Martin some of the secrets.
1. Pick the right places
Matt Grech-Smith (pictured top) said businesses needed to take the time to identify the right locations for their offer—which in Swingers’ case means cities with ingredients like high corporate activity and street food culture. “It’s about taking the right step to the right place at the right time,” he said.
2. Be patient
Hawksmoor will open its first overseas restaurant near Gramercy Square in New York in mid-2019—a full five years after it first announced plans to move into the US. It was originally due to open at the World Trade Center, but withdrawing from that site, plus the challenges of coordinating things from the UK, pushed the opening well back. “We’ve found planning a project of that size from far away required a level of discipline ad skill that we’ve had to learn extremely quickly,” Beckett said (pictured above left). But the wait will be worth it, he added. “The idea of opening a restaurant in New York is the restaurateur’s equivalent of scoring a goal in an FA Cup final.”
3. Appreciate operational differences
As well as understanding different consumer trends, UK groups entering new markets need to get to grips with new ways of doing business. These can range from big things like HR legislation to culture issues like tipping, to small details like the names of steak cuts, said Will Beckett. And adapting to variations takes time and money, warned Toby Harris of Social Entertainment Ventures, which runs Flight Club and Ace Bounce venues in Chicago. “It hasn’t all been a bed of roses in Chicago… it put pressure on our resources and finance.”
4. Hire local talent
Ahead of launching in thee US, Swingers took the time to find an operations director with experience of the market, rather than exporting someone across the Atlantic, said Matt Grech-Smith. Toby Harris (pictured below-right) agreed: “Finding that lead operator [in new markets] is the hardest but the most important element of it.”
5. Stay humble
Expanding brands often stumble when they try to impose their offer on new markets and assume it will be an instant hit. Instead, operators should learn as much as possible about local markets, get to know new suppliers, and flex their offer to suit new locations. “We’re trying to keep humble—assume we know nothing and learn as much as possible,” said Matt Grech-Smith. Beckett agreed it was important for new operators to blend in. “We’re trying to open an authentically New York restaurant—not a British restaurant in New York.”