'People aren't appreciating what they have on their doorstep' - How local restaurants are coping in changing times
PUBLISHED: 12:13 29 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:42 30 September 2016
As the economy bites, review websites prosper and the market expands, it's a challenging time to run a restaurant. Reporter Lauren Cope speaks to three local owners to see how they are faring in these changing times.
• Important to constantly be open to change
Rachael and Jeremy Parke set up Fire and Feast with Relish – formerly Relish – in Newton Flotman 11 years ago.
Since then, they say the growing market has seen competition become fierce, with custom spread thin and the climate probably the most challenging to work in yet.
“Eleven years ago I really believe we were one of the first places to fly the flag for local produce and we were recognised for that,” Mrs Parke said. “We tried to grow our own vegetables and we really got a sense of how farmers work and what their experiences were.
“Today there are so many people using it as a marketing tool.
“Norfolk and Suffolk has become a really good food destination, which is great for the area, but it means while we were one restaurant in, say, a six-mile radius, there are now lots more. It’s difficult – it’s hard to plan what’s going to happen now.”
Praising the popular street food movement as an innovative way of taking a menu to the masses, the couple said the key for them had been to stay alert and aware of trends.
“For a while it was all about fine dining and coming up with these quirky ideas, which we felt were more to impress other restaurateurs than the customer.
“We have had to look at our business year on year, month on month. We have got 11 years trading behind us, and we know that, traditionally, an August isn’t going to be as good for us, but that we’ll have a strong January.
“It’s a constant process of looking at what’s going right and what’s not working.”
As well as having an outdoor pizza oven and changing monthly menus, the restaurant underwent a rebrand earlier this year and moved towards tapas-style dining.
Mrs Parke said trade had not been hampered by online takeaways or Brexit, but that encouraging diners to swap familiar chains to try something new was a continual hurdle.
“I think people want to say the right thing – as a customer you want to say you support local businesses, that you look after the small independent restaurant and the family behind it, but when push comes to shove – and when people have a couple of children and know there will be a certain standard – they end up going to the chains,” she said.
• A tough year for long-running business
Standing in the heart of the city centre, Paolo’s restaurant is a familiar sight for Norwich diners, shoppers and workers.
The St Giles’ Italian has restaurant been run by Paolo Duraj for seven years, with a steady stream of regulars ensuring its success.
But over the last nine months, Mr Duraj said business has plummeted by 60pc, with formerly busy nights now much quieter and concern leading him to rent out parts of the premises to generate extra cash.
The owner put the drop down to a combination of people tightening their belts, turbulence surrounding the Brexit vote and lack of promotion for independent eateries.
He said: “People aren’t appreciating what they have on their doorstep. The city centre seems dead and I don’t think enough is done to promote the independent restaurants that are right here. On weekdays I used to be full, but now even Saturdays have been quiet.”
While most of his regulars have remained loyal, attracting a new audience to sample the food has proved difficult.
Earlier this month, the restaurant underwent a revamp to freshen up its decor and make the best use of the space.
“There are so many chain restaurants now, which I think should be limited,” he said. “There are independent restaurants which are struggling.”
He said the rise of online takeaway websites, including Just Eat, had also lessened people’s desire to eat out.
“I did sign up for a while and it was successful, but I felt like I was splitting what I was doing. I’d rather focus on making sure things are going well here.”
Working round the clock to see the restaurant become a success, Mr Duraj said he was left with little life outside it.
“I have got three kids I barely see,” he said. “When I go home, they are asleep. I’m here for 8am, I finish at 11pm. I would never tell anyone to run a restaurant. The business will take so much away from you.”
• Innovation and flexibility are key
While long-running restaurants have to adapt to the changing climate, new ventures emerge from it.
After to moving from London to Norwich 18 months ago, Francis Woolf set up a pop-up free-range fried chicken eatery, called Woolf and Bird.
The growing popularity of street food and quick, gourmet bites saw it quickly become a success – and, with co-owner Felix Rehberg, he opened Woolf & Social on Nelson Street in the Golden Triangle in December.
Since then, he said the restaurant has, by and large, been fully booked every weekend.
When asked what has made it a success, Mr Woolf said: “We are doing something really different. I think we are coming out of a time with restaurants where everything was very traditional – you go for your starter, your main and so on.
“We are not a tapas restaurant, we are not a street food vendor, we don’t really have a label.”
Woolf and Social often goes back to its roots, with stalls at local events spreading the brand name and attracting new diners, while its innovation has seen it draw discerning eaters.
Among the staple ingredients and trademark fried chicken, black ants are served on its menu, along with termites – a UK first.
“It is important to be innovative and do something different,” he said. “There’s a lot of exciting things going on here. Our most successful weekend was when we invited chefs Blanch and Shock to cook for us. We managed 100 people over the two nights which is the most we’ve done.”
He admitted the work was “fairly relentless” and said there was “always something to do”.
• Are you a restaurant owner who has a story to tell? Write, giving full contact details, to Letters Editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE.