First the good news. Eating out gets the thumbs-up. The latest annual British Life-styles survey from research company Mintel confirms it to be one of the fastest-growing leisure areas (see page 14).
Other sources back this up. Foodservice Intelligence, formerly Marketpower, reports eating out to be the fifth-largest consumer spend after retail, food, cars, insurance and clothing. The catering industry turned over about £19.6b in 1996 and is projected to grow to £21.5b by the millennium, says the company.
Hurrah! Good reasons for us to stay in business and make a tidy profit in the process.
Now for the bad news - for restaurateurs at least. Mintel's research also shows that the dominant sector in the industry is fast food, which raked in £6.1b last year compared with £4.9b spent in restaurants.
Time to pack it all in, forget the Michelin stars and switch to burgers and chips? Not necessarily. Fast food doesn't have to mean street corners and greasy spoons. What is clear is that consumers want a more casual dining experience.
Take the UK's original fast food, fish and chips. John Barnes has realised there's money to be made in doing something well. His Harry Ramsden's chain is expanding all over the world.
So where to go for ideas? There's always plenty to be had in the USA. How about corn on the cob; wraps, large fajitas-style pancakes with fillings; all-night diners along the lines of Denny's; or home meal replacement, quality take-away offerings such as Boston Market, which has taken the USA by storm?
Whitbread is working on this option. It is trialling Wellington's, a fast-food outlet in Weybridge, Surrey, with menu items such as take-away roast dinners and lamb Wellington.
Pubs have also realised the necessity for more casual dining. Big breweries are building up brands focused on the family dining market. The race is now on to satisfy the next generation of pub-goers, reared on dining out. Their expectations will be even higher.
Fine for the groups with purchasing and research clout behind them, but what about the independents?
Some operators are already planning ahead. Oliver Peyton, who opens his new Mash outlet in London at the end of February, is introducing a European version of Japanese Bento boxes. And it's no accident that entrepreneur Ken McCulloch, despite access to influential backers, had the vision to incorporate a pizza and pasta bar in his recently extended Glasgow Malmaison property.
Survival doesn't mean having to compromise on standards, but it does mean having to adapt. So start thinking about the future, and turn that bad news into good news.
Caterer & Hotelkeeper