The Reinvigoration of Café Rouge by James Spragg

26th February 2016

I remember reading an article about restaurant brand management in these pages by Tony Hughes. He noted a certain pattern of behaviour for operators who come in new to a brand they’ve inherited – paraphrasing, he said they cannot help but criticise anything and everything, and then some. I totally agree. Hughes’ words were ringing in my ears as I sat down to write this article, after Propel asked me to pen my thoughts on the transformation programme at Café Rouge. So let me just start by saying this is, and always was, a fantastic brand. There were some very specific reasons as to why it had perhaps lost its way in recent times, which I plan to touch on, before giving a flavour of what we’ve done in the past 12 months, and what we intend to do next.

I came in as managing director just over a year ago, prior to which I had a short stint running Strada and before that, PizzaExpress. One of the main issues was there were so many competing views about where to take this brand and that had led to confusion. Several attempted evolutions, which had dramatically changed the business, hadn’t worked. The rejuvenation investments had generally moved up sales only temporarily – instead of sales continuing to build in year two (post investment) the numbers fell away.

In considering the way forward, we had to look back. We looked at a raft of consumer measures – general feedback, consumer reviews, mystery diner scores, net promoter scores, focus groups and so on. There was a lot of latent love for the brand, with lots of comments about how good it had been (in the past). What was clear was people wanted it to be good again. There was also a sense Café Rouge was trying to go after younger customers and trying to be a bit cooler. This resonated and was visible in some of the attempted redesigns and newer menus – a reaction perhaps to what was happening in the general casual and fast-casual market (we had hot dogs as our lead promotion). It’s important to say a lot of the attempted changes were well-intentioned. It felt a bit like the cricketer who has lost form with the bat – they need to go back to basics and go back to the nets, graft and drill their technique. This brand had come out swinging furiously, and it felt like there wasn’t a loud enough voice saying: “This is what we are; this is what we are not.”

The brand needed to be nurtured and protected and loved. It needed some leadership. Georgia Hall, an experienced brand director, joined pretty much on the same day as me. We were in fierce agreement on the direction the brand should go in, which was to take it back to what made it great, focusing on our strengths and core customers. What seemed clear was Café Rouge should not try to be a cool brand; it was a heritage brand, which didn’t need radical change but to evolve with its guests. I experienced something similar at PizzaExpress. Just like that brand, Café Rouge needed to take itself back to what it was really good at and do it very well. In terms of food, that meant giving customers what they clearly wanted, which was classic, authentic French food done really well (not their recipes changed every five minutes). The reality was the food had previously lost its way a little bit – we had eight different menus across 90 restaurants. Now we have one and we have focused on the things an authentic French bistro should do very well – classic French dishes such as steak frites, as well as wine, coffee, cheese, pastries and desserts.

The brand is 26 years old and the competition now in our all-day dining space is huge, with great brands such as Bill’s, Carluccio’s and Cote all trying to take our lunch (and breakfast and dinner). We had to get comfortable with them and focus on what we (not them) did well. We needed to set it on the right path for the next five to ten years. That said, the nature of the market meant investment was a key issue, as some of the Café Rouge restaurants had not been refurbished in many years. It meant the dining environment was tired, as were the cooking platforms, which meant some dishes were very difficult for our operators to produce. This had to be changed quickly as it was hitting not just customer satisfaction but morale too. Thankfully, the backing of Casual Dining Group and its investors meant we were able to address this at pace. By 2017, we will have refurbished all 90 restaurants.

Of course, alongside product and property, the other fundamental “p” was people. The first thing we did was meet the general managers in groups of five and ten. They were an important sounding board and hearing what they had to say shaped our brand roadmap. Service culture is a massive focus for the next 12 months as we strive to be complaint free, with guests genuinely made to feel special. We are changing all reward structures around this objective – how we measure our business will centre on the satisfaction of our guests. To this end, we will be partnering with the Alain Ducasse organisation – it will help us develop and operate a world-class training facility at our Euston business support centre. It will also input on our food, menu, restaurants and service delivery and we are confident our next menu change this month will be another big step forward, but crucially one our customers will embrace.

In terms of the transformation, we’re not there yet. We have much work to do and the reality is that we will never get “there” such is the nature of competing in today’s market. We need to continually evolve. What I can say is the brand is back in sales growth and this trend appears to be sustained, which is very encouraging. Our customer scores are moving forward too. Finally, our refurbishments in late 2014 have gone into year two (post-refurbishment) and the sales momentum is building further. The programme is demonstrating what we had hoped – the refurbishments would act as the catalyst to help give our operators a great platform to build on. The renewal of the brand and the rejuvenation of our restaurants have also energised our people; in addition to an absolute sense of focus, there is also a high level of engagement with a brand people feel passionate about. These results have given us the confidence to turn the dial up on our customer marketing efforts, which will hopefully deliver further incremental sales momentum.

In addition to the refurbishment, the brand is set to return to site growth. We are due to open one site at the end of May, and are in discussions on a further four, with a plan to add five per year. Café Rouge has also gone international – last year opening in Dubai through a franchise partnership – which is obviously adding another exciting dimension. We know we have got to keep this brand moving forward, but we will do it in a considered way that really respects our core customers. We will keep investing in people, the brand and our properties. The absolute focus is on operating authentic French bistros that serve great tasting food, with engaging staff, in a warm and comfortable environment.

James Spragg is managing director of Café Rouge and Belgo, part of Casual Dining Group

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