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One business opportunity we consistently see interest in on UK Business Forums is the restaurant trade. We caught up with Mark Mascar, who opened the doors of The Empire Diner on the A12 in Essex a year ago. Here’s his journey developing the restaurant and the brand so far.
How do you grow interest in a new restaurant in 2017? Conventional wisdom has it that you need to get the marketing right, and particularly online social and loyalty tactics, leaning on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, listings sites and more to generate buzz.
That also means having a strong and fully updated website, driven by an excellent CMS system, and careful analysis of the stats on Google Analytics. But being visible online is only a part of the story when it comes to restaurant success.
Last year in Essex one couple opened an American-style diner that’s gone from strength to strength on different terms, and done so well that the business owners are now ready to explore taking the business and its proposition to some new locations.
The Empire Diner sits on the busy A12 at Rivenhall in Essex, on a site that lay disused for several years from 2012. But from these perhaps unpromising beginnings, Mark Mascar and his partner Angela Buckley have created a restaurant that has made great strides in 12 short months.
“There was an American-style diner here before called the 8 Ball Diner, so the site had some pedigree. I’ve always been fascinated with the cars, motorbikes and food of American culture, so to relaunch this kind of proposition on the same site was a great fit,” he says.
Mascar trained in catering but spent many years working in the construction industry, which stood him in good stead for the first phase of work once the site was secured last year.
“It was February 2016 when we saw the site was available, and we immediately took a ten-year lease,” he begins.
“The food industry has always been my passion, but the construction background I have was excellent for sorting out all the contractors we needed to turn around a seven-week fit-out project. That’s what enabled us to achieve a June launch last year.”
While Mascar and Buckley set out a business plan from the start – Buckley is a business analyst by background, so well-used to being analytical about opportunities and applying process – they approached the opportunity with an open mind, too.
“We had a plan at the outset to develop a proposition that might be franchisable down the line, but we didn’t know what that would look like exactly. And we wanted to stick to our passions rather than just be dry-eyed about the commercials.”
So when the business opened and the website went live in June 2016 not everything was pinned down by Mascar and Buckley.
“It was recognisably a drive-in American diner, of course. It’s a busy road, we’ve lots of parking and we fitted out the interiors to deliver on that vision. But outside of that we’ve not been afraid to play around with the proposition along the way.”
The challenge around social media, advertising and marketing loomed large for Mascar and Buckley at the start, but Mascar says he also just wanted to live the business every step of the way and it’s paid off in unexpected ways.
“I suppose I’ve taken the classic, roll-up-your-sleeves approach. I’m here day and night and get involved in nearly everything. I’m also the main face of the business.”
So Mascar’s hands-on approach means he’s been able to attend to every detail and to explore every opportunity.
“We’ve made sure we deliver great food, great entertainment and a great night – and after one year some four-fifths of our trade is from returning customers,” he says.
Where has Mascar found his customers from in the first place, though?
As well as benefitting from word of mouth recommendation and from happy customers coming back, the link with cars has also played its part.
“Lots of vintage car clubs have paid a visit because we promote ourselves and our offer to them – and the word has also spread about what we offer. It’s definitely been another way that we’ve built our loyal following so quickly.”
The emphasis on quality ingredients is also important, adds Mascar.
“When we did our research into American diners in the UK, we found a lot with poor-quality food. We’ve gone the other way and spend a lot on the very best local, sustainable ingredients. Added to that, 95% of what we sell is gluten free, while we also separate cooking stations to avoid cross-contamination.”
In other words, what’s on offer is at the premium end of things. Mascar says he has no interest in the business being a glorified greasy spoon. He wants and expects more than that, starting from the top with the best ingredients.
“Added to that,” he says, “we work on the presentation and the consistency. These are things that restaurants have to get right, and we’ll keep on trying.”
The business, from a standing start, is turning over about £35,000 a month and still growing. It means that it’s now profitable and the owners are able to think about what the next phase of growth might look like.
“We have done are market research and a feel now for what makes our proposition special,” says Mascar. “We’ve read the business books and worked on the process maps for the next phase of scaling up. We have a business model and we think that, with the right site, it could be applied and work well. That doesn’t mean we won’t keep on evolving, but it does mean that we know enough now to push ahead.”
Pushing ahead might mean the co-founder opening further sites – they have two in their sights, one in Chelmsford and one on the outskirts of London – or it might conceivably mean cementing a franchise offer to sell to potential franchisees, though Mascar does admit that would be a big leap so early on.
“I’m not ruling out a franchise offer, but the key for us, one year in, is to push ahead and build on how far we’ve come. Many still don’t know about us, for example, and there is work we can do on the marketing and social media. We have a website relaunch on the table at the moment, in fact.”
What does Mascar with he’d done differently in the past year?
“It would have been beneficial to understand and evolve some of the marketing from day one. We’ve succeeded through our hard work and our eye for an opportunity, but we might have made it even easier for ourselves with a more analytical approach,” he says.
That analytical piece could also have helped Mascar to understand the best opening hours for the restaurant and the best way to pitch itself at certain opportunities, whether breakfast, lunch or evening trade.
The seasonality of The Empire Diner’s trade has been another obstacle to overcome, says Mascar.
“We’ve actually done well in this respect, by understanding how to overcome those slumps in trade you see in January and February, for example, by hooking into the business from the car clubs and the motorbike clubs. But it’s something you need to work at all the time.”
The restaurant trade is notoriously hard to staff with good people because the generally low wages mean that many have transient workforces. Mascar says the challenge has been mitigated for The Empire in the year of trading he’s had partly because staff that have joined can see they are in on something more than a routine restaurant-service job.
“Because we are doing this ourselves, and the staff are working with the owner, it creates a different vibe I suppose. We still have our head chef from launch and have had real consistency with our waiting staff too. We have made it clear, along the way, that if the restaurant succeeds then all of the staff will succeed – not just the owners. It’s made a difference. The staff feel part of something, I hope, and we’ve worked hard at offering training and staff development too.”
Mascar does now need a manager to take over so he can explore the next phase of growth, and admits as much. “I need more time, pure and simple. I need a manager – and the sooner the better.”
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