Rather than sit down for three courses, increasing numbers of diners are now choosing to meal-hop from venue to venue. Julie Sheppard looks at how to profit from the ‘meal crawl’ phenomenon
What do you fancy eating tonight? Italian? Mexican? Japanese-Peruvian fusion? (Yes really, it’s a thing.) With more
choice than ever in the British dining scene, the answer is very often ‘all three’, as the YOLO generation cram as many different experiences as they can into their precious leisure time.
‘People are meal-crawling, not pub-crawling,’ says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR). The change is going hand-in-hand with a move away from wet-led venues. ‘There was a 0.2% increase in food-led outlets last year,’ continues Nicholls. ‘Venues that are doing well in their food offer are also doing well with their drinks offer.’
The move towards a more food-focused night out is happening for several different reasons. Not only are people more interested in food, they’re also more aware of health issues around over-indulging. ‘Alcohol consumption was down 4% last year and one in five people aren’t drinking at all,’ continues Nicholls.
‘Everyone’s getting more health conscious,’ agrees Matthew Lawrence-Saunders, assistant manager at The Railway Tavern. This neighbourhood boozer in London’s Clapham recently revamped its traditional menu format to include a small plates selection, in response to changing customer habits.
‘We still have people coming in and drinking pints of Carling after work, but more people are wanting to at least have a nibble when they drink,’ continues Lawrence-Saunders.
Small plates have also appeared on the menu at nearby white tablecloth restaurant Trinity, as the venue has launched a new casual dining room, Upstairs. It’s aimed at people who want to sample award-winning chef Adam Byatt’s food – but without giving up their entire evening to a formal meal out.
‘When we reopened, our client base became much more interesting – and our new diners are much more willing to experiment with wine,’ says James Price of Professional Wine Services, who devised the drinks list for Upstairs. He works with OW Loeb and Wine Lab to offer unusual varietals on tap as a way of encouraging adventurous diners to try something different.
Venues that are doing well in their food offer are also doing well with their drinks offer
‘I started off with Bacchus from Sussex. The customers love it because they’re not expecting it. These aren’t wines that our customers would have chosen from a list,’ he explains. The initial selection on tap also featured a Ribera del Duero and a Côtes du Ventoux, as well as a craft brew from Wild Beer Co.
Offering drinks on tap makes business sense when more customers are ordering by the glass. ‘It is more economical – but we also want to give more new things to our customers, so that they come out of the restaurant and say, “I wouldn’t have tried that anywhere else”. There’s been absolutely no push-back against taps,’ adds Price.
While small plates may be a new concept for some venues, others have been doing it successfully for years and are well placed to take advantage of the trend for meal-hopping: tapas restaurants. Laure Patry, Jason Atherton’s executive group head sommelier, opened Social Wine & Tapas last June.
‘People come in after work for a glass of wine and a bite to eat, then say, “Now we’re going for dinner”. Some will come in just for a starter or a main course – they’re just in for an hour,’ she explains.
To capitalise on diners who only want one glass of wine before moving on, Patry uses Coravin to offer a selection of top wines by the glass. ‘If I have bottles on my list that cost £200, I won’t sell many of them. But with Coravin I’ll be able to sell that bottle over two weeks,’ she says. ‘Recently we’ve sold Vega Sicilia Unico, Viña Tondonia 1994 and a 1997 Barolo by the glass.’
What’s more, all of Patry’s waiting staff are sommeliers and able to give pairing suggestions; key to persuading the one-hour diners to trade up to something more expensive. Think about including by-the-glass suggestions on your menu if your servers aren’t knowledgeable enough to make them.
Take a tours
The appetite for meal hopping is growing. Eating London Tours offers a Twilight Soho Food Tour, which takes in stops for a G&T served with gin-infused beef pie, pintxos with a glass of Txakoli and Chinese dumplings alongside green tea.
The company’s PR manager, Wibke Carter, explains: ‘The majority of our guests are from the US and other English-speaking countries; however, we have a considerable number of British people too – even Londoners who have lived here a long time. It’s a great way to explore their own backyard. Food tours in general seem to be an emerging travel trend.’
The trend isn’t confined to the capital either. Manchester Food Walks offers a tour of the Northern Quarter with a roving supper of 10 small-plate signature dishes. Eat Walk Edinburgh takes foodies on an Old & New Town tour that includes wine and malt whisky tastings or a Canongate Brunch tour featuring breakfast canapés, cocktails and a beer and cheese matching.
With diners putting their best foot forward, it’s time to make sure your drinks offer can keep up…
Drinks for day-trippers
If you know customers are only dropping in for a short time, here’s how to maximise their drinks spend and your GP…
- Adventurous diners will try unusual drinks, so list quirky wines or craft spirits and beers
- Give pairing suggestions for every dish on your menu or train staff to offer them verbally
- Create a by-the-glass selection that covers a variety of prices and styles
- Check out the competition: make your drinks list noticeably different to those of nearby venues