RCA ‘On Tour’, a smorgasbord of innovation…

Study trips searching for innovation and cutting edge technology used to focus on retailers and the brands who brought glamour to our high streets. But as we all know retail is under pressure and the macro trend which seems to be replacing it is growth in the casual dining sector.

Eating and drinking in shopping centres used to take up 10% of the floor space and customers could expect the usual suspect brands; KFC, Subway, McDonalds and friends. In this world our customers expected little and got what they expected.

How the tables have turned. The shopping destinations of the future have up to 50% of their floor space given over to eating and drinking. The consequence is amazing levels of competition and innovation. On the high street where I live five major retail and fashion brands have closed in the last year only to be replaced by the new generation of casual dining brands: Itsu, Leon, Gail’s Bakery and others.

The result for our consumers is simple: quality and choice. It is into this world that our customers go every day of the year. They are expecting and being given fresher, tastier, more unusual choices, with excellent, fast and motivated service. This is the new normal.

With this in mind a hard core of Raceday Experience Group trustees ventured out into the chill December air to find out what’s new on the high street and in the wondrous array of emergent food and drink venues that service it. This is what we found:

Apple has started to take itself rather seriously. It has moved from creating funky retail spaces to crafting civic places, a forum in ancient Greek or Roman speak, a place for people to meet, to interact and to learn. The consequence is a store which focuses more on its architectural setting than on any innovation to deliver the product in an unusual and creative way. This truly is gentrification. The next step, of course, is ruin!

Consequently we have a theatre space for lectures

We have trees for strolling amongst

And we have dozens of Santa’s little helpers, all helpfully colour-coded in festive red

In search of something new we trotted along to John Lewis on Oxford Street. 2016 was the year that VR came of age and many brands are now introducing VR as a tool to help guests experience their products. At John Lewis the highly popular Christmas advertisement is brought to life as guests romp in the garden with Buster the dog and his friends. A smart application of technology, narrowing the divide between the broadcast, online and the real in-store experience.

Left: Amy from York playing with Buster on the trampoline; Right: A few familiar faces getting ready to don their VR head gear

A moment for dressing up…

After a hard afternoon spent bouncing on the trampoline, our intrepid explorers climbed to the roof of John Lewis and into the wonderful highland forest of Mac & Wild.

With wonderful props, real trees and a lively sense of humour, this pop-up forest, bar and restaurant was a true delight.

The Hunting Lodges (dressed up garden sheds) can be rented privately and are impeccably decorated, with a Bluetooth enabled sound system, Hot Toddy bell and wonderful service. What more could we ask for. In truth it was a bit of a challenge getting the team to move on. Bravo!

Right: Romantic love seat in the forest on the roof of John Lewis; Left: Inspired – the Hot Toddy bell

A typical ‘hunting lodge’ bookable for private dining

Reluctant to move on from this rooftop idyll

Nicely warmed we ventured off in search of new delights. Let’s chomp through a selection:

To Pix Pintxos, part of a chain but you would never know it. Impeccably presented and authentic tapas, or pintxos (little skewers) in a snug little bar with the cleverest seating for couples. Sunday brunch of £35 for unlimited Cava and tapas sounds wonderful – especially given the quality of the food and service.

Presentation as good as the best in Barcelona

Delicious, fresh and spicy self-service delight

Such refreshing presentation – born for sharing

Everything goes gourmet. And so we fall upon Snowflake, a wondrous emporium of ice cream delights. All made on the premises, beautifully presented and utterly delicious. In a world where we are trying to get a grip on excessive drinking isn’t ice cream one of our easiest allies?

The gourmet trend has also filtered through to Starbucks. After trialling their Starbucks Reserve concept in Seattle, the home of coffee, it has arrived in London and is a true game changer. Not only beautiful to look at but also a true coffee aficionado’s heaven. How would you like your coffee made? Perhaps you would like to drip it yourself. This one really sends a wake-up call to those of you who are still serving coffee in stainless steel flasks – it simply will not do!

What about those places that only do one thing – and do it well. This trend shows no sign of abating as we strut into our next venue Absurd Bird. The most finger lickin’ menu with delights ranging from Dirty Buns to Fried Chicken through Buttermilk Wings and Jalapeno Mac & Cheese.

Yum yum.

No new opening is to be taken seriously without its own Speakeasy

Kitchen open to view and bursting with energy

Next stop the familiar delights of Poppies Fish & Chips. Perhaps more beautiful than any true 1950’s fish and chip shop, this chain is spawning new sites across London, the latest washing up in Soho. If it’s nostalgia you are looking for feast your eyes… Perfect. Can you smell the chips?

Our penultimate stop is to one of London’s most recent openings. Brand new in December 2016 is Temper from cult chef Neil Rankin of Low and Slow fame. This subterranean meat fest is a temple to the art of slow cooking and by golly was it good. Smacked Cucumber (try working that out), MSG Ketchup and slow cooked 65-day-old beef are a taste of the delicacies on offer. Impeccably trained and knowledgeable staff, stylish interior and fair prices ensure this one will run and run.

Note the fire pit in the centre of the restaurant

A menu of fresh and exciting delights

To round off our tour we stop in at legendary coffee emporia Soho Grind. Gritty no-nonsense interior, cool neon and a basement with a sneaky speakeasy (see the picture below). This one really is an institution and shows how far we have to go in our quest to bring an authentic product to our deserving guests.

French lessons given downstairs! Coffee shop by day, Speakeasy by night

A sneaky look through the moving screen into the servery of the Speakeasy

Alex from Goodwood looking sheepish in a basement in Soho

So the challenge to our readers is to acknowledge that as the retail world sags under the strain of the internet the next generation of innovators are turning their heads to food and drink. Authenticity and provenance are their watchwords. Less choice, better cooked their standard. Well-trained and knowledgeable staff are becoming the norm, not the exception. And the expectations of our customers will continue to rise as the high street rediscovers the value of casual eating and drinking. A challenge indeed for all of us – but what an opportunity.

Welcome to a delicious 2017.