How caterers can be "authentic"

‘Authenticity’ is the brand strategy buzzword of 2018 and beyond. But why has it become so important? And what does it really mean for the restaurant and catering trade?

The trend is actually positive for our sector, as there are a number of ways in which restaurants can make straightforward adjustments to become more ‘authentic’ in the eyes of their customers. What’s more, there are several role models operating in the UK right now to take inspiration from. 

We’ll talk to the entrepreneurs behind some of those in this article. But first let’s examine what ‘authenticity’ implies and how it’s become so attractive to diners and consumers in general.

a tattooed waiter

Authenticity is closely connected to trust, and a sense of it breaking down between individuals and institutions. This had led to consumers becoming attracted to businesses that they feel provide a reputable, honest service, and one that’s delivered with passion, sincerity, and attention to detail. ‘Authenticity’ is as much about being human as it is truthful or transparent. In that way it’s also a reaction against the faceless and bureaucratic way of doing business lampooned by David Walliams’ ‘computer says no’ character in the BBC’s Little Britain.

In his new book, The Post-Truth Business, Sean Pillot de Chenecy, a respected marketing consultant for Unilever and General Motors among others, examines this major shift in consumer tastes.

“This isn’t a marketing issue,” he says, “The answer is not an advert that says ‘you should trust us’. It’s about reputation capital. Are brands trusted? Are they competent? Are they reliable?”

Sean points to the recent consumer preference for craft beer as an example. It’s made by dedicated artisans in local breweries, in contrast to the major alcohol brands owned by multinational companies (one famous example of which is marketed as being Australian, even though it’s actually brewed in Manchester).

Getting into specifics, authenticity in the catering sector could be said to be about enthusiasm for cooking, service, and environment; the ‘personal touch’ delivered with a distinct identity.

voltaThe poster child for authenticity in the British restaurant trade is based in Manchester. Luke Cowdrey and Justin Crawford began their restaurant careers with Volta, an intimate brasserie in the outlying West Didsbury district, and spread their wings with Refuge in the more central Principal hotel. Both restaurants eschew the regional tendency to imitate London’s fashionable fine dining restaurants. Instead they focus on dishes using ingredients from local suppliers, served in sociable environments that mirror the city’s personality: that blend of the plain-speaking and the innovative that characterises Manchester culture. Manchester Confidential restaurant critic Mark Garner called Refuge ‘a game changer for the North of England’. We asked Luke Cowdrey to explain why.

“It’s honest food, not trying too hard,” he tells The Foodservice Show, “people go on holiday to San Sebastián and they want that blend of quality and simplicity.”

While Luke and his business partner Justin are celebrated local DJs and club promoters, they knew a different approach was needed for a major hotel restaurant.

“We banned all mention of Joy Division, George Best and The Beckhams,” he continues, “We didn’t invite any bands or footballers to the opening. We’re not making it about fashion, money or trying to be the next big thing. The moment people try and get a Michelin star, it never happens. We had to cast the net wide and make it welcoming – we didn’t want a Manchester theme park, or for people to feel intimidated. We have the right suppliers, the love for the food, and we put in the work when it comes to entertainment.”

Refuge in particular has come to define the new Manchester. “We have genuine tourism for the first time,” says Luke, “the city has a different type of effervescence.”

refuge 1

The trend for street food is also seen as an example of customers being drawn to authenticity. In Birmingham, the city hosting The Foodservice Show in 2019, Digbeth Dining Club is viewed as the street food market leader. We asked founder and director Jack Brabant why his company, which now puts on “three to four hundred events a year including corporate and festivals”, is doing so well in comparison to other areas of the catering trade.

“Big chains like Jamie’s Italian and Carluccio’s were built up too quickly and gentrified the high street. People didn’t have any choice,” he says, “Now their knowledge has improved, they know that the independent restaurant does it better.”

Jack says that there are various authentic elements of the street food experience that appeal to customers. “People buzz off seeing the food being cooked, talking to the chef. We make sure the environment is comfortable for every generation: we always look at how we can make a mark in the local economy, we keep current, and we employ people who believe in the project. Either James Swimburne, my business partner, or I will be at every event, asking people what they think – because talking to your customers is vital.”

Refuge is a hugely successful authentic restaurant, and Digbeth Dining Club is a fantastic example of the street food phenomenon. But what can large caterers, operating on a major scale, adapt from the authenticity trend to please their customers?

DIGBETH DINING CLUB at the HARE AND HOUNDS 2Knowing your diner, it seems, is key. Keeping up to date with new trends for certain dishes, and other changes in taste, demonstrates enthusiasm, empathy and care.

Approachable, familiar faces in front of house also show that your business has a human side – so try to keep turnover in consumer-facing positions to a minimum. Try to reflect your customers and location in your staffing policy: “We want the staff to be themselves and express their own personalities, says Marcha Workel, food and beverage manager at east London’s new Indigo Hotel, “Then they feel comfortable in how they are, and what they wear – so they express themselves better in the front of house areas.”

Supporting local businesses by selling their artisan products, or using their ingredients, is not only giving your customers what they want in terms of product but also implies that you appreciate the community you make money from. Ultimately, many aspects of ‘being authentic’ come down to showing a human side. Bureaucratic businesses would do well to loosen their ties, and rediscover the joys of hospitality.