Maximising the potential of the restaurant as a home-meets-work environment

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It is often said that we have our most inspired moments of productivity outside of the workplace. We’ve all had that ‘lightbulb moment’ in the shower or whilst washing the dishes, but there is nothing more stimulating than working in an environment which nurtures creativity by its very design. Having worked in the dining industry for several years, I have spent many afternoons and evenings discussing growth opportunities for various business in the setting of bars and restaurants. Here, I have seen clients seal some of their most prosperous deals and forge their most exciting projects. In our highly-connected, decentralised culture, it is no surprise that more professionals are choosing to work from the more informal environment of the café, bar or restaurant. But this is far from a new phenomenon – none other than the most famous books of the generation – the Harry Potter series – was written in a café back in the 1990s. Undoubtedly, though, it is a growing trend, and as such, is one that venues would do well to tap into.

Today, the work sphere has filtered firmly into the domain of leisure, and food and drink venues are at the heart of this. From business meetings over brunch to individuals working remotely on projects or students writing theses, these venues have become arenas of efficiency as much as relaxation. Eating out has become habitual, and not just in down-time, or even during lunch breaks. Whereas customers would once call their favourite bar or café their ‘second home’, they can now refer to it also as their ‘second office’.

So how can restaurants appeal to the professional patron, and why exactly should they seek to do so in the first place?

Why workers dine nine to five

As industry report, Eating Out – Today and Tomorrow, by Sacla Italia notes, “As with other significant life events, our working calendar is punctuated by food and drink occasions.” In fact, a recent study by The Restaurant Association found that eighty per cent of the fifty cafes they surveyed had customers who used their venue as what is colloquially known as a ‘coffice’ – a coffee shop used as an unofficial office by its customers. So why do remote workers choose bars, cafes and restaurants over their homes as an alternative working environment? According to John Anthony, “the white noise produced at cafes create a productivity zone some professionals can’t get enough of. Add to the mix an unlimited supply of coffee, free WiFi and some nice décor and it’s easy to see why cafes and coffee shops are popular places of work for entrepreneurs, freelancers, artists and students.”

Whilst it might seem as though there would be distractions abound in a busy eatery or drinks haunt, the reality for many is that these background noises and exchanges do not bother them, because they do not affect them. At home, it’s easier for us to procrastinate, giving the floors a quick hoover or answering cold calls – in a public space, the activity that surrounds us almost creates a buffer zone. An atmosphere of business is motivational, and, after all, no-one wants to be seen as slacking.

But restaurants and bars are also popular with professionals because they are refreshing. Offices and libraries can be sterile environments, devoid of creativity and limiting in outlets for expression. James Morgon, Managing Director of the Milken Institute in Europe, tells Urbanologie why he often chooses cafes and restaurants as a prime workplace, particularly for team-orientated tasks:

“I think sometimes it is helpful to meet people outside their normal place of work, it helps spark a cascade of conversations and ideas. Depending on the type of meeting and the time of day, London offers an incredible range of immersive locations that can help you get the creativity flowing, and move your relationship with business associates to the next level.” Public venues do not bring with them the same sense of hierarchy and institutionalism that an office brings, thus making clients and co-workers at ease and more likely to think creatively.

The benefits of accommodating professionals

Working environment

Workfrom is a website dedicated to providing resources for freelance and remote workers, recommending the best venues to work from and advising professionals on how to maximise their productivity out-of-office. They explain why accommodating remote workers is beneficial:

“A happy customer spreads the word to others, comes back and brings people to the cafe for meetings and lunches. They spend more money on average over time and they have a vested interest in the business’ success. If setting up shop for two, three or even four hours while you get some work done is what makes you happy, they’re happy to accommodate.”

They say “One of the things we hear time and time again from shop owners and staff is the need for as much seating to be available as possible.” This is an understandable concern – whilst a café full of creatives will make for a certain buzz, ten focused patrons each taking up a family table will not do the same for your till, and restricts opportunities for groups visiting on a day out. However, there are some easy and effective ways to get around this. Bench and bar seating options would be the most obvious – providing areas that are clearly intended for single visitors, perhaps with easy access to plug sockets, will encourage fair use of facilities and leave space for families and friends to use your larger tables. Placing these bars near windows will also give the impression of a busier establishment, as well as giving hard-working professionals that much-needed glimpse of sunlight.

The more subtle benefits of catering to remote-workers are many, but there are also several measurable impacts that should encourage establishments to get on-board with this trend. Using WiFi cleverly is an easy way to build your online following, thus spreading the word about your venue. Rather than simply password-protecting your network, why not have guests check in to your Facebook page as a geolocation in order to gain access to the internet? Alternatively, present your social media platforms as the homepage, or even display your own Instagram photos on the walls around working areas, encouraging guests to take photos of their food and use a hashtag.

Making individual professionals feel welcome in your venue can also yield business from larger groups. That one copywriter may invite their client to your establishment for a meeting. A businessperson may even express an interest in booking your venue for a conference. If you have the capacity to cater to larger groups in this way, BigHospitality advise advertising it concertedly by putting up photos of the conference space in the lobby and bathrooms and using signage throughout your establishment to encourage enquiries.

Healthy, non-alcoholic options are key

Healthy working lunch

One element of home-meets-work dining that is of central importance, but remains as yet under-reported, is the importance of health. Breakfast, lunching and eating out at times outside of the usual meal schedule is becoming very common. Gone are the days of Mad Men-style business dining, where executives would meet in the evenings with alcohol flowing and cigarettes ablaze. Today, this has been replaced with healthier and, most of all, alcohol-free corporate dining. Whether eating alone or in groups, at brunch or in the early-evening, these audiences expect casual dining with lighter, healthier and locally-sourced dishes and more non-alcoholic beverages to choose from.  

The SACLA report notes that one of the main health concerns for professionals is that up to a quarter are regularly skipping lunch:

“When asked about future expectations, three in ten respondents anticipated skipping lunch in the future. While this often reflects the pressures of working culture, it is widely understood to be an unhealthy practice.” They continue to state, “There are opportunities here that foodservice operators are tapping into, whether to provide the catering (as not all businesses can run a canteen on the scale that Google does) or the venue or both.”

Whether it be offering quick-service, healthy grazing-style plates that workers can eat as they work, or providing an extensive menu of customisable smoothies that not only pack a punch in terms of nutrition, but can provide a substitute meal for the truly time-restrained, cafes, bars and restaurants championing healthful options will prosper with the modern professional demographic.

Making it feel like home

Colleagues working in café

So what do restaurants need to be doing to appeal to their work-savvy clientele? James Morgon says that, for him, “A great menu, a large dining room with big tables and a summer patio in the heart of Mayfair makes Amaranto one of my favourite places to go for a Business Lunch. I particularly like the fact that the restaurant offers such a wide range of superb wines by the glass, and the complementary Italian menu is delicious, making it an ideal spot for any important lunch.”

Whilst, for many, alcohol is not a mainstay of the ‘coffice’ trend for most, the key here is that customisation is a huge sway to working professionals. This applies to everything from wine to coffee, with customers expecting to be able to craft their order to their specifications – and their client’s. Casual Dining Magazine explains that hot and cold drinks should be accompanied by additional extras, creating premium options. They say:

“Using flavoured syrups, it is easy to develop a tempting selection of hot beverages that are not only simple and quick to prepare, but a great way to round off a meal, too,” explains James Coston, Monin UK brand ambassador. “Wherever possible, try to promote the drink as a whole rather than as a standard coffee or hot chocolate with an add-on; a named, specially-designed drink carries more value in the perception of the customer.”

This is all about making regular customers feel welcome and at home. After all, if a café feels uncomfortable, they do have their own homes free to work from, so venues need to couple their propensity for service and efficiency with an atmosphere of accommodation and ease. Another way to make consumers feel valued is to offer them rewards for repeat visits. Angus McKenzie, managing director of Kimbo UK, a company that recently worked with Jamie’s Italian to create a new Neapolitan coffee menu, tells Casual Dining:

“Loyalty schemes and special offers are a good way to encourage repeat visits and push coffee sales. For example, if a site wanted to increase daytime trade, offering a free/discounted coffee between 9am and 6pm to a customer who has just had dinner would get them back through the doors at a different time of day. The customer would be exposed to breakfast and lunch menus and overall daytime trade would improve.”

Nonetheless, all hospitality business owners should remember their niche, and serve it. A high-end restaurant is not going to appeal to casual remote worker, but it is the perfect place for a sales-driven, high-stakes client meeting. Entrepreneur gives advice to executives on choosing an appropriate restaurant for business needs:

“When you want to close a sale, look for a restaurant that's impressive with a quiet ambience. The biggest mistake you can make is choosing a loud restaurant with tables that are too close together. You want an intimate setting where your prospect can be completely honest with you, and you can be honest right back when negotiating terms.”

For casual team bonding occasions, however, they claim that “the best environments are ones that induce fraternization amongst the staff, which might include activities -- a local restaurant/bar possibly within walking distance that has board games, happy hour pricing and high energy allows your employees to de-stress.”

Whatever your vibe, don’t attempt to change it to seem ‘corporate’, simply enhance it in order to appeal to one of the many types of professional present in the modern workplace.

It is also wise to make it clear that you are able to accommodate business customers in more specifically corporate ways. Ivy N. McQuain tells ‘coffice’ workers, writing for BrightHub:

“Prepare needed materials ahead of time. If you need to set-up equipment or supplies then pre-arrange the setting and arrive early before your client arrives. The most embarrassing thing you can do in front of your client is not being prepared for a presentation because you are unfamiliar with the set-up.”

This provides key insight into what restaurants and bars should be doing themselves to assist corporate customers. When you receive bookings for meetings or conferences, make clear the services you provide to assist them in preparing their event, and ensure that personalised service is available to really impress.