Sector trends

Comptoir Libanais: a post-lockdown success story

Chaker Hanna, CEO of this UK-based Middle Eastern restaurant group, shares his insights on growth, digital innovation and adapting to changing customer behaviour. 

Determined to reopen better, Chaker and founder Tony Kitous spent each lockdown reassessing their group and striving to improve its foundations. 

“We started life as a family business, but we’ve now reached a size that requires a change of approach. Our financial systems were inadequate, so everything has been fully digitised, which gives us an overview of how the business is performing. We’ve also refitted our sites – it’s important we reopen looking fresh and relevant.” 

NatWest’s Head of Retail and Leisure, David Scott, says agile businesses are perfectly placed to thrive as the UK recovers from the pandemic. “Many thought we’d be back to normal by now. Clearly that’s not the case, but overall things have been better than we expected in terms of numbers. Good management teams have put great systems in place to keep people safe and have made the necessary changes in their infrastructure to shore up their businesses. They’re now well placed to acquire tactical new sites.”

How to grow your business

While trading conditions are still tough for some of the group’s sites in Central London, the overall performance of Comptoir Libanais has been strong. A constant flow of customers keen to get out and spend again means many of the chain’s regional sites are doing better than they were in 2019. 

Things are looking so healthy, in fact, that Comptoir Libanais is back on the expansion trail. Chaker and Tony recently signed on a second site at Westfield London, with another site under offer. And its franchise partner, HMS Host, has signed up for a further two new locations.  

“If this pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s how important relationships are. Without close relationships with the right people – our staff, our landlords, our suppliers and, yes, our bank manager – we would not have made it. To overcome this, we’ve all had to work together,” says Chaker.

Digital transformation

Another key change at Comptoir Libanais has been the introduction of a slick new mobile ordering app. Trialled after the first lockdown and now in use across the sites, the app has been a huge success. “We have over 50% of customers using it at some of our sites. I’m blown away by how well it has been received,” says Chaker.

The app facilitates mobile ordering in-restaurant, as well as click and collect. It’s highly functional, allowing customers to order extra items as their meal progresses and settle the bill at the end. The app also made it easier for Comptoir Libanais to comply with Covid-19 regulations.

If this pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s how important relationships are. Without close relationships with the right people – our staff, our landlords, our suppliers and, yes, our bank manager – we would not have made it

Chaker Hanna
CEO, Comptoir Libanais

The introduction of a sophisticated app that has the potential to reduce contact points is a good example of a business speedily pivoting to provide something that’s more useful and relevant to consumers. 

Another business to have pivoted effectively is Pizza Pilgrims, also a NatWest customer. Faced with a total shutdown of the business in March 2020, brothers Thom and James Elliot launched Pizza in the Post kits that allowed customers to recreate their pizzas at home. The product was a runaway success, with the pair shifting up to 10,000 units per week during lockdown. Though demand is lower since restaurants have been allowed to reopen, the initiative remains an important part of the business.   

Research by NatWest and Retail Economics has shown an evolution taking place across retail and leisure, with consumers migrating towards business models that are better aligned to their new values. Companies that fail to pivot their business models fast enough could be overtaken by those with nimbler strategies and new entrants.

Bespoke apps and refits don’t come cheap, but Comptoir Libanais found itself in a better position than some of its peers due to the strength of its relationship with its landlords. “In most cases it’s a true partner relationship,” says Chaker. “They understood the impact the pandemic was having on us, and we also understood the impact it was having on them.” 

Adapting to changes in customer behaviour

The pandemic has changed customer behaviour significantly. “Traditionally, the majority of our customers just dropped into our restaurants,” says Chaker. “But bookings are now through the roof. There is no longer a big rush at lunchtime and dinnertime, our business is spread much more evenly across the day. And dwell time is much higher; it’s a more leisurely experience for most and people are typically ordering more.” 

NatWest’s research on the latest retail and leisure trends identified four consumer buying behaviour groups, the largest of which (36%) indicated their spending behaviour had been unaffected by the impact of the virus. The second largest group (27%) of consumers expect to ‘revert’ to previous purchasing habits once the impact of the virus recedes. Together, they makes up a majority of households who expect to spend in the same way they did previously once the pandemic eases. 

This is positive news for the hospitality sector. Another advantage – the report goes on to say – is that many households have boosted savings due to cancelled holidays, commuting less, having fewer evenings out, and purchasing fewer products. The Bank of England estimated that households in the UK were holding on to over £100bn of additional savings going into 2021. 

This cash is starting to be spent, and the hospitality sector is benefiting greatly.

This article was first published in BigHospitality.

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