Sunday, November 28, 2010

How to turn a niche into a goldmine

Reports today that the weekend's traffic-free shopping in London's West End yielded a whopping £250M for the nation's biggest retailers (excluding the soopermarkets) confirms that austerity is no match for consumerism. Indeed, is it not a heart-warming fact that, even in these apparently vein and selfish times, Christmas, the season of giving, is by far the most valuable period of the year for our humble shopkeepers? No, thought not. In reality, it is proof positive of the enduring ability of the big brands to enthral the masses. And where's the harm in that? No humbugs round this commuter's house. But the relentless jingling of the tills in chain stores throughout the nation is bad news for the dwindling band of independents still holding out against the creeping homogenization of our high streets.

In the Beautiful Market Town where I live, it has been a bruising couple of years. The recession has not been kind to a place where once independence thrived. The chains that bind us are tightening - Primark is rumoured to be arriving soon. Waterstone's, Next and WH Smith are the busiest shops, while Sainsbury, M&S and Waitrose mop up the foodies who might otherwise give their custom to the butcher, the baker and the greengrocer. A variety of quirky, specialist shops have gone under - a unisex hair salon, a shoe shop, a furniture store. Many soldier on - perhaps with some kind of deal to supply local businesses: it remains the type of place where neighbours try to look after one another. It's not just the independents, of course - Thresher and Wine Rack have gone, and Woolworths has stood empty for two years.

But in the midst of all this, there are two striking success stories, two that I would have expected to be weighed down by the chains, but have thrown them off and soared to the stars. The first, Halsey's, is a quality delicatessen that just does what it does superbly, and has been further strengthened by the opening of a tea room (not for them the coffee shop vogue) that does brilliant, fresh food. Nothing particularly inventive or different - just a really high-quality offering and relentless quality. But the second is an altogether different kettle of fish - oddball, eccentric, left field, the kind of thing that just shouldn't work, but is one of the top tickets in town.

When one of our favourite restaurants closed its doors in 2008, The Wife and I were distraught. Not only had it been the very first place we went to when we visited the town to see how we liked it, but it also did the best roast dinner in town. And I'm a sucker for a Sunday lunch. It wasn't in a particularly good spot, being away from the main market square, but it was one of the first things drivers saw when they drove into the town, so could be guaranteed a decent awareness. One big problem was its layout - the main dining area was at the rear, which meant that, from the front, it always appeared empty. Just over the road, meanwhile, there was another local eaterie, bearing the name of the street and boasting a huge bay window through which the diners could be seen enjoying their repast. It was sad, therefore, but not wholly surprising when the axe fell.

When, a couple of months later, it reopened with the striking name, and proposition, Just Desserts, we were sceptical, if not downright hostile. What a half-baked concept, we thought (pardon the pun) - it will never work. The biggest difficulty facing independent shops, cafes or restaurants in our town is location - the prime real estate is concentrated around the main market square, and is accordingly bought up by the biggest chains with the deepest pockets. We have a Full House of Italian chains and a Royal Flush of coffee shops. So independents are often shunted out to the outskirts, those parts of town that don't see much passing trade. But they manage to survive for the simple reason that people in our town, and the area surrounding it, like to eat out. And therein lay the rub - how can you expect to attract diners if you don't give them a main course? And if they were going after the "elevensees" market - well, Starbucks had that all sewn up, didn't they?

Two years down the line and it appears to be thriving. The Wife goes sometimes for a night out with the other Mums, chowing down on handmade cakes while supping vintage wine. Yesterday we were there for a Sunday afternoon treat, and the place was packed - we couldn't even get a seat at the back, but had to perch by the front door. The thing is, it offers a totally different experience from the coffee chains, where you can get a rubbery muffin of a slice of cake, but it's really all about the drinks. At Just Desserts, you can get tea or coffee, but the cups are tiny - it's really an afterthought. The cakes, though - they're the real deal. And they do hot puds as well - I've not tried them, but there's a blackboard advertising waffles, sticky stuff with custard, the kind of thing that gives Delia hot flushes. And they've made a virtue out of the visibility problems too - gaze in at the window and you might not see any people, but you'll sure get an eyeful of cake.

It shouldn't work, it really shouldn't. But work it does, and well. It's one of those places that made the great leap from knowing a market to being brave enough to be different.

So what lesson can be drawn from this heart-warming tale? What of the failing chains, the Threshers of this world?

Let them eat cake.