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Operators' creativity flourishes with theme restaurants

David Coffer is an NRN contributor and chairman of London-based The Coffer Group, a 40-year-old consulting firm specializing in the leisure sector and comprising Davis Coffer Lyons, Coffer Corporate Leisure, Coffer Hotels and Coffer Leisure Investment Advisory.

David Coffer, chairman, The Coffer Group

I recently heard about the opening of a new restaurant called Betty Danger’s Country Club in Minneapolis, which has installed a 60-foot high Ferris wheel to allow diners to enjoy a meal while taking in panoramic views of the city.  

You need not think back too far to a time when this sort of concept would have been considered unusual. However, in today’s restaurant marketplace, it does little more than raise a few eyebrows.

Having a restaurant theme is obviously nothing new: Hard Rock Cafe, Rainforest Cafe and Planet Hollywood have been around for years, predominantly targeting the tourist market rather than a local following, and have enjoyed varying degrees of success.

But today there is almost every concept you can imagine to appeal to a wide array of diners. Dans Le Noir feeds diners in London, New York, Barcelona, Paris and St. Petersburg in total darkness served by blind waiters. Robot Restaurant in China has a team of — you guessed it — robot waiters. A pop-up restaurant called London in the Sky raised the bar (literally) on aerial dining with customers enjoying their meal while strapped into a table suspended from a crane 100 feet in the air. At the other end of the vertical spectrum, Al Mahara in the Burj Al Arab in Dubai has a floor-to-ceiling aquarium, allowing diners to enjoy their meal “under water” surrounded by a host of marine life.  

One restaurant, which opened recently in Liverpool, took the idea of theming its restaurant to the extreme. Death Row Diner is, as its name suggests, based around the idea of Death Row and that the state grants someone the basic mercy of a last meal before execution. The name and concept have received some criticism. However, the fact that it became a theme illustrates the extent to which operators are willing to go in order to stand out from the crowd.

The question is, what caused this shift in the market?

There are two main catalysts that are bringing about this change. First is the increased competition, which is rife in the restaurant market. That competitiveness seems to be growing faster and is more spirited than I have ever experienced in my almost half a century in the industry.

Second is the increased informality in large parts of the restaurant market, which gives operators more freedom and enables them to adopt a more inventive approach when creating new concepts.

Restaurants have never been more exciting. With so much growth and potential revenue to tap into, it is little wonder that operators are looking at creative ways to generate interest and attract customers. While white tablecloths, silver cutlery and crystal glasses will still have a place in certain establishments, it is clear that with so many zany ideas emerging, there is no saying what could be the next concept to emerge.  

The challenge for these gimmick-led concepts is whether they have enough staying power to survive or whether they will have, as Andy Warhol famously put it, their “15 minutes of fame” and then shutter.

Now all I need is the right location and I can get my catch-your-own fish restaurant concept off the ground.

Would you try a theme restaurant concept? Why or why not? Join the conversation in the comments below.


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