As the company behind the Spur Steak and Grill outlets refreshes its UK store strategy with a smaller, counter-service, high street model, FEJ editor Andrew Seymour finds out why it is turning its back on flame-heavy, gas-guzzling chargrills and pioneering a fully ventless kitchen set-up built around the latest innovation in impinged air cooking.
The Spur Corporation certainly doesn’t lack pedigree. Founded in 1967 when executive chairman Allen Ambor opened the first Spur Steak Ranches outlet in Cape Town, South Africa, the business has mushroomed into a formidable player on the international foodservice circuit.
Consisting of half a dozen restaurant brands that between them account for more than 500 outlets globally, the group’s last available financial figures reveal a business with sales up 12% to R3.2 billion (£165m) for the six months ending December 2014. 19 new restaurants opened during that period while dozens more are planned both at home and abroad as the chain looks to enhance its position in markets where it spies room for further growth.
Spur restaurants are dotted all around Africa and have spread to Mauritius, Australia and, of course, the UK where it has existing outlets in Aberdeen, Grays, Leicester, Staines and The 02 Arena. Yet while the UK casual dining and eating-out market has skyrocketed in recent years, leading many of its rivals to embark on huge roll-out programmes, the group has been left frustrated by its own position.
With its sites typically spanning up to 4,000 square feet and attracting the sort of lofty occupancy, labour and service costs you might expect of a footprint that size, Spur has struggled to trade up against other high street brands that have crossed its path. Last year it conceded that the high set-up cost of opening a full Spur Steak Ranch in the UK was proving to be a “significant obstacle” to pursuing the franchise model it is ultimately gunning for.
But it might just have found a way out of that rut courtesy of a new high street model it has created called ‘Spur RBW’. It holds the key to turning around the company’s fortunes in the UK and elevating the status of the brand to a level that has previously proved out of reach.
Designed as a smaller, counter-service concept that essentially offers ribs, burgers and wings (hence the ‘RBW’ name), the model allows for lower set-up costs, more manageable occupancy costs and reduced labour provisions.
The man charged with executing this strategy and all that comes with it is David Maich. While he goes by the title of ‘director’, Maich effectively oversees every element of the business, from the flow of the kitchens and the purchasing of new catering equipment to the development of the menu and the interior design.
When FEJ catches up with him during lunch service at the company’s restaurant in Corby — the first new RBW site to open and very much a test bed for the model overall — he is understandably excited about its prospects and the ways in which it differs from the larger Spur sites that UK customers have only known up to now.
“Our existing brand coming from South Africa was more of a copy and paste, and to a certain extent that hasn’t translated as well as we would have expected. So rather than rebrand the existing base we are looking forward to rolling out RBW to a critical mass of 35 sites,” he explains, revealing that his targets moving forward include the launch of four sites a year until a core mass of eight sites is reached, at which point it will then explore the viability of franchising and run both revenue streams in tandem.
While the contemporary décor, carefully-constructed menu and rapid service policy are likely to strike a favourable chord with time-strapped, hungry punters, it is the work that has taken place back-of-house that best illustrates the brave new direction the chain is taking. At the heart of the set-up is a fully ventless kitchen operation that powers along without the noise, odour and extraction issues normally associated with the fast-casual market.
This has largely been achieved through the deployment of two precision impingement conveyor ovens from Ovention, the US-based company set up by Phil McKee, inventor of the TurboChef oven, and now owned by foodservice equipment manufacturer Hatco.
Our existing brand coming from South Africa was more of a copy and paste, and to a certain extent that hasn’t translated as well as we would have expected”
“The Ovention runs either on conveyor or shuttle mode and guarantees a consistent product,” explains Maich. “We have inputted all our recipes, belt speeds and temperatures so that our core product will be consistent throughout the estate, and we feel that is the way forward. Innovation in the kitchen assists with labour, it assists with consistency and it ensures us of delivering that experience every time.”
Maich came across Ovention by accident. He was at a trade show checking out combination ovens when a conversation led to him hearing about the appliance. When he got the chance to see it firsthand through the product’s UK distributor Gamble Foodservice Solutions he could immediately see how it would fit with RBW’s new vision.
“Obviously coming from a flame-grilled background, it is a difficult transition to move away from that approach where you are transferring that chargrilled flavour on the grill and getting the grid lines, but what we have found more often than not is that there is a fine line between taking your product to a ‘well done’ state as opposed to ‘well prepared’. That inconsistency is what we have tried to cut out.
He continues: “We have designed a new burger, we have a high spec rib that we pre-cook from scratch and marinade for 24 hours, and we have ring-fenced a specific prime wing, which is 45 grams per, and that is standard throughout our estate. All of these changes are guaranteeing us the delivery of a great product.”
Maich admits it was a “massive step” to put his faith in a product and method of cooking that the chain hadn’t previously encountered. “It is nerve-wracking because you can do as many trial product tests in a controlled environment as you like, but when you get a queue out the door and you have to produce the goods it puts a lot of pressure on the equipment that you have effectively endorsed. We have innovation as far as busy periods and quiet periods go to ensure that the product is maintained, and we feel that it has served us well so far.”
Getting to this point in the first place was the culmination of an eight-month test period that saw an Ovention Shuttle installed at Spur’s existing site at the 02 Arena. Maich scrutinised how the impingement process affected product pre-cooked in a combi and the way in which hot-hold equipment could be best utilised. The tests also included comprehensive product plate-up and speccing through to how the end-product would be served. The result is that virtually the entire menu is built around the Ovention.
“There is a lot that goes through it — caramelised onions, bacon, hot dogs, we even cook our cheesecake in it,” says Maich. “There is a lot you can do with it if you get the right programme, you just have to spend a bit of time with it.”
The Corby site has space for around 90 covers so the secret to the kitchen running smoothly during service is all in the prep work. “As long as your pre-cooking is done, you are limitless to what you can serve through the Ovention,” comments Maich. “Yes, we have paid a ball park of X amount per week for that Ovention to cover — that is why we have got a second one above it, because it offers a buffer just in case — but we will do most of our bespoke products on Shuttle mode upstairs and the chicken and the ribs downstairs.”
We have inputted all our recipes, belt speeds and temperatures so that our core product will be consistent throughout the estate, and we feel that is the way forward”
RBW’s next planned site is in Glasgow later this year and Ovention is on the kitchen agenda. However, Maich stresses that the technology in operation at the maiden Corby site is still very much under review. “I am not saying I will not go gas moving forward, it depends if I find a site that has an existing infrastructure, like a restaurant that is maybe distressed. If it has gas supply and I take over that infrastructure then we will adapt the model accordingly. But ideally this ventless model is cleaner and the catalytic converter above the Ovention is doing its job very well. It is still early days, we are going to take the first three months and see how it is and then make the call on what we are doing in Glasgow.”
The evidence certainly suggests the model is conducive to future expansion and without the need for extraction canopies and gas appliances the chain is theoretically better placed to navigate the sort of red tape associated with installing commercial kitchens in A1 premises. It also opens it up to airport sites, while the savings associated with running the kitchen at a lower temperature and reduced fire and safety requirements bring obvious cost benefits.
RBW’s kitchen in Corby is relatively small for the level of output it expects to do, but the selection and placement of equipment is designed to ensure the operation functions seamlessly at even the busiest of times. Other products that the company has deployed include a combi steamer from Falcon, a Lincat triple basket fryer with built-in Britannia ventilation, Hatco holding units, Alto-Shaam heated drawer warmers and Foster refrigeration cabinets. The company has also moved some items of equipment across from other sites.
The only thing that Maich wishes was better is the scullery section as its size has proved prohibitive in terms of managing the flow of dirties. However, that is being fixed and will be a factor that is taken into full consideration for future restaurant openings.
Most significantly, though, the bill for putting together the kitchen is dramatically less than what it would be for a traditionally-sized site, thereby complementing the lower-cost operating model that is so intrinsic to the new strategy. Past UK kitchen installations have been known to cost as much as £150,000. The kitchen in Corby was created for around £50,000.
If the company can achieve an ROI on its set-up costs within 18 months and create a practical template for future openings then it is adamant the model will become a viable franchise option. It is already in talks with one potential franchisee in Kent, but first it has to make Corby and the next few sites work. As well as Glasgow it is eyeing up locations in Edinburgh, Dundee and Manchester, while Maich is keen on the idea of opening in Northampton, Cambridge and Milton Keynes to create an ‘M1 corridor’ that would bring huge benefits from an operational and brand association point of view.
Spur has undergone some monumental changes in the four years that Maich has been with the UK business, but with Corby now up and trading the chain has got the bit firmly between its teeth.
“I have been driving this for a long time, since I have arrived really, and it is finally here, so I am really excited about it and we definitely think it has legs. We are certainly happy with the reception we have got from customers so far.”
The Spur Corporation might be an old hand at the restaurant game, but this latest venture represents the start of a thrilling new journey in the UK.
From the menu
A sample of what you can find on RBW’s menu:
RBW Classic burger
7oz prime beef, with baby gem lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles and RBW mayo (£5.95)
7oz prime beef with smoked Applewood cheddar, smoked bacon and chipotle mayo (£7.50)
With bourbon apple sour glaze (£4.95)
With St. Louis dry rub (£16.95)
8 chicken wings
With ‘suicide’ sauce (£6.95)
Slumdog gourmet hot dog
Smoked dog, curry sauce, coriander and coconut yoghurt (£7.95)
Cheescake in a jar
Digestive biscuit base topped with home-made smooth vanilla panna cotta cheesecake. Served
in a jar with strawberry compote (£4.95)