I've just finished successfully helping revive the iconic Cafe Rouge brand, the UK's largest French bistro restaurant group, set up by a couple of fabulous foodies called Roger Myers and Karen Jones way back in 1989 when a croque was truly tres exotique.
I've directed many major global brands in last twenty years - from Chelsea Football Club to Microsoft to YO! Sushi - but this was truly the hardest one to turn around. I discovered in the brand audit phase that most of the UK casual dining population had moved on and away from Café Rouge, preferring new exciting challenger bistro experiences.
All brands can grow old and tired, just like people, unless they constantly strive to reinvent themselves, keeping a constant mindful eye on the competition, retaining consistent core brand values (probably the most important mantra) whilst promoting aspirational concepts to turn on a new audience on whilst retaining the loyal.
I was commissioned by a new set of investors and board to revive Cafe Rouge which had
changed ownership hands many times in the last 26 years. As the UK has recently lost quite a few major heritage brands (Woolworths, Little Chef, Coffee Republic, Chez Gerard, BHS) I relished the role as a fantastic challenge.
I discovered Cafe Rouge had once been the best and only UK bistro serving French style
dishes, all day, every day, with a once loyal customer base of 2m people per year. I also found out that good French food is expensive and complex to cook, requiring trained
chefs, procurement teams and extensive back of house kitchens. French food is not the most popular taste in the UK, Italian is by far the most popular followed by Asian and English.
Research proved that the core customer was aged 45 and over, and we nicknamed them "Bill and Lorna", they desperately wanted Cafe Rouge to go back to it's ‘good old days’.
My first mission was to ensure the core nostalgic brand emotive elements were in place. Food was the first primary function. I had the pleasure of working with a great team directed by MD James Spragg, the former managing director of Pizza Express, alongside the brilliant executive chef Duncan McEwan, who explored 26 years of Café Rouge menus to come up with the ‘best of the best’ dishes and his development chef James Murphy who ensured the boeuf bourgignon, confit de canard, bouillabaisse and Poulet Breton were premium quality, sourced from French farmers, using the best ingredients and cooked to perfection by trained chefs in each bistro. We met weekly in menu steering meetings to talk through all the dishes, ingredients, classic ways of cooking and tasted all the dishes again and again to ensure excellence.
Then the brand guidelines, brand standards, bistro design guides and technical manuals were promptly produced with Keane agency and I employed a brilliant head of design, Jia Jia Wu, who could make the brand more feminine, retrospective ‘Parisienne’.
Together we reinstated all core USP brand elements from the ‘dirty’ Rouge red colour palette; the old gold vintage window French lettering romantically shouting croques, patisserie, steak frites et salads; beautiful A-boards advertising authentic dishes to attract sleepy street walkers; and most importantly advertise one menu.
When I first arrived at Cafe Rouge, it had 9 menus and the major promotion was "le hot dog" which looked a bit like a French style kebab. Customers were very confused. Their top sellers were the very uninspiring burger and fish and chips which were not great brand promoters.
We went to Paris for inspiration and sat in popular bistros and bars which felt timeless, served croissants and steak frites perfectly, with great coffee and wines. I was comforted that Café Rouge food was on a par. But also realised French/Paris dining culture in comparison to UK/London has little room or appetite for fads and trends. UK food tastes in contrast are changing fast, with an appetite for aspirational ingredients, new cultural cuisine concepts and different ways of dining.
Back in the UK I talked to as many people as possible – chef, the press, business opinion
formers, friends and family. They all spoke of once having loved Cafe Rouge, everyone even had their own favourite love story, many people had had their first date there, but spoke of how they would not return as the love had gone. And if I had a pound for every time someone said ‘I used to love Cafe Rouge’ recently, I would be a millionaire.
The portfolio of Cafe Rouge restaurants throughout the UK had been reduced to 90 sites after the purchase by new investors. Serious cash was then invested in redesigning many of the Cafe Rouge restaurants with money being spent back of house on kitchens and ovens while front of house design spend ensured new dark wood floors, grey marble tables, leather banquettes, beautiful bars, freshly painted walks, black and white framed photographs, entrance curtains and great amber lighting all evoking a stylish Parisian bistro to set the scene.
We then got to work on the making of one sensational menu. Menu design is a complete psychological minefield and one of the most important tools any dining and drinking place has. It has to work for the brand as well as the restaurant business commercially, for procurement, for printers, for waiters and most importantly the customer.
Customers currently do not like the word "chain", it is fine for burger and pizza fast food brands but dangerous as a positioning for a higher spend dining experience, or "casual dining" as its called in the trade. I actually tried to ban the word "chain" from all Café Rouge communications internally and externally, as new thinking needed to be instilled as much as possible.
The sign of a "chain" is also a semi gloss large cardboard menu which looks slightly similar to all other high street brands menus. We took menu design inspiration from cult New York/London brasserie brand "Balthazar" and persuaded the FD to invest in thousands of similar plastic leather bound menu covers with antique gold corner tips to ensure long lasting clean menus with a nod towards style and authenticity. Jia Jia Wu worked closely with me and made the menu design look as bespoke and beautiful as
possible, with hand drawn illustrations and filigree framing. She also redesigned all brand touch-points, from the website and nostalgic Parisian people films through to the stylish point of sale materials.
We set up relevant promotions with major retailers like Selfridges who had new customer databases to promote to; for example, a competition to win a pair of Lou Boutin shoes amassed 50,000 registrants who could all find out about the new Rouge.
The press/opinion leaders started to print positive priceless statements like "best steak frites” – from style leaders at the Guardian.
The Cafe Rouge brand is now successfully restored and back in growth, with positive sales. Customers are back in love with Café Rouge and families, daters and ‘girls’ are all dining in Rouge once again.
Now that the brand is stronger and profitable, the next challenge for Cafe Rouge is retaining brand consistency across all channels, ensuring service and operations are running perfectly to maintain positive momentum and letting new customers know the new story through advertising, social media and experiential PR.
Finally, I would also like to thank the Café Rouge marketing team, the procurement team who bought in the beautiful Charolais beef, the commercial heads who ensure value and quality, the passionate operational directors who make sure customers are all served the warm and friendly ‘Café Rouge Way’.
I truly wish it luck on its voyage and hope that it succeeds in its mission.