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inploi meets Mark Linehan, CEO of AIR Hospitality

inploi meets Mark Linehan, CEO of AIR Hospitality inploi Team | 29.03.2017

This week, inploi met with Mark Linehan, the newly appointed CEO of AIR Hospitality. We spoke to him about the future of the Alliance of Independent Restaurants as it enters its second year.

Sometimes the question to ask is not what, but who? The Alliance of Independent Restaurants (AIR Hospitality) was founded last year, by a group of restaurateurs and hospitality industry leaders looking to create something that the independent restaurant industry was lacking: an organisation for like-minded people - a place for people to come together, network and mutually benefit from the sharing of knowledge. inploi met with recently appointed CEO, Mark Linehan to discuss the future of AIR and the UK independent restaurant sector.

“I think what AIR does will define who joins”, Mark commented. At their most recent event hosted at Joe Allen in Covent Garden, members discussed what it means to be independent. “We’re speaking up for the independent but we’re not talking down the chains. And that’s really important”. From AIR’s remit, its purpose and design is for the benefit of its members - comprised of independents and small-scale suppliers. Defining an independent is challenging, but Mark and the team at AIR have taken an open approach to the concept, not wanting fixed definitions to prohibit people from joining the community: “You know when you see it, but it’s not easy to describe or define. But if we can accept that an independent is a business with a particular character/personality, that the owner is involved day-to-day in the running and managing of that business, it’s unlikely to be a huge national chain, it’s not going to be a brand in the sense that people recognise that brand from Plymouth to Edinburgh, it’s likely to reflect the area that it comes from, and among a host of other things it’ll be a small business.”

AIR is free to independents to join. With tight margins being an omnipresent concern, Mark and the founders were keen to ensure that AIR would not be another additional cost to restaurateurs/hoteliers. The idea is for AIR to be run on a part-time basis, fulfilling the needs of its members and covering costs with an entrepreneurial spirit and “flight of foot” without expanding into a large institutionalised, top-heavy organisation.

Mark’s previous experience, including running a hospitality-focused social enterprise in south west London, and his previous role as Managing Director for the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) made him a good match for AIR. “It was a very natural transition”, Mark said, relishing the opportunity to get involved with AIR from its near-beginning - figuring out how best to deliver the mission, vision and ambitions of its founders.

“There’s nothing out there that provides an opportunity for owners and managers in [the independent] sector to come together to get benefits - either from suppliers with discounts, or access to information and case studies. But also to come together to network and find solutions to challenges that are very particular to the independent sector.”

The most prominent challenges faced by the independent sector are based on size and scale. Where big companies have the luxury of hiring consultants for various business areas from recruitment through to procurement, the independent restaurateur has to wear many hats at once - balancing their time, and balance sheet. The aim of AIR is therefore to collectively overcome these issues that are lessons most commonly learnt the hard way by both experienced independents and those new to the field.

“If you’re young and starting up a business in this sector, there’s a lot of rewards, but there’s also a lot to learn in a short space of time. If you meet someone who’s been on that journey, they’ll tell you all the lessons they’ve learnt. And we want to get some of those lessons and pass them on to help others on that journey.”

AIR plans to grow and support its members by being the central supportive network for offering fun, useful, interesting and practical knowledge-sharing. Over the course of this year, they’re hoping to host 18 member events, broken into three categories:

  1. Free networking events hosted over breakfast (or in the evening) - where members can come together, meet new people and discuss a particular topic openly with the guidance of a panel of industry experts.
  2. Industry workshops, where members will be charged a small fee to attend/participate: “I hesitate to use the word training, but getting an expert in the field to share their knowledge, and giving people something to take away”.
  3. Supper clubs, hosted at member’s restaurants and pitched at a more senior level (such as owners and general managers), where peer-to-peer discussions can occur in an enjoyable evening environment. 

In addition, AIR will be launching a Supplier Directory this month, offering exclusive benefits to AIR members - from procurement deals, through to HR assistance - creating mutual benefit for smaller suppliers struggling to connect with independents, and independents seeking the best value produce/products. 

At AIR’s recent breakfast event, the topics of lobbying and campaigning were widely discussed, giving way to two fairly polarised perspectives. Where campaigning requires particular skills and experience, (as well as clout from the body of people behind a particular movement), campaigning offers a softer approach to voicing industry concerns - most simply through signature-based/media campaigns.

“We could march on Downing Street tomorrow, but if we have no one behind us, it’s utterly meaningless. Campaigning is different. It can be something you do - with passion, creating a voice - we’ll certainly create a voice for the sector.”

Building a network of the UK’s independent restaurants will certainly give voice to the challenges facing this portion of the hospitality industry. The 2017 spring Budget cushioned the blow for a few of these with three new measures being implemented, including the recognition of pubs as a struggling sector - with 90% receiving a £1,000 on business rates, allowing a transition period to those businesses moving out of small business rate relief, and creating a £300 million budget for local authorities to support small, hard-hit SMEs. However, Mark reiterated that business rates will remain a concern for the future, consistently squeezing independents already run on incredibly tight margins.

So what more could we the public and the hospitality industry be doing to support independents? As discussed at the AIR breakfast, given the chance, a lot of independents would take the opportunity to scale and become a chain. “Sometimes it’s a false distinction - chains: bad, independents: good. It’s not that at all. But the two parts of the sector do have very different approaches as to how they do business. And I think there’s a place for both.” That said, with the launch of ‘Save The Highstreet’ in 2016, perhaps independent restaurants need similar consumer support, and “the population needs a gentle reminder of what a British town would look like without independents”.

With the rise of e-commerce, and convenience shopping/dining, it can be easy to forget the locally-run businesses that are unique, and independent. The rise of food markets, popups and crowdfunded indie brands are evidence of the ongoing, exciting innovations occurring within the UK hospitality industry. But at what point does a rapidly-expanding indie group become a chain, rather than an independent? Are we at risk of seeing homogenised, cookie-cutter high streets? Hopefully, with the continued work of AIR, new innovation and bravery within the hospitality industry and increased consumer-support, that won’t be the case.

Photo credit: AIR Hospitality

Enjoyed this article? Take a look at our interview with Emma Underwood from The TMRW Project here.

About the author: Victoria Bushnell is Head of Marketing/PR at inploi.

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