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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 17:08 GMT
Whitbread's Rouge awakening
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Bridget Jones: Cafe Rouge's best customer
by BBC News Online's Brian Wheeler

Cafe Rouge may have been immortalised in print as Chardonnay-swilling singleton Bridget Jones' favourite watering hole, but it seems not enough people share her enthusiasm.

Owners Whitbread have put Cafe Rouge up for sale, along with the Bella Pasta, Abbaye and Mama Amalfi chains.

The leisure giant insists the Bridget-endorsed eateries are a good business - just not growing fast enough to meet its stringent profit targets.

But although a queue of potential buyers is already forming, we are told, most analysts believe Whitbread will be lucky to recoup the 131m it paid for the Pelican group, including Cafe Rouge, in 1996.

So what went wrong?

Dining fashions

Created by entrepreneurs Roger Myers and Karen Jones, the Pelican group carved out a niche for itself as a provider of relaxed, competitively priced alternatives to pubs.

Whitbread saw no reason why the formula, which had largely been confined to London and south-east England, should not work on many more High Streets, and rapidly expanded the group to 200-plus outlets.

The decision to sell is, to an extent, a reflection of the vagaries of fashions in eating, as increasingly adventurous diners seek out alternatives to the French-themed fare on offer at Cafe Rouge.

But it is also part of a wider trend away from heavily-branded, homogenised bars and restaurants in the UK.

The Pitcher & Piano and Dome chains are also up for sale, while the Firkin name, which has become something of a by-word for brand over-extension in the pub trade, is fast disappearing from Britain's High Street.

Individuality

Started in 1979 by entrepreneur David Bruce as a quirky alternative to the traditional local and often featuring its own on-site brewery, Firkins quickly became favourites in the London area.

Traditional local
The traditional local could be making a comeback
The Firkin name was seized on by the marketers at Allied Domecq as a cheeky, irreverent way of targeting the fickle under-30s market.

Under Allied's stewardship, there were soon more than 150 Firkins, each with its own increasingly contrived "... and Firkin" name.

Now under new ownership following the sale of Allied's pubs to Bass and Hugh Osmond's Punch group, the Firkin brand is to be largely phased out, its individuality stripped bare by over-expansion.

Similarly, the Laurel pub group, which has bought 3,000 pubs and bars from Whitbread, is busy turning its 123 Hogshead outlets into "authentic traditional pubs" with authentic names such as The White Horse and The Red Lion.

Saturation point

Branded bars are unlikely to disappear altogether from Britain's High Streets, but many industry observers believe they have reached saturation point.

Retailing logic dictates that pubs should occupy large town centre sites and appeal to the widest possible clientele.

Recent years have seen the growth of the "chameleon" bar. This changes its use and atmosphere throughout the day - from a lunch venue, for example, to an after-work watering hole to a music venue with DJ, maximising the operators' revenues.

Subtle branding

But there is still room for individuality.

Cafe Rouge-founder Karen Jones, who now runs Punch Taverns 1,050 managed pubs, has pioneered the shift to more subtle branding with the Bar Room Bar concept.

Although different in appearance and design, every BRB offers wood fired pizzas, monthly art exhibitions, guest DJs and themed areas for different customer needs.

More recently, the trade has seen the growth of the "internal brand", a blueprinted formula with its own food menus and staff training systems but without an overt brand name.

Regional brewer Wolverhampton & Dudley, which recently fought off a hostile takeover attempt, is pinning its hopes on its "Bostin Local" concept.

The concept, which takes its name from a Black Country slang word for "great", is meant to capture the traditional virtues of a local pub.

But - in a reverse of traditional branding theory - customers ought to be blissfully unaware that they are in a "Bostin Local" as the name is only used within the company itself.

Subtle indeed.

See also:

30 Oct 01 | Business
Whitbread lines up Cafe Rouge sale
18 Sep 01 | Business
Interbrew ordered to sell Carling
20 Mar 01 | Business
Whitbread to sell pubs for 1.6bn
11 Mar 01 | Business
1.4bn battle for Whitbread pubs
31 Oct 00 | Business
Cafe Rouge faces cull
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