The difference today is that the market is much more saturated compared to some years back. Apart from having more restaurants per square kilometer, people are now more travelled, have access to more cooking shows and online videos about food, and now also better understand the differences in cuisines by the region or specialty, rather than just a country to country knowledge.

Sushi was once exotic to the London market, today you can find a Japanese restaurant or some version of Japanese cuisine in every street corner. Within Soho, London, I have counted more than 30 Japanese outlets in such a small area. In this same precinct there are a number of Korean, Chinese and Pan Asian restaurants that also serve Japanese food. While most of these restaurants have found a way to survive, it is evident others are treading on thin ice.

So the question is how does one compete?

Currently my business partner and I are in the process of opening a Japanese restaurant in Beak Street, London. That’s right, Soho, London, despite knowing that there are so many Japanese restaurants in the area.

With the knowledge that the competition is fierce in the area, the question posed is how to turn this concept into a profitable business venture. Before commencing, we first studied the market in detail. Not just the offerings in Soho or in London, but the offerings in New York, Tokyo and other global markets. I can’t stress how important market analysis and the understanding of trends and customer needs are.

We understood the market was saturated with Japanese restaurants, therefore we created a plan to differentiate us from the competition. Our vision was to offer the best quality of food and product and ensure that we have the best Japanese chef in town. I have always stressed in my blogs, the importance of food and how the menu should define the concept. Without revealing who our chef is at this stage; but all will be revealed by September 2016, we appointed one of the best Sushi chefs in London, if not the world. It didn’t stop there, we also appointed Avroko (www.avroko.com) as our designers who are a New York based design company that have created some very sexy, cool and successful concepts around the world. In addition, we are in the process of appointing a London based PR company that will promote our Chef to the crowd that we are targeting.

So the plan to build and develop a 60 seat restaurant with a 20 seat bar and a private dining room for 16 is underway. The uniqueness exists within our concept; and therefore we will differentiate ourselves from the local competitors. With a unique style, design, food offering, quality and overall concept, our competition now spreads the from being just Soho local, to being compared to Japanese concepts in the whole of London and even on an international platform. Well, that is the aim!

So the question you ask is: Without the big budgets, how does one differentiate from the competition?

In order to compete in a saturated market, you need to stand out from the rest. The most common method is offering better service and better food.  Sometimes, service and food is not enough and you need to do more.  Here are seven ways of setting yourself apart.

1. Improved Service – focus on providing the most consistent and highest standard of service.  Visit the competition and take note of common service problems.  Avoid repeating these same mistakes by training your staff.  Do you have enough staff? What are your time standards for greeting a guest at the door, seating a guest or performing quality checks? Do you do something different that stands out from the competition?

Something different in service is to look at training your staff on expressions and not just the sequence of service. Conduct an experiment with your team by testing their reaction when eating good food, bad food, cold food (when its supposed to be hot) etc etc. By doing this, you can train your team to read customers before the comment. Be it it good or bad. It’s almost like being able to read minds. From the facial reaction, the staff will begin to make more eye contact with your guests and be pro-active to problems that could arise

2. Higher Quality Food – if the food is good, people will come and continue to return. Focus on using fresh ingredients and keep frozen foods to a minimal. Does your menu call for premium ingredients? Will products be sourced from local farms? Do you have organic produce?

Why not create a differentiating product? Spend time on your menu development and monitor global trends. Look for more than one signature item and ensure that every product you sell could be a signature.

When it comes to testing your new menu before launch; create a tasting panel of people you know who can give constructive criticism on flavor, portion size, value for money and uniqueness. Similar people will eventually be your customers and will have the same type of comments and criticism.

3. Menu Variety – if your competition offers similar menu items, then adjust your menu accordingly. Offer a variety, but keep it simple and do what you do best.  Avoid complex menus and specialize. Starbucks specializes in coffee, KFC in chicken and Five Guys in burgers. Even though the examples may not be directly related to your product, we can see that a single item focus breeds success and that success comes from doing something consistently and doing it right. An extensive menu will also keep food costs high.

How would you describe your menu? Is there a selection of meat, seafood and vegetables? Do you offer vegetarian options? Use your tasting panel to define the customers needs.

4. Atmosphere – if you have the budget, hire a professional interior designer who has a reputation and expertise in restaurant design.  An appealing restaurant can instantly draw customers. How can your space be different among the rest? Will it be upscale casual? Sleek and modern?

The restaurant atmosphere comes from music, lighting, seating arrangements, noise levels and type of service. All of these elements must be balanced to suit your concept vision. A designer will be able to direct you to find that right balance.

5. Star Quality Chef – a renowned chef has the ability to attract customers. Landing an award winning chef may be the key to surviving in a highly competitive area.  A star quality chef will understand menu development, menu costing and food quality.  How many years of experience does your chef bring? What are his/her credentials? Is your chef’s name marketable.

Budget always plays a part when it comes to employing the right chef, and if budgets do not permit, consider contacting a consultant who could offer a star chef for seasonal menu changes and PR activities. Savvy IQ (www.savvyiq.com) is a consulting company that offers these types of services. There are many companies out there that could offer something similar.

6. Focused Offering – specializing in a particular item can build loyal customers and attract new ones.  Do you offer something special that no one else has? The largest wine cellar? Premium Japanese sake? Best lobster Brioche?

The likes of Burger & lobster (www.burgerandlobster.com) have hit the nail on the head. A unique concept that specializes in 2 items. Flat Iron (www.flatironsteak.co.uk)is another good example with only one product; a steak. Do it well and be creative and you do not need an extensive menu, just a good one.

7. Marketing Gimmicks – sometimes a restaurant will implement a marketing strategy to create hype or exclusivity among guests who dine at their restaurant.  The goal is to create a buzz and to be the talk of the town. For example, as a Japanese restaurant, you could offer homemade soba noodles which is developed by the only master soba maker in the city. The restaurant could offer these creations between certain hours, which will drive a demand and create a buzz.

One other example of someone doing a product amaingly is a concept in Tokyo offering the kakigori (shaved ice). Taiwan’s much-hyped Ice Monster shop in Omotesando, Tokyo is such a success and buzz that you may have to wait up to five-hours in a queue just to get a crushed ice dessert. It offers Taipei-born flavours like coffee ice and milk tea with tapioca pearls, complete with a texture resembling powder snow, which now has a global following.

Doing business in a saturated market is risky, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.  Before you decide to jump into a location, ensure you understand the market surroundings.  Restaurants are among the toughest businesses to operate. Draw up a plan and review the steps you can do to set yourself apart.

Paul was born in Sydney, Australia and was exposed to the hospitality industry from a young age. He began his career in the family business, working in all aspects of the restaurant industry. He later took a post in a boutique hotel in Sydney to continue his studies in management.

Paul’s passion in F&B moved him from hotels to free-standing restaurants as he worked his way up to management positions at a very young age. With an eagerness to succeed, he opened his first café in the Sydney Suburb of Brookvale. He soon expanded into the second café in North Sydney.

Paul sold his cafes later in order to focus in the restaurant industry. Purchasing Milsons restaurant in Kirribilli, Sydney, at the young age of 27, Paul became one of the young restaurateurs of Sydney. This ‘One Hat’ fine dining restaurant continued its success with Paul at the helm. Later purchasing the sister restaurant, Jaspers of Hunters Hill, another ‘One Hat’ restaurant, Paul began to grow his company to create a mini restaurant empire. Successfully opening Essence restaurant in King Street Wharf Sydney, Paul continued to grow his restaurant company to 12 restaurants throughout Sydney.

Creating a strong following and a recipe for success, Paul founded Savvy IQ, advising fellow restaurateurs and hoteliers on his expertise and formula to success. His work expanded internationally, and later became Director Asia Pacific for Hilton Worldwide managing almost 300 F&B outlets in 17 countries. He then moved to Moscow as Director for Stepan Mikhalkov as Director for Verchisky, Vanil and a number of other restaurants and cafes within the group.

With an international focus, Paul has been appointed as CEO with restaurant groups in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and London. Now Paul continues his consulting company, Savvy IQ and developments concepts in London and internationally, with 4 restaurants concepts opening in 2017/18.