From the naked restaurant to a cat cafe, how do you give a fad future?

Dining starkers in a room full of nude guests sounds like that archetypal nightmare where you leave the house without your clothes on. But apparently not everyone finds the idea horrifying. More than 46,000 people put their names on the waiting list for tickets to London’s first naked restaurant, the Bunyadi.

Whether it’s the novelty of the experience or a genuine appetite for naturist noshing, it’s proved popular with punters.

It’s not the first time a business has launched with a gimmicky USP. Companies that have managed to ride the initial wave of launch excitement to become a long-term success include Icebar London, which serves drinks at sub-zero temperatures in London’s Mayfair, and a cat cafe in Shoreditch, east London, where customers enjoy a latte while cuddling a feline friend.

But other faddy businesses have vanished as fast as they appeared. Caffix cafe, for example, where everything on the menu cost £1 opened in central London last year, but shut down in April. Then there’s the controversially named Cocaine energy drink. It wasn’t long before the US makers of the beverage, Redux, were forced to pull it from shelves because the Food and Drug Administration ruled it was being illegally marketed as a street drug alternative.

So what’s the secret to turning a fad into a full-fledged business? How do you keep curious customers coming back for more?

Disrupting markets with a fresh idea is something Yo! Sushi is famous for. When entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe launched the first branch in Soho in 1997, the idea of being served Japanese food on a conveyor belt was new for most customers, despite the hi-tech kaiten restaurant being ubiquitous in the far east. Fast forward almost 20 years and the brand has 75 restaurants in the UK and five in the US, which are all company owned. It also has 13 franchise branches in other countries. 

Chief Executive Robin Rowland joined Yo! Sushi in 1999, when the company had three restaurants in the capital. He explains that the cuisine had previously been prohibitively expensive, but Woodroffe turned Japanese dining into a rock ‘n’ roll experience.

“The space we used was flexible and we were more of a fashion brand,” says Rowland. “Since then a lot of people [have brought in kaiten dining] too but we were definitely the forerunner.”

He adds that their hunch that the cuisine had potential to take off in the UK wasn’t just a shot in the dark. Woodroffe had spent time in the US, where sushi was already popular, and believed this was proof that the western palette would eventually start embracing the food more widely.

Rowland says great businesses are based on some sort of vision underpinned by empirical evidence. A startup – no matter how gimmicky – needs to have a clear three- to five-year plan covering physical expansion (opening new stores, for example), awareness building, staff investment and brand development.

Most importantly, your business needs to be flexible enough to cope with changing markets and customer demands. Rowland says Yo! Sushi has done that by widening the menu choice (in 2013 it launched its first sushi burger) and tailoring the design of new restaurants to appeal to local markets.

Richard Silberman, creative director at Brand Remedy, says the growth of social media and advances in technology, which offer customers instant gratification from services, means it is essential for businesses to be agile and responsive to change.

He suggests an insect restaurant as an example of a fad that may have wings in the future: “You might say you will never eat bugs. Yet it is founded on a cuisine that is popular in another part of the world. It is about marketing that story to western society, where it is totally off-piste, creating an interest and eventually turning the practice into something desirable.” 

Throughout any evolution of your business, however, the brand needs to retain a powerful narrative at its core, says Silberman. He adds that the reason a business such as Caffix failed was because the brand proposition, while initially attractive, missed the point. The price of coffee (and food) is not the number one driver for consumers. More important is quality, speed, efficiency of service and ambience. The local clientele were more interested in convenience than price.

Knowing whether your wacky idea has the potential to be the next big thing requires research. Launching a popup is a cost-effective way to test the market without the overheads of renting long-term space.

Shamil Sharshek founded La La Piano Bar as a pop-up in 2013 with his life partner, David Roper, a former member of cabaret quartet Four Poofs and a Piano. He believes being a popup has helped them stay lean and flexible, and identify their business’s place in the market despite limited resources. 

The concept was born after the pair observed that there were few piano bars that catered for a younger audience or played commercial music. After receiving a great response from the crowd at an event in Covent Garden, Sharshek and Roper began rolling out their brand of live music – where the audience is given lyric sheets and encouraged to join in – across different venues in the West End. But although the demand was there, it was initially a struggle to make a profit.

“Our initial challenge was attracting more people,” says Sharshek. “We were also selling the tickets cheap so we couldn’t make a lot of money. In the long term, that wasn’t really sustainable. So we began developing different product offerings such as branching out to do private parties and corporate events.”

The business is now performing at events across the country. But does Sharshek worry that the concept might eventually become out of tune with the public mood?

“Singing is never going to go out of fashion, it is always going to be fun,” he says. “We are not restricted to a venue, we aren’t focused on food and drink – we are focused on delivering great entertainment.”

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