Almost exactly three years ago, I left Deliveroo to launch Sessions. The challenge I set myself was finding a way to support the best early-stage restaurant founders start and scale their businesses. Here’s what I believed the modern consumer wanted:
- An easy way to discover quality brands before they became mainstream
- Significant food choice
- Dynamism and fluidity in the offering
The on-demand generation were impatient and their appetite insatiable, and Sessions needed to match that. The central question became: how to meet those needs in an easily accessible way?
I looked at the market for models that did a decent job of helping brands start out: food markets, halls and pop-ups all existed, though the quality was very mixed and customer experience often clunky.
I figured there was enough there that I could improve upon, while not totally reinventing the wheel. I was fortunate to win a phenomenal site on the Brighton seafront, Shelter Hall, which allowed us to explore solutions to the problem I'd identified.
Shelter Hall had lots of kitchens for great brands, plenty of room for customers to discover them and a cathedral-like space to draw a wide crowd. Thanks to an amazing team in Brighton, we've done a nice job, ensuring a vibrant and ever-changing food and drink offering, a great digital user experience, blended with an appropriate human touch, and a sustainable design and ethos. This felt like a win for all stakeholders:
- The brand founders got a great vehicle to start their concepts and generate substantial profit
- We made some reasonable money to make the model viable
- The consumer got access to high-quality concepts in a great environment
But this was a solution to only part of the problem. This helped food brands to start their businesses but it didn't really help them to scale them.
And most critically, while this was great for the fair people of Brighton, if we wanted to solve for ubiquity, a regional food hall was not the answer.
We turned our attention to the second half of the problem: how do we make these brands more accessible in neighbourhoods up and down the country?
The answer was unlikely to be more large food halls; they're expensive to run and venues hard to find. Enter, the high street restaurant and a new challenge.
If you were to design a high street restaurant for the future, what would it look like?
We’re rising to that challenge with a new venue that embodies our mission and as a result takes our name: Sessions. Opening in Islington in August, we’ve designed the high street venue with five future-proofing ideas in mind:
Consumers want early-stage brands where the founder story is an integral part of the food experience.
The high street needs to be about discovery and experience, which the commoditised chains do not represent. We started with finding some great chefs, where the quality of their offering was clearly evidenced through online engagement but access to their food was severely limited. First up on our starting line-up: Hasan Semay (aka Big Has), Zoe Adjonyoh, Jay Morjaria, Richie Hayes and Elliott Kaye (of Norman’s fame).
An amazing roster of talent, but no way to get their food to more people - we set about fixing that.
Not only is the digital marketing for Sessions putting the founders front and centre, but the venue itself does as well. Using fly posters as a central design element, we’ve created unique physical assets for each of the founders, which tell both their stories as chefs and the inspiration for their menus.
Consumers want a lot of choice and fluidity in the offering. They don't want to have to commit in advance to a specific cuisine type. They want freedom of choice - and they don't expect the offering to look the same every time they visit.
In the future, restaurants might look more like a cinema or a theatre, screening different shows at different times for different audiences and changing up the shows periodically.
This is what we'll do in Islington: four different concepts at different times of day and featured for set residencies. This allows us to move with consumer appetite, never getting stale. This approach also solves the problem of long lease contracts, which far outlast the consumer interest in the traditional single restaurant offering.
Delivery is an enormous segment and it's not going away. Rather than an afterthought, we’ve designed the venue so that it’s optimised for both eat-in and delivery orders. Everything from heat retention packaging to the experience for riders had to be meticulously considered.
The restaurant of the future is for the consumer at home as much as the consumer onsite.
It's no good to either ignore delivery or build a separate ecosystem for delivery through cloud kitchens; we believe we must build it into the very fabric of the high street. At Sessions, delivery drivers will access the venue through their own entrance and wait in an area equipped with seating, water, and digital screens with order updates.
Everything in our build is done as sustainably as was viable. Taking an old restaurant site from a Brazilian steakhouse has allowed us to inherit a robust kitchen, while our design partner Your Studio has very deliberately incorporated many of the existing features and used reclaimed or recyclable materials in anything new. Not only is sustainability important for the environment but this aligns closely with the values of our target customer, who are increasingly only spending their money with businesses who share their values.
The above sounds reasonably simple. The only real difference between what we’re doing at Sessions and what we did at Shelter Hall is the size of the site.
But it's there that the real challenge is acute: How do you offer that same dynamism and choice as a food hall in a space a quarter of the size?
The magic formula comes down to the kitchen – and how we use technology to optimise it.
We had to design a kitchen that would allow for multiple brands to coexist simultaneously in the same space, delivering food of consistent quality in a high-volume environment. This came down to clever design and process flows in the kitchen but underpinning everything is the technology that drives it.
By partnering with Satis.AI, we have been able to leverage their platform and kitchen display system (KDS) to give us a hyper optimised kitchen operating system that can easily handle this complex challenge. The power of the Satis system sits within its cutting edge camera vision and artificial intelligence technology that empowers Chefs to better manage order peaks with less stress, and always ensures consistency in the end-product.
We believe human artistry in the kitchen is where the magic of food is created and can never be replaced. However, we also firmly believe this can be enhanced, assisted and optimised using technology - this is the driving force of our proposition.
For the consumer, technology also improves the experience.
Despite initial resistance, people have adapted to ordering with their phones – the important point being that the technology works and it doesn’t completely replace the human touch. In Brighton, we started with digital ordering as a prerequisite and over a year of testing, have developed the optimal blend of traditional table service and online ordering which we’re bringing to Islington.
Our proprietary app allows guests to order from multiple menus in a single order – something surprisingly complex and therefore not widely available in most multi-brand environments – and delivered to their table by a smiling member of the team. Guests get the convenience of ordering without having to leave their table and the opportunity to connect with staff. We get to provide excellent service without needing a bloated rota to provide end-to-end table service. So long to the dreaded buzzer system, too.
Is Sessions the Future of High Street Restaurants?
We think so. The high street offers a unique opportunity for scale. Sessions will be the launchpad for the founders new to our platform, acting as both a proving ground for their food and our central mission. We believe that consumers want easy access to dynamic food from independent founders and neighbourhood Sessions venues up and down the country will deliver it to them. For now, discover us first in Islington.
Discover Sessions in Islington
Sessions features four menus from independent chefs, served from one venue for limited dates. The venue opens on August 11th.