The River Café accelerates its digital transformation

The Michelin starred River Café in London has gained critical acclaim in its 30+ year existence. During Covid, like most well established offline brands, The River Café had to quickly pivot their focus on building their online footprint. Since then, the brand has moved online with “Shop The River Café” on Shopify.

We sat down with The River Café’s new Managing Director Laura Palowski to discuss the state of the hospitality industry and new developments at The River Café.

Meet Laura - Managing Director at The River Café

My background is in management consulting where I spent the last decade helping large multinational retailers drive sustainable growth. During this period, the retail industry went through a massive transformation as retailers aimed to merge their online with their offline businesses. A lot of the work that I did was omni-channel transformation and helping brands move forward in an increasingly digital world. 

The River Café’s Direct to Consumer Approach

The past year and a half has been exciting for The River Café. Covid obviously had a profound impact on the hospitality sector with all restaurants closed across London for the majority of 2020 and into 2021. But as many restaurants closed their doors, The RIver Café saw an opportunity. We have amazingly talented chefs and decided that if you can't come to the restaurant, The River Café will come to you. So we decided to pivot, create an online offering, and serve our guests direct-to-door.

The River Café launched the shop in September 2020 and had been up and running for about 8 months when the hospitality sector started opening up again. So a lot of restaurant owners, including Ruthie, dealt with the question “Do you keep going with your ecommerce and direct to consumer approach once your restaurant opens up, or not?” 

We decided that it’s actually a great opportunity to reach customers who aren’t able to come to The River Café as well as expand the customer base, sending our fresh food across the UK nationwide. 

Future initiatives for The River Café

With Shop The River Café  we are very much in  growth mode, which is always exciting! The restaurant reopened and one of the challenges now is balancing priorities between the very busy cafe and growing a direct to consumer business. I am focused on the latter and have a few key initiatives in the works: 

  1. The first is expanding our product offering and continuing to deliver the same high quality fresh food  for our online business as we do in our cafe. Our chefs design the dishes and curate menus that we sell online, with a focus on creating The River Café experience at home.
  1. The second is to expand our reach. Right now about 80% of our sales are in London, but with our brand moving online, we're able to deliver our River Café food all across the UK. 
  1. Finally, we’re looking  to open a physical retail shop next to the restaurant, giving our guests the opportunity to shop The River Café in person. like our River Café  olive oil, our carefully-selected homewares,  or our pantry staples. .. 
  1. Finally, we’re  working towards becoming a more sustainable brand with our packaging while still  delivering on our high quality experience.

“The River Café Experience” all the way to the last mile 

The challenge with a growing business is always prioritisation. It’s about staying laser focused and true to our brand, and it’s something that restaurants that go into the direct to consumer space are up against.

When you choose to have a direct to consumer business,  there are a lot of opportunities to outsource many parts of that customer journey, but we made a very strategic decision to own and control as much of the process as we can from  the food that's made in our kitchens onsite to the delivery itself.  That way we can ensure we have a white glove service that gets our food safely  from our shop to the door. 

The importance of delivery partners post Brexit

Brexit certainly makes it harder for us to serve  our EU customers. The good news is that we are still able to source all the ingredients we know and love. We also have the advantage that as a nimble business,it’s easy for us to adjust our menu based on seasonality and what we're able to get on the day. 

From an infrastructure standpoint, we spent a lot of time sourcing the right delivery partners. We strategically did not want to go with a standard delivery and takeaway platform because we want to own that last mile. The partner that we chose is one that we know will adhere to our quality standards to deliver our delicate cakes and tarts, and that if anything goes wrong, there will be a feedback loop back to us.

Finding the balance between hospitality and retail 

Growing the business has not been without its challenges--and there have been a few! Overall, it's amazing to see The River Café thrive during this interesting time in hospitality - an industry that has traditionally never been online, certainly not fine dining anyway.  We have a lot of work to do as we continue to build out Shop The River Café and we couldn’t be more excited about where we’re headed. 

To find out more about The River Café success story, check out their case study.

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