It used to be so simple. Come up with a restaurant concept and a brand, open one restaurant, then a second, then aim for five outlets then ten and 20, and if it’s still working, press the button on a nationwide rollout. Well, something like that, anyway.
But that was then. Now, in the aftermath of a few years of soaring labour costs, rent and rates plus rank overcapacity and the small matter of a global pandemic, it’s all about deploying CVAs, pre-pack administrations, debt-for-equity swaps and other painful forms of restructuring to close the growing number of uneconomic sites. Welcome to the world of casual dining.
The first casualties after the beginning of lockdown – who can forget the Prime Minister addressing the nation to tell us that all restaurants and pubs were to close? – were mediocre concepts like Chiquito or underinvested brands like Carluccio’s that had already been put through a CVA that had not cut deep enough and had left the chain fatally wounded.
With countless further permanent unit closures on the horizon, the casual dining sector is looking like one of the big losers of the pandemic. What really stands out is that some of the more recent site closures have been in businesses that, before covid-19 burst into our lives, were solid, successful, well-respected brands.
In the 20 weeks since that fateful day in March, I have documented the growing roll-call of casualties and the job losses that have resulted. What really upsets me is the nature of so many of the comments that people post, either at the end of the articles on The Times’s digital editions or on Twitter. Far from sympathising with these workers over the loss of their livelihoods, these people seem to delight in slagging off the quality of the food served up by these chains and declaring that they will be delighted by the demise of the restaurants. Well, to those grave-dancing morons I offer the following list (which sadly is a long way short of the full picture):
The Restaurant Group: 4,200
Casual Dining Group: 1,909
Azzurri Group: 1,200
Pret a Manger: 1,000
What has happened to Tim Martin? Not so long ago, one could scarcely turn to a newspaper business section without coming across the ubiquitous Wetherspoon boss. At the root of this radio silence appears to be the episode just after lockdown when he got himself into a bar room brawl with the media over employee pay and the suggestion that if some of his staff were offered a job at a supermarket (like Tesco, for example), he would completely understand if they accepted.
Since then, the mullet-haired one has been a rare visitor to the pages of the national press. Where once anything he said or wrote publicly would be faithfully reported by tabloids and broadsheets alike, now few papers seem that fussed. A few days ago, when he issued a statement calling for scientists to publish evidence of coronavirus transmission in pubs, it was very sparsely reported, with only the odd tabloid picking up on it for their online editions but, as far I can tell, none of the broadsheets.
Now, it probably wasn’t the most scintillating press release in the world, but even so one might have expected a little more pick-up. Yet, the issue appears to go much wider than that, which begs the question of why Mr Martin has turned all coy.
Now it could simply be because he has wisely decided to roll up his sleeves to focus his time and energy on making sure his pub company doesn’t join the list above. Or maybe he feels that his jokey approach to much of life is not particularly appropriate in these tough covid-dominated times.
Or maybe it’s because sending legal letters to half of Fleet Street over the employee pay and Tesco references has put paid to his standing as the go-to boss in the pub sector for a quote. Just a wild guess, but I have reason to believe it may be a factor.
Conversely, David Page, the Fulham Shore chairman, sad he had “never been more in demand from the press” than when he revealed the outcome of the first three days of the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme. It was, he opined, the “most astonishing” period he’d ever experienced, with his restaurants being “so busy that even I couldn’t get a table if I wanted one”.
Given that the former boss of Pizza Express and Gourmet Burger Kitchen is 68 and probably thought he’d seen it all, that is quite a statement. Indeed, he said that the scheme had generated so much extra business that he had been able to bring the remaining furloughed staff back into work, even though six of its central London restaurants were still closed.
He said they all had constant queues and were turning tables 12 times in the 12 hours of service. During the three days, Franco Manca sites did 130% of normal sales, while The Real Greek did 148%. That compares with 60% of sales in the first week of reopening and 82% the week before the scheme was launched.
Mind you, being in the veteran category and maintaining a suitably healthy scepticism, Page said he would be reserving judgment on its success until he had established whether it had simply shunted a large amount of trade from later in the week. The wisdom of age!
Dominic Walsh: Casual dining one of ‘big losers’ of pandemic
It used to be so simple. Come up with a restaurant concept and a brand, open one restaurant, then a second, then aim for five outlets then ten and 20, and if it’s still working, press the button on a nationwide rollout. Well, something like that, anyway. But that was then. Now, in the aftermath of a few years of soaring labour costs, rent and rates plus rank overcapacity and the small matter of a global pandemic, it’s all about deploying CVAs, pre-pack administrations, debt-for-equity swaps and other painful forms of restructuring to close the growing number of uneconomic sites. Welcome to the world of casual dining.