News this month that Jamie Oliver was to shut six of his restaurants was met with a wave of criticism of the celebrity chef and the suggestion that Brexit might have played a part. Dominic Walsh reports

The power of social media can sometimes be exaggerated, but the Twitter reaction to The Times’ story that Jamie Oliver had decided to shutter six of his 42 Jamie’s Italians completely took me by surprise. The vigour of the response was not so much due to the closures themselves, but more the result of the claim by Simon Blagden, the CEO of the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group, that the Brexit vote was somehow a factor.

After I posted a link to the story on Twitter, my phone spent much of the next few hours pinging like a demented frog as post after post derided the Brexit claim with a ferocity notable for the remarkable similarity of the opinions expressed. “So it’s not the fact the food and service is utterly shite,” opined one. “I’d blame the over-priced pseudo-Italian slops they served up rather than Brexit,” said another. A rare message of support came from Henry Dimbleby, the Leon co-founder, who tweeted: “I’ve had two really good meals there recently. Both with the kids. At Gatwick and Victoria.”

Pressures and unknowns

It is worth examining exactly what Blagden said in his original statement. He said: “This is a tough market and post-Brexit, the pressures and unknowns have made it even harder. While our overall business is in very good shape – we finished last year with like for like sales growth and an increase in covers – because we refuse to compromise on the quality and provenance of our ingredients and our commitment to training and developing our staff, we need restaurants that can serve an average of 3,000 covers every week to be sustainable.”

He does not expand on what is making the current market so tough or what those post-Brexit “pressures” might be, although in a subsequent interview with MCA he specifically ruled out rising costs as a factor, insisting: “I don’t think anyone has been impacted by rising costs yet. We might be, but that isn’t the reason behind these closures.”

It is then we get to the nub of the issue: over optimistic assumptions on the level of business new sites were deemed to be capable of producing – a fault he argues is industry-wide. “We all got bullish about sites and you believe in your heart of hearts that a site is going to do a certain number and in the end it doesn’t, then you are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”

Then, in a comment that goes some way to acknowledging some of the Twitter-sphere’s quality concerns over Jamie’s Italian, Blagden adds: “All you end up doing is compromising your staff and customers, and we have had that with these six sites.” Then, he adds, as you focus your efforts on solving the problems of the estate’s tail, you end up taking your eye off the ball on the top-end sites.

My first reaction when I got confirmation of the six closures was surprise. The woes of The Restaurant Group and Ed’s Easy Diner show that the market is not easy, but my feeling was that, with the Jamie Oliver name and style behind it and the execution skills of Blagden and his team to put the chef’s philosophy into practice, Jamie’s Italian would, or should, be among the sector’s winners.

The brands may be different, but the travails of TRG and Ed’s show that to prosper in an increasingly crowded casual-dining market, you cannot afford to over-charge on price while under-delivering on quality and service. The recurring theme of the Twitter comments was that Jamie’s Italian was doing just that.

While there is no doubt that some of the Twitteratti were simply shooting from the hip in the way that social media seems to encourage, the hundreds of negative comments did seem to suggest a lot of pent-up hostility towards both Jamie and his restaurants. Ever since the chef with the cheeky chappy style burst onto our TV screens, he has been a bit Marmite – some love him, some hate him – but he is a man with principles and a social conscience, which makes the vitriolic reaction to the closures all the more surprising.

Dreadful food and service

One of the comments that particularly struck me was actually submitted by a Times reader as a Letter to the Editor, and perhaps because of that was rather more measured than the Twitter rants. A lady from Tunbridge Wells, the location for one of the restaurants earmarked for closure, said: “Along with many residents here, I was excited when Jamie opened up. The excitement didn’t last long. The food was absolutely dreadful and the service not much better, which is why people haven’t frequented it. It has nothing to do with Brexit or market conditions, just poor quality and a lack of service offering. They had a fantastic location and a brilliant brand so it should have flown. If I were Jamie I would be asking a lot more questions and looking a lot closer to home for the reasons why it is shutting!!”

In some ways, that lady’s comments mirror my sister’s experiences in Kingston-upon-Thames, where she lives. When the Jamie’s Italian opened a few years ago there was great excitement among the ladies-who-lunch brigade and, to be fair, for a few months my sister and her friends enjoyed a number of excellent experiences, enjoying both the food and the whole service and ambience. Yet as time went on, the quality deteriorated and eventually they stopped going altogether, deciding that it had become poor value relative to the increasingly disappointing food and experience.

Blagden called the six closures “the last part of the puzzle” following an 18-month effort to return the chain to health and focus on high-street, city-centre, high-volume, high-turnover restaurants. He claimed the strategy was already bearing fruit, with covers up 8% in December, resulting in social media feedback that was “all hugely positive”, although that claim now looks a little hollow given the furore over his Brexit comments.