After the bashing the eating-out sector has taken from the investment community, it is perhaps heartening to know that there is potential a take-over tussle developing for at least one publicly quoted restaurant group – if not two.
Luke Johnson’s management buy-out bid at Signature Restaurants is being blocked by A to Z Restaurants’ boss Giuliano Lotto, who runs upmarket London establishments Aubergine and L'Oranger. He is acting with Park Place Capital, a hedge fund which already owns 29.6% of Signature, and a counter-bid for Signature may materialise later this week.
Another London restaurant luminary Chris Bodker, chief executive of the privately owned Moving/Mirror Image Restaurants, is also said to be interested in the deal.
The prize for all, of course, is The Ivy and Le Caprice, still two of the capital’s most chic restaurants. Even Jeffrey Archer in his prison diaries frets about ever being let back into Le Caprice.
So faith in the upper echelons of the eating-out arena still appears strong and a bloody fight over these two establishments, along with J Sheekey the stylish fish restaurant, looks certain. Luke Johnson himself may still harbour thoughts of hanging onto these jewels, as may two of Signature’s other shareholders, the restaurants’ previous owners Jeremy King and Chris Corbin.
It will probably be some time before Signature’s chief executive Andy Bassadone will be free to concentrate on developing Signature’s other asset, the so-far-small, but well thought of, Strada pizza and pasta chain.
Meanwhile, the fate of another London restaurant institution, Chez Gerard, could also be the subject of a bidding round. The indicative 100p-a-share bid from Paramount, the financial investor, may find some competition, according to weekend press speculation, with executive chairman Neville Abraham still seen as having a pivotal role in determining the group’s ultimate fate.
Abraham certainly seems to have started turning around the company’s fortunes in London, making it an attractive proposition once again for a private player. Specialising in the mid-to-upper end of the London restaurant market can still it seems be financially appealing.
The ultimate changes at Signature and Chez Gerard, along with the rumblings at PizzaExpress and the sale of Little Chef, will not only bring opportunities for investors, but also inevitable openings for ambitious restaurant executives.
There are already rumours of who is being lined up for the top job at Little Chef and Travelodge, now that private equity house Permira is in exclusive negotiations. A non-Compass outsider is the early favourite. There is also speculation that PizzaExpress boss David Page is now finally looking for a new chief executive to replace Ian Eldridge, while whoever wins the Chez Gerard battle will need an eventual successor to Neville Abraham.
Amid the storm clouds there are always silver linings – at least for some.