Mid-market chain restaurants have suffered as people look for bargain meals with the occasional expensive treat, writes Stephen Jardine.
Six months ago, I predicted some doom and gloom. After years of expansion, I suggested the great restaurant boom was coming to an end and closures were inevitable. What I didn’t expect was a casualty as high profile as the Jamie’s Italian chain but then nobody did.
When the company hit hard times last year, it seemed inevitable someone would step in and save such a well-known brand. Instead this week it went into administration with the closure of 22 UK restaurants and the loss of 1,000 jobs.
The celebrity chef said he was “deeply saddened” about the decision. For the golden boy of British food, it is a major blow to his reputation but he will bounce back. From the cheeky Essex lad in the kitchen to being the saviour of school food, Jamie has an ability to reinvent himself.
For all the good he has done with his campaigns to improve our diet and democratise food, he also deserves to be cut a bit of slack. But he did make a big mistake and that was to take his eye off the ball.
If the UK restaurant business is under strain, it is the chains that are breaking. Multiple restaurants were booming just a couple of years ago, opening branches all over the country but their numbers are now declining with Carluccios, Byron Burger, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Gaucho, Prezzo and Strada all feeling the pain. So what’s gone wrong?
Partly it is economic. Political uncertainty has dented confidence and reduced restaurant spending. Low-cost options like Deliveroo are doing well as are high-end eating places saved for that special occasion. The mid-market ground is where the casualties are being inflicted.
Last week I spoke to the founder of just such a chain slowly growing across the country. Every day he forensically analyses costs and income to make sure the business is nimble and fit for purpose. Keeping on top of the books has never been more important.
But there is another challenge that helped pull Jamie’s Italian down. We are constantly being told people don’t want things any more, instead they want experiences. Actually they want more than that, they want authentic experiences.
Last year Jamie launched a cook book and TV series to prove his credentials. Featuring recipes handed down by Italian mammas, it was an attempt to prove just how genuine the Jamie’s Italian experience really is. However the public didn’t really buy it. The book was published last summer priced at £26. Today you can buy it online for less than a tenner.
With chain restaurants saturating the High Street, people are instead looking to independent restaurants offering a genuine experience based on what customers want, not what head office says defines the brand. The recent Evening News Edinburgh Restaurant Awards proved the point with independent businesses lining up to scoop all the top prizes.
More than ever, eating out is about discovering an amazing restaurant and then boasting about the food on social media. That’s good news for unique restaurants but bad news for chains offering the same old things.