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A time of feast and famine in the food and drink trade

PUBLISHED: 11:40 12 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:40 12 February 2018

Nick De'ath at the Unthank Arms on Newmarket Street in Norwich.

Nick De'ath at the Unthank Arms on Newmarket Street in Norwich.

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While some pubs and restaurants are closing in the aftermath of Christmas there are still plenty of positives for the businesses which can make it work.

Middletons Steakhouse and Grill, Timberhill, Norwich that has undergone a £500,000 refit after suffering smoke damage after a fire.Owner Stephen Hutton, front right with some of his staff. Photo : Steve AdamsMiddletons Steakhouse and Grill, Timberhill, Norwich that has undergone a £500,000 refit after suffering smoke damage after a fire.Owner Stephen Hutton, front right with some of his staff. Photo : Steve Adams

Times are tough in the food and drink trade but there is still money to be made when a business gets it right.

Household spending on restaurants and hotels leapt to its highest level for more than 10 years in 2016/17 at an average of £50.10 per month, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

READ: What is turning up the heat on the restaurant trade?

Chef Richard Hughes at his newly opened Cookery School at the Assembly House. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYChef Richard Hughes at his newly opened Cookery School at the Assembly House. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Although there have been some post-Christmas closures, with pubs such as the Tap House in Norwich and restaurants including E Street Smokehouse shutting up shop, many businesses have reported strong festive sales.

National chains such as Suffolk’s Greene King, which saw earnings rise 1.6% over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, had a good celebratory season, while JD Wetherspoon was up 6% for the 12 weeks to January 21.

The idea of a restaurant week in Norwich has been floated with the aim of supporting the industry.

Nick De’ath, who runs the De’ath Hospitality group of pubs and restaurants along with wife Briony, said while things were tough there is a vibrant eating out scene in Norwich and Norfolk but businesses had to try to differentiate themselves. He said: “Cocktails continue to generate interest with customers becoming increasingly keen to try new flavours.

“We’re about to embark on a refurbishment and relaunch of one of our businesses in the city and we’re confident that Norwich has got more than enough room for an interesting twist on a classic.

“Real ale is a perfect example of old meeting new as the long established Norwich and Norfolk brewing industry has almost reinvented itself putting Norwich on the map as a destination for great beer.”

The group, which employs around 50 people, includes the Unthank Arms, Trafford Arms, William & Florence, The Lawyer and Hales Hall and Great Barn.

Mr De’ath said while there were similarities across the group each had its specialist areas, for example an extensive cocktail menu at the William & Florence and a wider selection of real ales at the Trafford Arms.

One model which can help make the numbers work for both parties is having a pop-up kitchen or allowing food to be brought in from neighbouring vendors.

Pubs such as the Mash Tun, which hosts Wroxham’s The River Kitchen for a Sunday roast, are able to bring customers in for food without having to pay kitchen staff throughout the week.

Mr De’ath said: “The increase in ‘pop-ups’ and people starting fledgling businesses as street food providers shows a really sensible approach to starting a new business.

“The lower costs of these models means that people can fine tune their product and pricing before they commit to a larger rent and employing staff and the amazing variety of new ‘foodie’ outlets in Norwich has created a buzz around affordable, interesting, original food that is good news for the whole city.

“Many of Norwich’s long-standing businesses started out with humble origins and have survived and thrived.”

The transformation of Norwich Market over the past few years has seen an increasing number of foodie outlets come to the fore.

St Benedict’s Street eatery The Tipsy Vegan, which serves the growing animal-free market, has evolved from market stall Bia Kitchen to a full restaurant and cocktail bar.

For established businesses it is important to have a variety of incomes.

Chef Richard Hughes, director at The Assembly House, said: “We have to work very hard here to keep going and we are in a prime city-centre location and have the ability to do volume.

“We have different revenue streams; we have got the restaurant, the rooms, we have got weddings and events, we have the cookery school and we do outside catering.

“If you are a pub in the city centre just selling food and drink it is going to be a struggle.”

One food business which has been expanding is Middletons Steakhouse & Grill which now has seven restaurants in the chain, and plans to open more.

Founder Steve Hutton said by keeping costs down the company was able to provide value for money which in turn encouraged customer loyalty.

The company employs 400 people and is projecting turnover of more than £12m for the coming year.

Mr Hutton said while he had seen a fall in the amount customers were spending he was pleased to see the number of people eating in Middletons restaurants was going up.

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