Celebrity status doesn’t pay the bills, as Jamie Oliver has now found out
- Credit: PA
Running a chain of restaurants isn't easy, even if you're a famous chef, says Iain Dale
I've written before about the decline of the High Street, not just in our region, but all over the country. The decline has been going on for at least two decades. Having run a bookshop in London for seven years, I know the challenges retailers face.
It had been thought that the big chains would be big enough to be immune from the disasters faced by their smaller competitors, but the reality has proved somewhat different. The restaurant sector has always been one which can suck you in and soon spit you out. The failure rate of new restaurants is something to behold. Something like three-quarters of them fail within 18 months.
The news this week that Jamie Oliver's restaurant chain has collapsed into administration came as little surprise to analysts in the sector.
In January 2017 it was reported he was closing some of his restaurants as he couldn't make them pay. He reached for an excuse which he knew many in the media would swallow. He blamed Brexit.
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He maintained that because of Brexit uncertainty people weren't spending money in restaurants any longer.
In my view, he was trying to cover up for the fact that his restaurants were totally overpriced, selling Pizza Express food at double the money, in my opinion.
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Many of Oliver's restaurants were located in the wrong place, away from the big evening footfalls. The Norwich Jamie's Italian closed in February. Oliver put out a statement stating that the landlord had decided to "re-tenant" the building, which had formally housed a Waterstones store. Strange, therefore, that a replacement restaurant wasn't opened in one of the country's most vibrant centres for evening nightlife. To be fair, it hasn't been the only restaurant to close in the last year or two - but as I say, it's a sector which is notoriously fluid. If you don't keep innovating, changing your menus and appealing to new customers, that's what happens.
Jamie Oliver would do well to take some tips from his parents, who run the award-winning Cricketers pub near Saffron Walden in Essex.
When I was a teenager it was my favourite local hangout, as I grew up near there. It was one of the first pubs to effectively turn itself into a restaurant. Nearly four decades later its reputation is still excellent, and people travel there to eat from miles around.
Food establishments only thrive and survive if their reputations remain intact. Jamie Oliver has made his fortune, not just because of his undoubted culinary talents, but because of his carefully cultivated cheeky-chappy image.
I believe that image is manufactured, for we grew up a few miles from each other at the posher end of Essex. He went to the local grammar school. I went to the local comprehensive. I know of no-one with our background who speaks with the kind of fake 'mockney' accent that he puts on. If you've ever heard me on the radio or seen me on TV, I can assure you my voice is entirely natural and it's exactly the same as it was in 1981 when I left Essex for the delights of Norfolk at the age of 19!
This week we have also seen the collapse of British Steel. Newsnight ran a report on Tuesday asking why people think the steel industry should be bailed out, when no-one would think of bailing out a restaurant chain. Their conclusion? It is in part because steelworkers are predominantly male and restaurant workers are mainly female. The shark has been well and truly jumped. Jeremy Corbyn has predictably called for British Steel to be renationalised, ignoring the fact that it could well be vetoed by the EU under State Aid rules.
Which is no doubt why Jeremy Corbyn in his heart knows that he could not implement his radical socialist policies if we were still members of the EU.
Email Iain at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @iaindale