The closure of chains like Jamie’s Italian could pave the way for independent restaurants to thrive
- Credit: Tara Fisher
Our food and drink editor says the way we eat out is changing, and it's small, local businesses who can adapt and lead the way.
Essex's own cheeky chappy and 'naked chef' Jamie Oliver has his tail between his legs this week following the announcement his restaurant group's gone into administration.
It's fair to say the business has been treading water for a little while now. Jamie's Magazine has gone, as have the Union Jack restaurants. And last year the celebrity chef was forced to delve into his own pockets for £13million to rescue Jamie's Italian from bankruptcy.
Alas, it was too little too late to plug the spiralling financial downfall of the group, and now up to 1,300 jobs are at risk, with KPMG drafted in as administrators.
It's sad times for the businessman, his family and their staff. But what on earth went wrong? You'd think having the name of one of the country's biggest telly cooks over the door would be a shoo-in for attracting a barrage of customers wouldn't you?
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But alas, a name alone does not a business make.
Any independent restaurateur will tell you times are tough in the industry right now - apply these difficulties to a national and it's not a push to expect the results to be even more devastating.
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The rising cost of food (especially with the shadow of Brexit looming) cannot be ignored. Inflation on ingredients in the past few months has crippled many a kitchen, and chains are not immune. In fact, they could be deemed worse off. Standardised menus which can't be changed at a whim limit their options when it comes to suppliers. If the price of pepperoni or Parma ham goes up, there's not great deal a large chain can do to react immediately.
Then there's the increasing cost of staffing. The catering industry at large is being impacted by a difficulty in recruiting reliable staff, leading to a reliance on (often expensive) agency workers. Add to this rising pay packets from the increase in the minimum wage, and that's more money down the drain for restaurants - albeit for a very very worthy cause.
There are trends to consider. More people than ever (especially Millennials) are choosing to eat at home, picking Netflix or the latest Iplayer box set and a takeaway ordered online, over a (more expensive) night out at the cinema with a full-blown three course meal.
And the final nail in the coffin is offers. In a market saturated by chains, particularly pizza, it's survival of the fittest. Ask, Prezzo, Zizzi and the like bombard their customers with 2-for-1, 'cheapest dish free' and low-price set menu deals. There are two types of diners in my opinion. Group A are obsessed by food, want to eat the best, will travel to sate their culinary desires, and aren't that fussed about shelling out for decent grub. Group B don't particularly care where they eat as long as they can bend the bill to fit their budget. A pizza restaurant is a pizza restaurant. They'll go where they can get the biggest bang for their buck.
Essentially, if you can't be flexible or cheap, you're playing a losing game.
But what does this mean for independent restaurants? I personally think the downfall of the chain could herald the renaissance of the neighbourhood restaurant,t and in my role of food and drink editor, I've certainly seen more restaurants and cafes open than close over the last few years - especially in the burgeoning vegan and gluten-free, clean-eating arena.
Sure, they suffer the same ills as chains (staffing and food costs particularly) but the beauty in being home-grown is the ability to be adaptable and to flex at will to keep customers sweet and businesses afloat. So the price of beef goes up…they take it off the menu, or choose a cheaper cut. Parmesan skyrockets…they choose another, less luxurious cheese to adorn a salad. Local independents can work closely with a network of equally independent local producers, taking their pick of what's in season, what's the most cost effective.
If there's suddenly a craze for raw food, superfood juice, fusion tacos, Peruvian snacks, bento boxes…..anything…these restaurants can take a breath, look at their menus and work something out, limited only by their imaginations and (of course and again) the cost of ingredients. They can be there, at the forefront, leading the way in a foodie revolution before the top bods at the chains have had a chance to hash out their plans in a stuffy board meeting.
I see a future where we either eat out at our 'local' or order in. Just as high street retailers are shuffling off the mortal coil, I predict we'll see other chains follow in the footsteps of poor Jamie. But vivre le difference. I for one cannot wait to see what my local foodie hotspots come up with next. Long may they reign.