- Photography by @lateef.photography

Is this the end of the restaurant chain game?

Can we cope with the closures across the country?

40w ago

So, I’m dusting through my little black book, trying to work out which restaurant I should be squeezing myself into for my first meal out of the house since lockdown started, when it suddenly dawned on me. Where have all the chain restaurants gone?

The landscape of the hospitality industry has changed dramatically over the past twenty years, with well-loved chain brands popping up here, there and everywhere you look. After the last 100 days the once flourishing high street is almost unrecognisable, the scars of boarded buildings and unlit shop fronts peppering the country leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. Things will never be the same.

Discounting the masks, gloves and sneeze guards worn by the waiting staff, or the reduced menus on laminated wipe proof paper, and putting aside the sardine scenes in Soho - Some of our favourite places are set to never open to the public again.

Growth is meant to be a humble part of success. Simple maths for any restauranteur; The better the food, the happier the customer, the stronger you trade, the more money in your pocket. Eventually it pays off and the second, third or fourth site blossoms from the hot pot of hard work.

But it seems greed got in the way. In the mid-2000’s the rise and rise of the restaurant chain battered us with options. Nando’s, Starbucks, Wahaca, Yo Sushi came out punching, spawning like big, bright neon lit weeds. Cookie cutter concepts filled shopping centres and retail parks across the country with no shame. Operators were tempted by big money deals and the promise of lucrative opportunities with funds that could be raised by angels. Little did they realise that those loans would eventually have to be paid back. Plus interest.

In the past week we have learned of old faithful Pret closing down thirty of its branches, a shocking fete I never thought could happen. I genuinely thought they were bulletproof. Could these closures be a sign of things to come?

Looking deeper I realised Pret are not alone. One of the original burger pioneers, Byron, is pretty much bust too - Selling off sites like a dodgy car boot sale. Eat, infamous for their soups and not much else, was chewed up and unceremoniously spat out onto the street. Frankie and Bennie’s, GBK, Cafe rouge and Upper Crust disappeared with no fan fair. Turtle Bay sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Wagamama’s is still afloat, barely. Surely, they can’t survive off katsu chicken sales alone. Lock Fyne has been fucked for a while, and the once Goliath like reign of the Italian stallion Carluccio’s are gone without trace from our high street. And let’s not forget the very public failure of the Jamie’s Italian empire...

So, what’s left to play with?

Most of the popular food critics have gone local, rediscovering and promoting their ‘old new favourites’ just a bread rolls throw away from their homes. Other newsworthy diners have gone high end and jumped feet first into the Wolsey, Sexy Fish, The Ivy or Annabel’s to be temperature checked before being petted by the owner for returning and stuffing their face with the world’s finest cuisine. But what about the rest of us? What are we going to be left with once the fat cats and landlords have swallowed up the market after they call in their unpaid debts?

Bill’s is backed by billionaire and is going through a second refurb of their whole estate - they look like they’re here to stay. Patty & Bun is growing gloriously but with only one site out of London in Brighton, doesn’t really count. Joe and the Juice is a newcomer with a lot of potential, but again, still central London exclusive. Nando’s seems to be indestructible. Always popular, and always culturally relevant whilst nicely diversified with their home cooking condiments. Le Pain is still knocking around but you may need to see a dentist after tearing at one of their baguettes. I saw a queue outside Greggs in Earls Court and quickly realised that ‘this is England’. The less said about Prezzo the better. Pizza Express still stands strong, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of their restaurants full outside of Soho or Chinatown since 2010.

BrewDog, a relative newcomer to the scene is turning heads, both for customer and corporates. Maroush was once bomb proof barely has any sites left on Edgware Road where it once dominated. I haven’t seen a happy shopper in Paul for at least 10 years, ( who is this Paul anyhow? What’s so special about him apart from producing sullen staff and concrete sandwiches? ) and finally, reports from the US suggest that one of their biggest franchises, Pizza Hut and Wendy’s is set to go into administration which will leave 36,000 people unemployed.

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Video of the author ripping through Five Guys in 2017 after a Damian Marley concert

Talking of the United States; Five Guys has had no issue with growth across the U.K. A simple concept, with no table service and tasty, greasy goodness (plus a working milkshake machine) was gobbled up by the British public. McDonald’s will always dominate in town centres and roadside drive throughs. They cackle at the competition, they’ve got their followers hooked on their product. Starbucks is here to stay, she ain’t goin’ anywhere. Burger King with their processed patties and bad buns still seem to bring in the business. Shake Shack keeps it simple and seems to turn a profit too, with a few successful sites outside of the capital. The Colonel; with his bargain bucket deals just knowingly winks. He knows you’ll be back one day.

So it would seem that at the higher end of the market, things will stay the same for the chain. The Ivy, once reserved for the elite is now in Manchester, Richmond and Cardiff - they will all reopen mid-July. At the lower end, the fast food heroes we all love to hate - nothing will change, if anything they will grow. The ones who will suffer post pandemic are the middle ground; the independent chains, the newcomers with two sites and personal guarantees that are found in hard to reach areas with no footfall.

Eventually the cookie will finally crumble, and the middle weight concepts will fall short and close without our support. Leaving either the incredibly expensive, or the dirt cheap to feed your kids of the future. As tempting as it may be to turn up to your favourite burger joint this week to hoover up extra large portions and a bucket of wings, have a little think of who’s running the place - think of the robot like production and faceless owners; is this something you really want to be a part of?

For your first meal of freedom, don’t rush into bad habits. Go local, go independent, do some research and dine out with a clean conscience and open eyes. You won’t regret it, and it’ll taste ten times better than it did before.

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Comments (16)

  • This piece is great !! It's been crazy seeing the downfall of the casual dining market in just the past year... It was already in serious trouble before Covid, and now it seems to be even worse. It's going to be a really strange few months...

      9 months ago
  • Chains were overextended, but that doesn't mean the demand isn't there. What I suspect we'll see is a return to local cafes, like we've already started to see in smaller towns. If there isn't a corporate juggernaut pushing out the smaller independents with a sea of cheap, borrowed money, it should open up some room in the market. It's been going that direction where I live for a few years and it beats a TGIFriday's or Denny's on every corner. We do have a few chains still, but those are all local, too small to be even called regional.

      9 months ago
  • I think “typical” restaurants will be fine (ie. placing an order and waiting), but I can’t see a way of any buffet restaurants surviving this ordeal.

      9 months ago
  • Business models will have to change along with financial backing from venture capitalists. Smaller independent chains or stand a lone companies more likely to survive with local support. Given reward incentives people will support them, hopefully. McDonalds will always be there, even when the world is about to end 😀

      9 months ago
  • The rules of classical Adam Smith economics state that as we move forward in time, the cheapest end of any given market gains market share.

    There is a thing called the " dead cat bounce " , where a commodity price collapses and then bounces off the pavement, a couple of times, before settling down.

    The sudden spike in high end restaurant interest, and this is just a wild guess, could be a result of this dead cat bounce effect.

    The price bounces, because many other cats, or individual companies don't bounce much.

    But a few will bounce noticeably, attracting investors, or in the case of restaurants, customers, but it may be that these bounces are short lived.

    Or maybe not.

    Welcome to economics, the dismal science, as P.J. O'Rourke observes.

    When the GFC hit, McDonalds lowered wages slightly, reduced their burger prices a bit, and hired a lot of extra staff.

    And they gobbled up market share.

    The whole history of the American economy, from the discovery of potatoes, corn, and tomatoes , through to the construction of the very modest Quakers cottage, usually surrounded by corn, potato and tomato fields, to the hot bowls of Quaker oatmeal porridge, and the European contribution, wheat, has been primarily an exercise in thrift and common sense.

    Hence, at the average diner you will see : hot potato fries, ketchup, tomato soup, a bowl of hot corn grits, and a hot bowl of oatmeal for breakfast.

    You might see bread served with the bowl of soup.

    And you'll see hot baked beans, spaghetti, also sometimes served with bread.

    They are the base line, fall back meals, that people turn to when money is tight.

    So if you can find a few pennies behind the sofa cushions, and head down to Als plywood diner, in your Jalopy , you ought to be able to get cheap eats .

    Warren Buffet indulges in a $3 ish McDonalds breakfast, but from where I'm sitting, I could make the same thing at home for quite a bit less than $3.

    I reckon I could make it for about 70 cents, including cooking fuel costs.

    With careful shopping, a slice of bread is about 4 cents,

    an egg is about 30 cents.

    a slice of tomato is about 5 cents, a slice of cheese, about the same.

    a half or maybe just 1/4 of a small sausage, squished with a meat tenderiser, maybe 10 cents .

    Frozen concentrated orange juice is quite cheap.

    An International Roast NASA tech free dried coffee, the most technologically advanced coffee product, in the world. can be made for about 4 cents, as can a cup of tea.

    Hot cakes are just pancakes, and that's just flour and powdered milk, plus water, fried.

    Add a bit of jam, honey, vegemite and butter / margarine blend, and that's most of a McDonalds breakfast.

    Cooking time , maybe 3 min.

    Maybe I'll open my own cheap eats diner .

    But in the current fancy schmancy restaurant scene in Australia, I don't know anyone who eats out.

    I cook cheap meals at home for my GP brother, who also almost never eats out.

    Yes, doctors do ok, but earnings need to be re invested with great care.

    We have a veg garden, and he owns a farm.

    I loan friends my home made trailer which has an electric winch and ramps , and in return I get pumpkins.

    I've been planting fruit trees , veg and herbs in peoples backyards for about the last 30 years.

    one of the best horticulture investments I've seen is thyme.

    I bought a punnet with 70 seedlings for $4, and they all grew into 1 foot tall bushes, and many are still alive.

    So you can eat reasonably well, but I'd say the future of it involves quite a bit of care and thrift.

      9 months ago