Is this the end of the restaurant chain game?
Can we cope with the closures across the country?
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.
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.