Take a moment to digest these facts – the number of restaurants in cities like Leeds, Bradford, Manchester and Liverpool increased by one-third in the last five years, but now the catering industry is reporting a significant slowdown in the number of customers taking tables.
The trouble is partly blamed on an 11 per cent increase in the cost paid by kitchens for every ingredient, from artichokes to zucchinis, since the Brexit referendum two years ago – a fact that may particularly stick in the throats of those who voted to leave the EU.
In 2017 more than £33 billion was spent on eating out in the UK, but this year it seems most of us are doing so less often. Something had to give, and sure enough in the last few months we have seen a lot of familiar names cutting back their presence in towns and cities. Where I live in Yorkshire, in recent weeks I have seen the disappearance of two branches of the pasta chain Carluccio’s, one in Ilkley, the other in Harrogate. Others closing their doors have included satellites of Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo, Byron Burger and the French brasserie Côte. The vegetarian restaurant 1847 – named after the year the Vegetarian Society was formed – suddenly closed its Bristol branch earlier this month leaving it with just two branches, one in Manchester.
I sympathise with those who lose their jobs in this process, and whilst there is undeniably a frisson of smugness to be felt from yet another Brexit bad news story that can’t just be dismissed as “Project Fear”, I think there’s another underlying cause.
In the past decade investors with more money than sense – and invariably not their own money – have poured it into restaurant chains. Often, you find that behind the chic branding that is supposed to make you feel you are dining out in another country the restaurant is owned by a private equity firm. And they are only concerned with the bottom line. We saw how cynical this process is in the recent BBC Two series Million Pound Menu, where aspiring restaurateurs vied for cash from big investors. What seemed more important in this process was the idea rather than the food. If someone had a “breakthrough concept”, according to the producers, then it could create a “multi-million-pound brand”. But, of course, money is king and the moment bums disappear from seats the investors cut their losses and pull out. Which is what has happened this summer.
But ordinary diners are taken for mugs in this fashion for restaurant branding. The experience of eating out has been reduced to one of heavy marketing. It’s no longer good enough to say “hey, let’s go for a curry!” or “fancy a pizza?” We have to buy into some artificially created vision of street food in Mumbai or a pizzeria in the back streets of Naples.
What all this does is make it harder for small independent restaurants to survive, places run by good chefs who are more devoted to their customers’ tastebuds than to the interior decor. The best restaurants I know are small establishments like these. For me, not once has a meal at the likes of Jamie’s Italian or a Prezzo – where you pay extra for the brand name – been able to match them.