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No wonder Jamie’s went bust: Brits have lost their appetite for samey chains

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In September 2017, Jamie Oliver received the kind of phone call that causes the bottom to fall out of your world – if not, in a moment of vertiginous panic, the world to fall out of your bottom. While filming for Channel 4’s Friday Night Feast with the actor Liv Tyler, he was told that his debt-ridden Jamie’s Italian chain was about to collapse. “I had two hours to put money in and save it or the whole thing would go to shit. It was as dramatic as that,” Oliver told the Financial Times.

This week, the worst finally happened. Despite a raft of closures and the loss of 600 staff, despite Oliver ploughing in £13m and a £37m loan from HSBC, almost all of Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group – which comprised 23 Jamie’s Italian venues and London’s Fifteen and Barbecoa – went into administration. In October, the group was reportedly paying off its final creditors as part of a voluntary arrangement meant to stave off this catastrophe. In its company filings, CEO Jon Knight was optimistic. “The quality of Jamie’s Italian offer, [its] food and healthy ethos sets it apart from the competition,” he reported.

This crash is but the latest chapter in the so-called casual dining crisis, which since early 2018 has seen various big-name brands (Byron, Prezzo, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Carluccio’s) enter company rescue schemes. Last year, the accountants UHY Hacker Young found that 37 of Britain’s top 100 restaurant groups were loss-making. Overall, their pre-tax profits were down 89% on the first quarter of 2017.

Hospitality execs blame all this on a perfect storm of problems. In 2015, rents began to rise rapidly, doubling in some cases. Then, in 2017, a business rate review (“a fucking nightmare”, as one owner described it to me) lumbered operators with further huge costs – a bill of £42.7m across London’s 7,100 restaurants, calculated analysts CVS. Throw in rising food, utility and wage costs (question: how viable is an industry that cannot swallow even modest increases in the “national living wage”?), and at a time of weak consumer demand, the result has been widespread closures.

That narrative, however – the implication that the industry has been........

© The Guardian