The restaurant trade is notoriously volatile at the best of times but the last two years have seen it undergoing a particularly torrid time.
Even by the standards of the recent decline in High Street retail the restaurant trade stands out.
By December 2018, according to a BBC report, “Gourmet Burger Kitchen [has] earmarked 17 sites for closure while Carluccios is shutting 34 outlets. Prezzo said it would close 94 – about a third of the chain – including all 33 outlets of its Tex-Mex brand Chimichanga.” Add to these burger brand Byron, and the French cuisine chain Cafe Rouge.
In all, according to the trade publication The Caterer, 1,123 restaurant businesses filed for insolvency in the first three-quarters of 2018 and the most recent Market Growth Monitor from CGA and Alix Partners reveals that the number of restaurants in the UK decreased by 2.8% in the year to March 2019.
The problem is highlighted by the experience of Jamie Oliver who in August 2018 closed 12 of his 37 Jamie’s Italian restaurants and made about 600 staff redundant in an attempt to save the rest of his business. It didn’t work as in May this year he announced the immediate closure of his restaurant group, including Barbecoa and Fifteen, with the loss of 1,000 jobs, leaving him with just three surviving restaurants.
The bulk of the insolvencies and closures has been among restaurant chains, of which arguably, there has been an oversupply.
Having said that, some chains are still surviving and expanding, notably Indian food chains Dishoom and Mowgli.
What is driving the contraction of the restaurant trade?
Of course, and inevitably, the backdrop to some of this is at least in part the still-unresolved issue of Brexit and when, if ever, the UK will finally leave the EU. This is arguably the undercurrent driving a significant drop in consumer spending and confidence in future job security despite current record employment levels.
Then there is the impact of high business rates, the minimum wage and rising ingredient costs and increasingly a shortage of staff, many of them from overseas and notoriously badly-paid, as more and more EU citizens return home either because conditions in their home countries have improved or out of a perception of the hostility towards them in the UK.
However, there is also arguably a shift in eating habits taking place.
It is partly a case of a desire for quality over quantity or a unique dining experience that has contributed to the survival of small, independent local artisanal restaurants, although if you speak to their owners, rent and business rates are a major issue.
It is also about an increased desire for more healthy, often locally-sourced food, the rise of vegan diets, and above all, it is about time and convenience. Increasingly, people are opting to eat in, either with their families or with friends and to order food online. With Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber catering to this demand the traditional “dine out” restaurant trade faces an uphill struggle unless it can offer something unique as the small independent offering well-cooked, authentic, regional specialities can.