26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 11



George Trefgarne reports on the fear, justified

or not, which now grips the 1990s boom business

RESTAURATEURS are getting nervous. For five years they have been surfing a wave of fashion which has propelled them into the limelight and made them more money than in their wildest dreams. The only reason they have not been satirised into oblivion is that we have all been part of the game, cheerfully forking out £50 a head while shovelling down pike mousse on a bed of sweetbreads. Characters like Marco Pierre White and Gary Rhodes have had fame and fortune heaped upon them. Now, with the belief, well-founded or not, that the economy is turning down, they privately fear the bonfire of their vanities. What has been made big business could be about to become bad business.

`Everyone is talking about it,' says Andy Bassedone, chief execu- tive of Belgo, the Belgian mussels and beer chain which is listed on the stock market and capitalised at £80 million. Belgo is a good exam- ple of how the City has enthusiasti- cally backed the binge, and it has been joined on the Stock Exchange by Chez Gerard, BGR (which owns Bank), Pizza Express and now Pharmacy, Damien Hirst's venture.

Mr Bassedone himself has just bought the Ivy, the Caprice and Sheekeys for £13 million, making a cool £5 million for the previous owners, Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King. Earlier in the year, he bought Daphne's, Pasha and the Collection from their founder, Mogens Tholstrup, a former beau of the It-girl Tara Palmer-Tompkinson. Mr Tholstrup is thought to have made about £3 million out of the deal. Mr Bassedone says, 'We are all kind of asking each other, is there a down- turn? How will it affect us? Is it coming? I think people are focusing on us unfairly because they think we are the froth on top of the market.'

Mr Bassedone is confident about his own restaurants. 'They have over 225 years of experience between them and I am not changing anything; even the same people are running them,' he says. He thinks other, less established outlets, which have invested in design rather than the food, could be more unlucky.

Nico Ladenis, the proprietor of Simply Nico and Nico at 90, is far more gloomy. He says, 'It has started. We have been up on a high, now we are on the way down, I am certain of it. There is already a down- turn and it is probably going to gather momentum, although I don't think it is going to be as bad as 1991 and 1992.'

Mr Ladenis, who is now 64, has had plenty of experience of recessions. He remembers 'Mr Heath, the three-day week and blackouts. The last recession was with- out question the worst period of my life.' He thinks that those who have opened new restaurants often requiring two covers at lunch and dinner will be in for a nasty shock. They are very different corporate structures to the traditional, family-owned restaurants, where if things get tough, you can just tell your children to act as unpaid waiters. Is he thinking of anyone in particu- lar? 'Conran will be affected,' he says, `although he has big financial muscle.'

Sir Terence now has 11 restaurants (the latest, the Coq d'Argent, opened in the City last month) and is serving about 40,000 meals a week. At the Great Western Hotel above Liverpool Street station, he is opening another six. Des Gunewardena, his right-hand man and the chief executive of Conran Holdings, says, 'We've certainly seen a flattening off compared with the explosive growth of the mid-1990s. It's not just a downturn, which is certainly there, it's more supply. A lot more places have opened up. We've noticed lunchtime falling off a bit.' Perhaps with the last recession in mind, when Conran got into difficulties over his Butler's Wharf development, Mr Gunewardena says that the group is chang- ing its strategy now and looking overseas. It may also open another Zinc Bar and Grill, which is much cheaper than the other Con- ran restaurants.

Antonio Carluccio, who runs the Neal Street Restaurant, is also concerned about a downturn. He says, 'Already we have seen bits and pieces of savings, people choosing less expensive wines, that sort of thing. We'll be OK, though; we survived the last two. It just means we are fully booked up on the day rather than the day before, and people order cheaper things. But we can still do haute cuisine with chicken and trout if that is what they want.' Carluccio agrees with Ladenis that it is big restau- rants — the so-called gastrodomes — which will be hit. 'Filling 65 seats is one thing,' he says, 'but if you've got 200, you could find it very diffi- cult.' The trade is gripped by rumours that the big chains, like Café Rouge and Chez Gerard, are considering slowing their open- ing programmes.

Whether the big groups can go on as they have been is now a real fear. Last week, Bass, the owners of All Bar One, shocked the City with a profits warning. Sir Ian Prosser, the chairman, said that the summer had been 'frankly diabolical'. It was mostly the local pubs which were affected, but the message is clear: people are, quite literally, tightening their belts. Bass is not alone on the casualty list. Planet Hollywood, the Leicester Square restaurant backed by American film stars and New Labour contributor Robert Earl, has plunged into a loss and Pierre Victoire, a chain of cheap and cheerful French bistros, has gone into receivership.

It is worth surveying the giddy heights which we have climbed. The last five years have been more than just any old boom. In the City, there has been the bull market of the century and this has combined with a solid housing market. Simon Rubinsohn, an economist at stockbrokers Capel-Cure Myers, reckons that this has nearly doubled our personal wealth to a total of about £4 trillion. Conspicuous consumption has been distilled into its purest form of eating expensively in public. But it's not just a matter of money. Even the most stony- hearted puritan would have to concede that the transformation of the British diet is a testament to a generation of British chefs, determined to improve our eating habits. Our grandparents used to say, 'They're not people like us, they eat in restaurants.' Now, we have become a nation of foodies, in thrall to the Two Fat Ladies.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the amount the average family spends on meals out has doubled in the last ten years from £7 to £14. It may not sound much, but the Henley Centre, a market research organisation, says the total amount has leapt from £16 billion in 1992 to an expected £25 billion this year. Anoth- er research company, Food Services Intelli- gence, reckons that the number of meals eaten out has jumped from 300 million a year in the mid-1980s to 450 million now.

There have also been big social changes. Capitalism may be triumphant, but so is bourgeois feminism. There are more women in the workplace who will not, or cannot, cook for all the men. Women of an older generation pride themselves on their housekeeping and their day in, day out ability in the kitchen. Many younger women (my younger sister excepted) have simply lost the skills of their mothers. They are now no better cooks than men and though they are capable of making a pasta dish out of the River Café cookbook, could never feed a family for a week without summoning Marks & Spencer for rein- forcements.

Curiously, therein lies the hope for the restaurateurs. Underpinning the gastro- nomic revolution are social trends which are not going to be reversed overnight. It is pretty unlikely that a whole generation of young women, accustomed to having their own careers, are suddenly going to tuck copies of Mrs Beeton under their arms and march back into the home. If the experi- ence of America is anything to go by, where they spend about twice what we do in restaurants, the trend will continue. 'As the years go by,' says Nico Ladenis, become more and more of an eating-out society. People want to lead a more Conti- nental way of life and that is not going to just suddenly end. Call it café society if you like.'

For the customer not clobbered by a downturn, the cloud has a silver lining. Carluccio and Bassedone agree that only restaurants which really deliver high-quali- ty food will survive. The sensation of being ripped off — which has occurred with increasing regularity — will be a thing of the past. Just imagine: prices will be held down; the waiters will be able to speak English again; you will be able to get a table; bowing, scraping and rubbing his hands together, Marco Pierre White, who certainly delivers high quality, will person- ally show you to your seat. I am looking forward to it.

The author is on the Daily Telegraph City staff.

I don't know what humans see in cosmetics. They're so painful.'