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Sun 8th Aug 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
‘This is not a normal firm’: Asda brothers Mohsin and Zuber Issa uncovered: “You’ve got to understand this is not like a normal business. I have a mandate. I can go in and do a deal ... look in the whites of their eyes ... and get it done.” Mohsin Issa, one of the two billionaire brothers from Blackburn who run EG Group, the owner of Asda and Euro Garages, gave evidence last month during a court clash over Caffè Nero. His comments provide a rare glimpse into the workings of the Issa brothers’ secretive empire, which spans petrol stations, supermarkets and the fast-food chain Leon. After its approach was rejected, EG instructed property agents to contact landlords and enlist them in joining a challenge to a rescue restructuring that Caffè Nero was carrying out. EG even paid one landlord £100,000 to challenge the CVA. EG made an offer for Caffè Nero last November, almost a year after Mohsin held a meeting with the company’s founder, Gerald Ford. Mohsin said that meeting had taken a year to arrange as Ford was “apparently unable to fit me into his schedule”. Mohsin told the court that he had taken control of about £160 million of Caffè Nero’s debt – and had made “preliminary” inquiries on buying other bank loans – putting EG in pole position to take control of the business should Caffè Nero default on its loans. “It shows commitment that we wanted to buy the business,” he said. Of his chief financial officer, Paul Altschwager, who was promoted in February, Mohsin said: “I do not take instructions off Mr Altschwager; he does not tell me what to do.” That comment was made after an email was raised from Altschwager pointing out that Caffè Nero’s debt level was higher than the £350 million to £400 million offered by EG. Mohsin was asked how he had arrived at the £350 million offer price for the chain. He rejected suggestions that his finance director had structured the deal. “If you ask me honestly, this does not really concern him and he is just putting his 5p’s worth in,” he said. Mohsin described the email from Altschwager as “rubbish”. “Whatever I think the business is worth is what I will pay,” he said. “I do not listen to Paul Altschwager to tell me what [the] value of a business is.” The court is expected to rule on the Issas’ CVA challenge next month. (Sunday Times)

Crisis? I’ll be in the kitchen trying to cook up restaurant takeovers: It takes a few minutes to locate Robin Rowland, the former boss of YO! Sushi. Instead of waiting at the table in his local pub where we have arranged to meet for a late lunch, he is in the kitchen talking to the chefs. It’s 3pm and he is anxious to ensure we can still place an order. Mission accomplished, he strolls into the dining room and warmly extends a hand. It turns out that Rowland, makes a habit of nosing around other people’s properties. And he doesn’t mind deploying a little subterfuge. “I can pretty much blag my way into most restaurant kitchens,” he says proudly. “You just say you’re interested or there on behalf of a landlord, I’ve used that one.” Almost four decades in the hospitality industry have not scrubbed away Rowland’s enthusiasm. He is particularly excited about Pho, the Vietnamese street-food group bought last week by TriSpan, the private equity firm Rowland leads in Europe. It has 30 restaurants and, according to Rowland, could touch 100 in the next few years. “The Asian palate is pretty well established – it’s going to continue to roll,” he says, “so as long as we keep them real, it’s all about the food and the customers; we could definitely reach that size.” A looming problem is rent: retail and hospitality firms have built up a total £5 billion in arrears, leaving them at loggerheads with landlords. Rowland thinks responsibility for these arrears should be divided equally: “No one should be able to walk away unscathed.” Instead of tightening his belt, though, the crisis has prompted Rowland to go on the offensive, hunting for deals while others are in retreat. “Fortune favours the brave,” he says of his plans for Pho, Rosa’s Thai and Thunderbird Fried Chicken, TriSpan’s other UK investments. “As long as you’re wise about site locations, then this is a wonderful time.” Rosa’s Thai, he says, has been offered sites 20% cheaper than they were pre-covid, with double the rent-free period – often up to 12 months. He is seizing the opportunity. “Other people have been napping, or been poorly financed,” he claims. “We get landlords actually dipping their hands in their pockets. Most importantly, you get availability for locations you wouldn’t have had before.” Rowland is even confident that London will soon recover. “Roll forward a year and I’m not worried,” he says of the capital’s prospects. (Sunday Times)

Councils want to block new pubs in areas where heavy drinking is harming health: Councils want the right to block new pubs in areas where heavy drinking is harming people’s health. Town hall chiefs say hospital admissions and ambulance data should be looked at before granting licences for bars, clubs and takeaways selling drink. Excessive alcohol use is estimated to cost the NHS £3.2 billion a year, as well as hitting social services and the police. The Local Government Association, which represents councils at all levels in England, says it should be a “legal requirement” to consider public health before granting alcohol licences, which also cover restaurants and off-licences. Councils can currently only look at public safety, public nuisance, protecting children and the impact on crime. Nesil Caliskan, leader of Enfield Council in North London, said: “The last year has shown the importance of venues taking measures to protect health. But under the current law councils are discouraged from using the Licensing Act [to do so].” Ministers will respond to the proposal “in due course” – after looking at the impact in Scotland, which made the change six years ago. But with more than 2,500 pubs closing in the pandemic, the British Beer and Pub Association, warned: “The last thing our sector needs is more red tape.” And CAMRA chairman Nik Antona said: “If public health is a consideration, councils should also take into account the wellbeing and mental health benefits of a community pub or social club.” (The Mirror)

Hidden ‘dark kitchens’ fuel our delivery addiction: The lockdown delivery bonanza has resulted in disused railway arches and industrial units becoming home to some of the UK’s fastest-growing startups as “dark” stores and kitchens spread across the country. Now awash with venture capital but deprived of stay-at-home restrictions, the pioneers of “quick commerce” are aiming to change the way we shop and eat for good. Dark stores and kitchens do not serve customers in person, meaning operators can make savings on staff, rent and operational costs. “We’re essentially a team of chefs in the kitchen,” says Jonny Boud, founder of Kitchen Ventures. “We don’t have managers or front of house and bar staff.” He says the beauty of dark kitchens is the ability to service customers who want different cuisines, “so out of one kitchen, we can cook multiple things”. Boud says this makes them attractive to young entrepreneurs “looking to get into the game without having to go through the lengthy and expensive process of taking an actual bricks-and-mortar location.” He has first-hand experience of the more traditional process through running Rum Kitchen, a Caribbean restaurant chain, and the Italian restaurant Passo, which he describes as “a lot of fun, but also time consuming and heavily capital intensive”. Adding to the affordability of dark kitchens is the lower rent they demand, with no client face-time meaning “it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the high street or two streets down”. Boud says this makes the concept very scalable: “You’re not always fighting for prime locations in order to expand your business”. Kitchen Ventures plans to expand to four new destinations by the end of the year, including Brighton and Birmingham. Paul Arenson, chief executive of property firm Stenprop, says it has had strong demand from operators for its industrial sites. “We’ve let a dark kitchen in Bristol, and three in Glasgow to a meal prep company.” Other landlords have reported bidding wars erupting between dark store and kitchen operators for vacant sites in densely populated areas. Laws requiring people to remain at home would appear to be a godsend for such delivery firms, so would it be logical to expect the end of lockdowns to cause a slowdown in demand? ‘No’, says Boud, who noted Kitchen Ventures has recorded a slight increase in sales since all restrictions were eased. (The Telegraph)

Manchester’s hospitality staffing crisis deepens with 3,000 job vacancies and rising: Hotels closing entire floors, bars closing early and restaurants reducing their table numbers – just some of the impacts of a “desperate” staffing shortage that appears to be getting tougher by the day here in Manchester. Industry bosses say there are now 3,000 job vacancies across the hospitality sector in Manchester including a range of roles in some of the city’s top hotels, bars and restaurants that are simply not being filled. That number is set to double in the weeks ahead – as the return of crowds to football matches at both Manchester United and Manchester City later this month means another 3,000 hospitality staff at both Old Trafford and Etihad stadia are in the midst of being recruited as well. The huge number of workers needed – across the board from junior to senior staff – is putting incredible pressure on businesses who are having to take tough decisions on how they operate to cope while they continue the urgent hunt for staff. Many businesses are now offering retention payments, bonuses and work perks to incentivise people to stay in a role beyond six months, and wages across the industry are rising as staff are tempted elsewhere by pay rises. Adrian Ellis, chairman of Manchester Hotelier’s Association and manager of the five star Lowry Hotel, says the situation “caught everybody by surprise”. He said: “There’s now at least 3,000 vacancies in Manchester and it’s across all sectors of hospitality. And it’s affecting different venues in different ways. Partly it is the impact of Brexit with Europeans going back home, but the most surprising impact is lifestyle changes through lockdown, with so many people in the industry deciding they’re going to do something completely different – and it’s caught everybody by surprise. We’re now working with schools to get people more interested in our industry starting from September, and we’re working with 14 Manchester colleges to get 400 students in for work experience in the autumn as well as 60-80 first year students from Manchester Metropolitan University. We’re trying to get retirees back in the industry, and we’ve been working with the Mustard Tree charity with people previously homeless being trained up. We’re trying to be more creative in recruitment campaigns, and we’re trying to recruit in different ways.” (Manchester Evening News)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Ebury by Fat Macy’s, Pimlico: Often I know very little about a restaurant before visiting other than the fact that it’s, well, there. Once a place has piqued my interest I’d rather just go, form my own impressions and research all the other stuff afterwards. (I do the same with films.) I’d built up a vague impression of Fat Macy’s from its regular emails – an impression, it turns out, that couldn’t have been further from the reality. I knew it was involved in Something Good, some manner of social enterprise. Perhaps with some sort of cod-American posh fast-food supper club situation – an inference from the name alone. So I was altogether unprepared to find Fat Macy’s in off-radar Pimlico, a neighbourhood not much known for its aching hipness. We’re eating in the “community courtyard”, a surprisingly sprawling space behind the shacks, furnished with colourful tables, umbrellas and sprouting raised veg plots. It’s all most unexpected. And even more unexpected is its Middle Eastern menu – labneh with chilli butter, hummus and toasted pine nuts, aubergine maghmour with green pilaf and “Lebanese pizza” (flatbreads zhuzhed with the likes of harissa, za’atar and Akkawi cheese, a member of the feta family). During the supper club years Fat Macy’s flirted with everything from Mexican to Christmas dinners too: not a smashed burger or loaded fries in sight. Silly me. But it’s not exclusively Middle Eastern: there’s Cobble Lane charcuterie – made in Islington; cheeses with the likes of Rubies in the Rubble chutneys; chocolate torte with espresso cream. The shop part of the outfit sells deli goods and natural wines from “local suppliers and other socially minded businesses”. Polishing off a plateful of lamb chops in a sauce of almost-melted, slow-cooked tomatoes with the salty funk of vanished anchovies, before nibbling on a chunk of mastic-chewy Turkish delight, I’m so pleased Fat Macy’s now has this impressive space to call home. Ebury is a lovely place staffed by lovely people. And it’s doing lovely things. Oh, and the food is pretty good too. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Jay Rayner reviews Burnt Orange, Brighton: Brown foods are the best. We know this. Brown foods are about caramelised sugars and the Maillard reaction; they’re hefty flavours, emphasised and accentuated. They conjure images of prehistoric campfires and the lick of the flame before the lick of the tongue. So much about Brighton’s Burnt Orange, which opened in June, is calculated to trigger these lustful, crisped and crispy thoughts. The name was given to a shade of orange in 1915 and is, say web sources I’ve decided to trust, designed to evoke thoughts of leaping flames. Step inside the achingly refurbished site on Middle Street, just up from the seafront, and it’s all very much burnt orange. Take in the toasty toned leather banquettes, the varnished slat-wood frontage to the bar, the downlit stone walls with chunks of flint, the paint work in shades of… well, you get the idea. By this point the presence of a stonking wood-fired oven at the heart of the kitchen almost goes without saying. At Burnt Orange there’s a lot of searing and blistering, smoking and flaming. The menu is sprinkled liberally with these words. There are also outbreaks of Persian limes and harissa, preserved lemons and wild garlic. It thrums with an apparent eagerness to display on-trend credentials. What saves Burnt Orange from being an annoyingly self-conscious exercise in trend-surfing is the food. The complex dish descriptions and that wood-fired oven deliver on their heat-bubbled promise. Given the team behind it, led by skilled restaurateur Razak Helalat, that’s unsurprising. They know what they’re doing. They also have the Salt Room, housed in an outcrop of the cheerless Hilton Metropole on the front. There, among many good things, I was served an expertly flame-grilled whole fish, which showed a clear understanding of the power of both direct and indirect heat. (The Observer)

Tom Parker Bowles reviews The Silver Darling, Pocra Quay, Aberdeen: The Silver Darling is an old description for the herring, a glittering, endlessly versatile beauty that can be fried, pickled or smoked into kippers and bloaters. Stuffed full with the sort of oil that puts a lusty spring in your step, they were once so lavishly abundant that in 1913 alone, an estimated 10,000 boats from across Europe came to Scottish waters to harvest the seething seas. On their slender backs, vast fortunes were built. Aberdeen, by the mid-19th century, had a good-sized herring fishery, and the boats would leave the harbour, passing the old Customs House, where we now sit in the restaurant named after the herring, gazing out over grey (granite, sky, sea), punctuated by a flash of green golf course. Occasionally, a ship glides past, through the harbour’s neck and off into the North Sea. But despite the dour colour, it’s a bonny view, and the dining room, one floor up and framed with vast glass windows, is a civilised place in which to spend an early summer’s afternoon. Local lobsters are off today, as are scallops, which is a bore as they’re part of the reason we’re here. But if you are going to buy local, you just have to accept the ebb and flow of the catch. Irish and Scottish oysters are available, in all manner of ways. But following a recent brush with a bad batch, I give them a reluctant miss. There’s a fine Cullen skink, thick as a Moray burr, with great chunks of undyed smoked haddock. And succulent curls of pil pil prawns, wallowing in what tastes like chorizo oil. Although call me a moaning English bawbag and all that, but I’d prefer them whole. A slight mix-up with mains is quickly and sweetly sorted, a good bottle of Picpoul sunk, and then the sun peeks out, transforming dull to delight, as the sea begins to sparkle, and the sky turns azure. Another bottle of wine is ordered, and we share mussels, sweet, plump and fresh, in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. And pick at monkfish scampi, artfully fried, and dunked into a wild garlic mayonnaise. This far north, and the season is still in full bloom. Some good cheese, and more idle chat. We’ve an hour until our plane, and we’re in no hurry. Another glass is poured, and another ship glides by. (Mail on Sunday)

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