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Sun 3rd Oct 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Former Conran restaurant empire D&D to change hands in £100m takeover: The restaurant empire founded by Sir Terence Conran is to change hands for the first time in nearly a decade after its owners entered exclusive talks with a little-known private equity investor. Sky News has learned that D&D, which owns prominent London restaurants such as the Bluebird in Chelsea, Coq d’Argent in the heart of the City, and Skylon on the South Bank, is close to being bought by Montecito Equity Partners. Sources said that the talks were several weeks from being concluded and that a deal was expected to place an enterprise value on D&D of about £100m. If completed, it will be the first time since 2013 that control of Sir Terence’s former business has changed ownership, and will come just over a year after the death of one of Britain’s most influential designers. It will also represent a bet on the recovery of central London’s fine dining scene in the wake of the pandemic, with D&D’s roughly 40 UK restaurants having been closed for chunks of the last 18 months. Most of D&D’s sites, many of which became renowned as celebrity haunts, are in the capital, although it also operates restaurants in Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, New York and Paris. A new venture in Birmingham is scheduled to open next spring. Interpath Advisory, the former restructuring unit of KPMG UK, has been advising on the sale of D&D as it widens its offering into the provision of general corporate finance advice, according to people close to the process. Little is known about the investment history of Montecito, which is based in Kensington. The firm was founded by Pravir Singh, a former UBS executive who “led coverage for a number of the bank’s most substantial billionaire clients”, according to Montecito’s website. The exact structure of its acquisition of D&D was unclear this weekend, although one insider said it was possible that LDC would retain a small stake in the business. LDC, Montecito and Interpath declined to comment this weekend, while D&D has been contacted for comment. (Sky News)

Pret a changer? Britain’s ubiquitous sandwich chain seeks a new recipe for success: After navigating through the various lockdowns during the pandemic, Pret A Manger, weighted heavily towards cities, has started to notice a recovery in customer numbers. About two thirds of its sites are located in London – now, as workers make their way back into offices, so too are they making their way back to their daily coffee and sandwich run. According to Bloomberg’s Pret Index, sales are running at around three quarters of their pre-covid levels across the UK – it hit 77% of 2019 levels in the City of London and Canary Wharf last week, the highest level since the pandemic. In September alone, sales in the City were up by around 25%. Earlier this month it announced plans to open more than 200 UK shops in the next couple of years, with a focus on regional and suburban areas. Competition in these areas is hotting up. Bakery chain Gail’s, which recently opened a store in leafy commuter hotspot Beaconsfield, has said it is aiming to double its estate to around 140 cafes, while lunchtime favourite Itsu is adding 100 stores after recently opening a site in Reading. “There’s an argument that people will want something different after an event like this,” says Julian Metcalfe OBE, one of the founders of Pret who later went on to set up Itsu, which he still runs. “They’ll want something hot, something more valuable.” Cold, refrigerated wraps, for many customers, just won’t suffice anymore. In the 1980s, when Pret opened, “everything it did was brand new”, Metcalfe says. “Its approach to staff, its approach to food, its approach to customers and value.” His view is that “Pret will have to reinvent themselves”. Metcalfe says price rises across the board could get even more pronounced. In his mind, there is a risk that, soon, Britons could struggle to find a cheap lunch option. With labour tight in the sector, wages will start to spiral. “Handmade food is very labour-intensive. Cooking vegetables, chopping them, preparing them. Wages are going to go up and up and up, so the cafe culture as we know it, where you can pay £15 an hour and sell a sandwich for £3.50, £4, I don’t see how that can survive. Lots of places are saying they’re opening hundreds of new branches.” (The Telegraph)

Sunak plots extension to covid loans scheme: Rishi Sunak is drawing up plans to extend his covid business loans scheme amid fears Britain’s economic recovery could be hamstrung by labour shortages and soaring cost pressures. The Treasury is understood to be considering an extension to the Recovery Loan Scheme (RLS) that is scheduled to wrap up on 31 December and could make the terms less generous for firms. Officials will consult with banks over the next month to decide whether to continue the loan aid and tweak the terms. A Whitehall source said the scheme’s future is being discussed in the run-up to this month’s Budget, but a decision by ministers could arrive later. The RLS was unveiled at the Budget in March as a replacement to the bounce back and coronavirus interruption loan schemes for businesses, offering an 80% guarantee on debt of between £25,000 and £10m. The state will take the bulk of losses from the loans, helping to encourage banks to lend to businesses. The chancellor will deliver a speech at the Conservative party conference tomorrow as a slowing recovery and building cost pressures add to the case for continued support for businesses. Sources with knowledge of the discussions said the scheme was designed to be flexible enough to change, stressing that ministers have not made a final decision on whether to continue the support. They added: “The scheme was always designed to have longevity beyond the end of the year. The question was just what would the scheme look like after the end of the year.” Options for a revamped scheme could include cutting the government guarantee, slashing the potential losses taxpayers face from unpaid debt, and reducing the personal guarantee. A Treasury spokesman said: “We have provided over £79bn to 1.6m businesses through our government-backed covid loans, including the Recovery Loan Scheme, to ensure firms had finance they needed throughout the pandemic.” (Sunday Telegraph)

Never mind the fuel crisis: care homes, hospitality businesses and farms are running on empty: Andrew Stembridge is executive director of Iconic Luxury Hotels, a group that includes the Cliveden House spa hotel in Berkshire. His hotels have between 10% and 25% job vacancy levels. “We’ve always relied on the secondary labour market of non-UK workers,” he says. “The missing jigsaw piece is mostly European workers, who, frankly, did a lot of jobs that Brits will never want to do.” If one sector embodies the difficulties caused by leaving the European Union, it is hospitality. EU workers made up more than 40% of the workforce before the pandemic. According to the consultancy firms CGA and Fourth, one in six jobs in the industry is vacant. The crisis is causing a drastic collapse in optimism: only 18% leaders feel confident about recruitment over the next year, down from 67% in June. Stembridge is capping the number of guests at his hotels and has sometimes had to stop serving lunch. What about businesses that were less reliant on European staff? Kevin Georgel runs the St Austell brewery in Cornwall, which has produced 2.2 billion pints of beer since 1851. He employed fewer workers from Europe but staff numbers are still about 20% down. “There aren’t enough people: unemployment is low in the south west. We’ve lost £2 million since the summer due to staff shortages,” he says. “We’ve had to close pubs and reduce hours and capacity. That’s all money we could have been paying taxes on and investing.” So, where have all the staff gone? “A lot of people on furlough found alternative sectors,” he says. “Lots went into retail and Amazon. These were businesses that thrived during the pandemic, and workers see them as lower risk.” Those who have come back enjoyed 11% pay rises. But not everyone returned from furlough, according to Jeremy Roberts, head of the restaurant group Living Ventures. “There’s been a re-evaluation of life in lockdown, and a lot of people have said: ‘I quite like being at home and I might stay there.’ We don’t find out until we give them a call and they say, ‘Nope, I’m not coming back’.” (Sunday Times)

Pubs and restaurants relying on students working two-hour shifts in bid to stay open: Pubs and restaurants are being forced to rely on students working two-hour shifts to stay open, as venues in some of Britain’s most popular tourist destinations are closing due to staff shortages. Hospitality venues are increasingly turning to Uber-style apps which provide workers for a fraction of a traditional shift. Industry leaders say young people are reluctant to commit to eight-hour shifts in what have traditionally been seen as stressful and poorly paid jobs. One platform, Stint, has now seen around 75,000 students sign up to work micro shifts in bars, clubs and restaurants at their busiest times of day. Sol Schlagman, who founded the app, said the pandemic had caused younger people to value their mental health more highly and they were reluctant to submit themselves to the stress of serving lots of customers while understaffed. “What companies need to do is really think about how important it is to make working in hospitality more attractive,” he said. “In particular, bringing in people during the busiest hours to relieve pressure.” It came as hospitality venues in tourist hotspots are shutting shop for two days or longer to give existing staff a break during what should still be a lucrative time of year. Some have resorted to putting up signs apologising for the closure and explaining they have fallen victim to the national shortage of hospitality workers. Among the counties particularly badly hit are Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. In one popular coastal village, Hope Cove in Devon, the two pubs and restaurant have been forced to close on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to give their hard-pressed staff time off. The nearby town of Kingsbridge has also suffered from a shortage of bar staff and waiters. The Crab Shell pub and restaurant, along the town’s picturesque quay, has been forced shut its upstairs balcony area in order for the staff it has managed to recruit to serve its downstairs tables. One of the venue’s managers said: “It’s a nightmare. First the Europeans went home and can’t come back. Then the students who work for us over the summer went back to university. Replacing them has been impossible. Local youngsters see it as an insecure job since covid, with the fear of hospitality having to shut again. On top of that it’s not particularly well paid so they’d rather go elsewhere.” (The Telegraph)

A million unfilled jobs – and no one to serve the Tories in Manchester: For the swanky bars and restaurants that surround Manchester Central convention complex, Conservative party conference normally means being fully staffed to meet extra demand over the busy weekend. But this year is different. Huge shortages of pivotal workers in hospitality mean many venues are unable to fill their rota. In the 30 years since Dimitri’s first opened on Manchester’s Deansgate, the restaurant has employed hundreds of European staff, but not now. “We’re a Mediterranean restaurant so we used to have a nice mix of people from Greece, Spain, Portugal or Italy, but all of a sudden that’s gone,” said Susie Benson, duty manager. While the Observer was there, two teenagers arrived looking for pot-washing work. “That’s the first time someone’s been in asking about a job in months. We’d normally have two or three people a day,” she said. The popular restaurant recently placed an ad on the job site Indeed, and of the 17 people selected for interview, only two turned up. “It’s been difficult but we’ve managed,” said Benson. In the period of June to August this year, job vacancies in the UK reached the highest levels since records began, tipping over the one million mark for the first time, according to the Office for National Statistics. The hospitality sector has the largest proportion of vacancies, with nearly six empty posts for every 100 filled ones, a 75% rise on the previous quarter. Some hospitality roles are more badly affected than others. Ezra & Gil, an upmarket independent coffee shop on Peter Street directly opposite the Midland Hotel, where many conference events are taking place, would expect to do a roaring trade over the next couple of days with meetings, lunches and casual coffees. But, being a new venue that started trading after lockdown, it has managed to recruit only four of the 13 chefs it needs and, as a result, is operating with a reduced menu and shorter opening hours, which owner Alison Creely described as “disappointing”. She said: “There are huge chef shortages at the moment. During lockdown, a lot of people have re-evaluated and realised they don’t want to do it anymore.” In all the discussions, debates and presentations at the Tory party conference, Manchester hospitality businesses are hoping one message gets through. “They need to relax the Brexit rules,” said Creely. (The Observer)

Business confidence ‘fell off cliff’ in September as supply shortages, energy crisis and fuel chaos drove up prices: Business leaders’ confidence in the economy ‘fell off a cliff’ in September as supply shortages, an energy crisis and fuel chaos drove up prices. Company directors are more pessimistic about the future than at any time since early February, at the height of the third lockdown, according to a survey from the Institute of Directors. Kitty Ussher, chief economist at the IoD, said: “The business environment has deteriorated dramatically in recent weeks. Following a period of optimism in the early summer, people running small and medium sized businesses across the UK are now far less certain about the overall economic situation. Confidence fell off a cliff in September.” Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed last year’s slump was less severe than first thought, making it the worst recession in 100 years rather than 300. Output tumbled by 9.7% – less than the 9.8% initially pencilled in – and the economy is 3.3% smaller than it was pre-pandemic, better than the 4.4% first thought. This has prompted speculation that the Bank of England might now be more likely to raise interest rates earlier than expected. But the Bank of England has been wary of lifting rates from their record low of 0.1% too soon, and slowing the economic recovery. (Mail on Sunday)

Britain faces a ‘double whammy’ of food-price rises that will squeeze consumers already facing drastic hikes in energy and household bills: Britain faces a ‘double whammy’ of food-price rises that will squeeze consumers already facing drastic hikes in energy and household bills. Food industry experts warned shoppers to brace themselves for an increase of ‘4 or 5%’ by the end of November followed by a similar rise in January. David Sables, a food industry veteran who helps suppliers negotiate with big firms, said the first set of price hikes were linked to rising cost of commodities, raw materials and labour in recent months. But he warned the effects of the current gas crisis, lorry driver shortage and carbon dioxide shortages had not yet filtered through. CO2 is used in food production, including salad bags and meat packaging, and soaring gas bills have forced some suppliers to shut. Tesco chairman John Allan warned two weeks ago that shoppers should prepare for price rises of around 5% before Christmas. But Sables, chief executive at consultants Sentinel, said the latest strains on the economy had paved the way for a second set of price rises, due to hit consumers in the New Year. One supermarket executive agreed, adding he expected inflation to reach ‘at least double if not triple’ the current 3.2% rate. Consumer prices rose by the most on record in the year to August, with economists highlighting food-price inflation as a chief cause. (Mail on Sunday)

Appetite for food on the go drives upgrades for Greencore revenue: Britain’s biggest maker of sandwiches has shrugged off supply chain and labour problems to deliver a further improvement in trading during its final quarter. In a pre-close trading update, Greencore said that it had made progress in revenue, profitability and cash in the past three months thanks to demand for “food to go” and new business wins. It said yesterday that revenues were up 27% on the final quarter of last year and 1% up on the equivalent period in 2019, before covid-19 hit. For the full year it predicted revenue of £1.32 billion, up from £1.27 billion. It expected to generate operating profit “towards the upper end” of previous guidance of between £36 million and £40 million on an adjusted basis, while its net debt would finish the year below £190 million, compared with previous forecasts of up to £240 million. Greencore operates 13 “food to go” manufacturing units, including eight focused on sandwiches, three on salads and two on sushi. It has eight other plants in convenience categories including chilled soups, cooking sauces and Yorkshire puddings. The Dublin-based group has a UK distribution operation with more than 500 vehicles, four regional centres and 14 transport hubs that delivers Greencore products and third-party products to more than 10,000 small format stores. It supplies all the big supermarkets. (The Times)

Jay Rayner reviews The Wigmore, London: Happiness is a well-made cheese toastie. The XXL Stove Top 3 Cheese Toastie with mustard at the Wigmore in London is so much more than that. It is bliss. It is a beautifully engineered, lusciously executed, burnished and bronzed tribute to the carnal love affair between toast and cheese. It was not what I expected. The Wigmore, which opened in 2017, is a pub as imagined by Michel Roux Jr of Le Gavroche, a temple to French classicism, where the devoutly greedy go to worship the gods of butter, cream and demi-glace. Le Gavroche is a kind of French embassy, only with better catering. Could the culinary Roux really understand the culinary Britishness of a food pub? My answer is a firm yes, albeit with a glutton’s honed sensibility. The Wigmore is an outcrop of the Langham Hotel, which sits across from the BBC at Portland Place. Inside it is a handsome vault of jade green wall and arch. There are high, marble-topped counters, with steampunk-style studs around the edges. There are globe lights and frosted glass panels and bar stools upholstered in leather the colour of salted caramel. Vital information: you can come here and just drink beers, many and various. They have casks of Thornbridge Lord Marples Bitter and Right to Roam Buxton, and kegs of their own Wigmore Rosehip Saison brewed for them by Yonder. It is very much a pub. I later learn that, from 19 October, they are running what they’re calling a Toastie Takeover. Three guest chefs – Andrew Wong of A Wong, Cyrus Todiwala of Café Spice Namaste and Anna Haugh of Myrtle Restaurant – will each design a toastie that will stay on the menu for four weeks. You can eat one and support a good cause, too, because £1 from every sale will go to support Calm, the pioneering anti-suicide charity. Just imagine: you can have the best toastie in London and do good. That’s a terrific day out by anybody’s standards. (The Observer)

Tom Parker Bowles reviews Fallow, Heddon Street, London: It looks like something dredged from the blackest depths of Hell, a Boschian vision of torment, a fire-blackened head awash in a sea of pain. One dead white eye stares up from the plate, mouth agape in some infernal scream, slathered in a sauce the colour of searing flame. But worry not, and screw your courage to the sticking place, for this cod’s head, bathed in sriracha butter, is one of the most beautiful dishes I’ve eaten in years, a paean to piscine texture, with a soft purr of heat, all sweet, pearlescent cheek and gloriously gelatinous neck and jowl. It’s the best part of a big fish, of course, and I’m not alone in my adoration. Food cultures across the world venerate it, the star of many a curry, braise and stew. But a dish like this seems typical of Fallow, a small restaurant in London’s Heddon Street, with the tag line, ‘Creative Cooking, Sustainable Thinking’. I’m not a fan of restaurant tag lines. The food should do the talking, but that’s the only complaint I have about this West End gem. And far from being the sort of po-faced, hair shirted place that recycles dogma and distils its own smug, Fallow is fun. There are frozen margaritas, and cheeseburgers. Albeit made from dairy cow. The burgers that is, rather than cocktail. But retired dairy cow is not only blessed with magnificent flavour but uses a beast that is otherwise incinerator-bound. By the time you read this, the temporary Heddon Street site will have closed and they’ll be reopening, at the start of November, in St James’s. But you’ll still get everything we devoured – charred corn ‘ribs’, hewn off the cob, lavished with lime, and smoked beef ribs, where the soft, fatty meat slips lasciviously off the bone. Mackerel, gleamingly fresh and knowingly cooked, comes in the most subtle of chilli broths, with small, sharp jolts of preserved lemon. This is a kitchen that revels in the art of acidity. Chef-proprietors Will Murray and Jack Croft met working at Dinner By Heston, and know my friend Damo. Which means a plate sent out unbidden, that doesn’t appear on the bill; an intensely creamy mushroom parfait of astonishing autumnal depth. Pickled mushrooms add bite. Another immaculate dish, from a restaurant that is serious, sustainable and civilised. Seeing, though, as I didn’t pay for that, I suggest you try it yourselves. (Mail on Sunday)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Imperial China, Soho: I ignore the lists and go where I’ve always gone, where my son first ordered chicken feet aged about 12, where I’ve been taken – brace for a very unusual-for-me name-drop – by Yotam Ottolenghi. And where the setting is camply charming. Enter Imperial China via a glossy but unassuming entrance, cross the little footbridge over a faux stream teeming with carp to a wood-panelled space hung with many lanterns. The Chinatown website says, “Step over the bridge and into a Cantonese wonderland”, and who am I to argue with them? Or Yotam? The years have coloured my memory: it seems much smaller, bridge and stream less, um, wonderlandy. There are now disposable menus, boxes for ticking. The dim sum selection seems a little mainstream, all the greatest hits. Tentatively asking if there are any dim sum specials I’m handed an older, laminated menu, complete with photographs, which pretty much comes with the subtext, “Here you are, you know-nothing grockle”. OK, fair enough. But everything we eat is good, in some cases really good. I go with family. Our own tradition of dim sum on a Sunday has been falling by the wayside for a while, so this is as reviving as the bottomless jasmine tea. We have plates of thick wheat noodles – slightly flabby but generously laced with prawns, scallops and squid and pungent from belacan (fermented shrimp paste). A vast pile of good roasted char siu, as if we haven’t already had enough char siu. Robust fried dumplings filled with aromatic minced pork, if not Shanghai-style sheng jian bao, a very close relation, glorious when spread with an extra layer of their incendiary crispy chilli oil. I’m not about to cringeworthily pretend I’m doing anything as authentic as yum cha: I’m having dumplings and noodles and tea in a room populated by many other families, mostly Asian, and it’s lovely. Plus they serve dim sum till 5pm. Three o’clock is now my go-to time, the atmosphere more serene, the dumplings perkier. (Sunday Times)

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