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Sun 10th Oct 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Burger King UK cooks up £600m float: Burger King’s UK division is set to float on the London Stock Exchange for about £600 million as demand rebounds from the covid pandemic. The UK arm of the restaurant giant is close to appointing advisers in preparation for a stock market listing next year. The company, owned by the private equity firm Bridgepoint, is understood to be in talks with bankers from Investec and Numis, with an appointment of one thought to be imminent. Burger King UK holds the master franchise for the UK from New York-listed Restaurant Brands International (RBI). It was bought by Bridgepoint in 2017, when the private equity firm also acquired Caspian UK Group, one of the UK’s largest Burger King franchisees with 74 restaurants. Today, it operates about 530 sites in the UK, some 400 of which are owned by franchisees. The potential listing comes after a wave of activity in the leisure sector. Last week, the Mexican food chain Tortilla made its debut on the junior Aim stock market with a £70 million flotation. Meanwhile Nightcap, a fund founded by Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Sarah Willingham, raised a further £10 million in May after listing in January. Under Bridgepoint’s ownership, Burger King UK has been buying back some restaurants from franchisees. The company is led by chief executive Alasdair Murdoch, previously at Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and is chaired by former Center Parcs chief Martin Robinson. Burger King UK believes there is a growing opportunity for it to expand further in drive-thru and on high streets where it does not have a presence; the number of its outlets significantly lags the 1,300 McDonald’s sites in the UK. It has also been buoyed by a jump in delivery sales during the pandemic through its partnerships with Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats; these sales are understood to have remained strong even as customers have been able to return to restaurants. Under its franchise agreement, Burger King UK is obliged to open about 30 restaurants each year for the next four to five years. About two-thirds will be drive-thru restaurants. Its franchisees are expected to open a further 20. Burger King UK and Bridgepoint are expected to formalise the listing plans in the coming days, and could yet run a dual-track process where a sale is also explored. A source suggested a valuation of £500 million to £600 million. (Sunday Times)

Retailers urge Sunak to cut business rates: Retail bosses and landlords have demanded a cut to business rates as fears grow that the tax is wrecking the recovery on the high street. In a letter to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, 21 business figures from companies including MossBros and The Entertainer said that action is vital to prevent a disaster. Sunak is expected to announce the delayed results of a review of the rates system in autumn, with speculation growing that it could be unveiled in his Budget later this month. The property tax has long been derided as an outdated measure that penalises bricks and mortar stores at the expense of online rivals which have warehouses in cheaper out of town locations. The letter said: “There are many views on precisely how the business rates system should be reformed, but on this we are all united: the current business rates system is broken and there must now be fundamental change. If there is no genuine reform of the business rates system, the occupation of commercial premises is going to become unaffordable to more businesses. There will be more bankruptcies of well-known retail brands, more retrenchment by retailers which do survive, more closures of hospitality venues, more boarded-up shops, fewer start-ups and whole shopping centres abandoned. Many communities are being hit hard, with thousands of jobs being lost each year.” Retail signatories include Brian Brick of MossBros, Philip Bier of Flying Tiger Copenhagen, Gary Grant of The Entertainer and Richard Walker of Iceland. The letter was also signed by executives from landlords including Capital and Regional, NewRiver Retail and the New West End Company, as well as trade bodies including the Bid Foundation and British Retail Consortium. Walker, the Iceland boss, has previously described business rates as “outdated and Victorian”. Morrison’s, Kingfisher, Tesco, Greggs and the Federation of Small Businesses and the trade union Usdaw have all also separately called for rates reform as pressure builds on Mr Sunak to act. The chancellor has also faced political lobbying from Red Wall MPs in favour of a permanent cut. (Sunday Telegraph)

Pay gap between men and women fails to improve: The average gender pay gap of all firms that reported in the past financial year is 10.4% – the same as the average of all firms reporting in 2019-20. The BBC looked at a company’s median pay gap – that is, the difference in pay between the middle-ranking woman and the middle-ranking man. This is different to unequal pay – paying women less than men for the same work – which is illegal. In all, 9,628 companies reported in time for the deadline. That was up from a total number of 6,945 firms that reported in 2019. Of the companies that had reported by the deadline of 5 October: 7,572 reported a pay gap which favours men, 1,286 have a pay gap favouring women, 770 report no pay gap. Of businesses with more than 20,000 employees, some with the biggest increase in the pay gap towards men compared with last year include Wetherspoon’s, Argos, Sky, Amazon and HSBC. Conversely, Jaguar, Sky and Travis Perkins were amongst those to report the biggest change in favour of women. A spokesperson from the government said that gender pay gap reporting had “helped to focus and motivate employers to tackle inequality in their workforce”. “Given the circumstances of the last 18 months, the EHRC was right to suspend enforcement action and we are pleased that so many organisations have submitted their reports on time,” the spokesperson added. (BBC News) 

McDonald’s launches McPlant vegan burger: A vegan McDonald’s burger would once have seemed an oxymoron, an act of sacrilege to fans of the traditional beef patty. On Wednesday, however, McDonald’s will launch its first plant-based burger, propelling meat substitutes into the mass market. Brands such as Burger King, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Leon already offer a plant-based alternative. Half of UK adults have eaten a meat substitute in the past six months, rising to almost two-thirds among the under-25s, according to the research firm Mintel. McDonald’s said it had spent three years testing patties, cheese and sauces that did not “compromise on flavour and texture”. The £3.49 McPlant burger has ingredients including pea protein powder, refined coconut oil and apple extract and is coloured with beetroot. Grainne Allen, director of food and innovation for McDonald’s UK and Ireland, said: “I’ve worked in product development for 30 years, and this is the hardest challenge I’ve ever been involved in.” Getting the square of melted cheese right was the greatest challenge, he said. “We ate our way through what felt like more than 100 vegan cheeses.” (Sunday Times)

Start-ups race to add lab-grown meat to the menu: Anthony Browne was hoping to have tried lab-grown meat by now. While the concept of a “Frankenstein burger” may cause some stomachs to turn, the Conservative MP has been hankering for his first taste. “The cultured meat revolution is happening,” he told a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference last week. “Given it is happening, we ought to be open to it.” Despite his keen anticipation, Browne still can’t say whether he actually likes the stuff. “Cultured meat will only take off if it tastes good enough for people to accept it, and it may be that I try it and I think yuck, disgusting.” It is not for want of trying. An attempt to put on a tasting of ­lab-grown chicken nuggets in Parliament earlier this year was blocked by the Food Standards Agency, who deemed the event illegal. UK laws, carried over from the EU, dictate that “novel foods” must undergo rigorous safety assessments before they can be sold or even given away in the UK. Getting the green light can take 16 months. “We now have control of our own regulation,” Browne sighs. “It should be agile, nimble without lowering standards.” Start-ups in the field are getting frustrated with the lack of progress. “If we don’t move quickly, countries like Singapore that have already approved cultivated meat for consumption will leave us in their wake,” warned Oxford’s Ivy Farm Technologies. Research commissioned by Ivy Farm found lab-grown “cultivated” meat could add £2.1bn to the UK economy by 2030 and create more than 16,000 jobs. “If we can seize the ‘first mover’ advantage, the UK can become a powerhouse for alternative proteins, exporting our products and technology across the globe and reducing the UK’s reliance on imported meat,” they said. It is an attractive prospect for policymakers but there are hurdles, not least consumers’ squeamishness. “It’s funny that consumers would take that view when we think about the horrific things that go on in slaughterhouses. But I don’t think consumers will buy that [argument],” says Anthony Chow, co-founder of venture capital firm Agronomics, which invests in businesses focused on cultivated meat. Instead, he says, sustainability will be a bigger factor to entice consumers. (Sunday Telegraph)

Odeon comes blazing back as cinemas get a James Bond boost: Daniel Craig’s James Bond swansong has sold more than 1m tickets at Odeon cinemas in the UK and Ireland. For around half of those watching No Time To Die it was their first cinema visit since the covid-19 outbreak, the cinema chain said. It is the most attended film since Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker in 2019 in a major boost for the sector, which has struggled through the pandemic. Universal Pictures this week said the film took £89m at the international box office in its opening weekend, a Bond-franchise record, £26m of which was in the UK and Ireland. An Odeon spokesman said the return of Bond – starring Daniel Craig in his fifth and final outing as 007 – was ‘hugely exciting’ and ‘worth the wait’. The 25th Bond movie was scheduled for release in April last year but was pushed back to 12 November and finally to this month because of the pandemic. Stock market-listed Cineworld will be hoping for a similar boost from No Time To Die. The firm’s shares fell 90% in less than three months at the start of last year as the pandemic struck. They have more than tripled in value since then but remain down 68% since January 2020, although they fell 2.9%, or 2.1p, to 69.84p yesterday. (Mail on Sunday)

Hammerson prepares to axe jobs: Hammerson is poised to axe a chunk of its workforce as chief executive Rita-Rose Gagné moves to cut costs at the beleaguered shopping centre owner. All 250 staff working at the head office of the shopping centre giant in London’s King’s Cross and its office in Reading have been placed in a consultation exercise. Up to 40 roles across a variety of functions are understood to be at risk. The decision of Gagné’s predecessor David Atkins to focus squarely on the retail industry left Hammerson brutally exposed to the crisis on the high street. The owner of the Birmingham Bullring went into the pandemic heavily indebted and has since been fighting to avoid the same fate as its rival Intu, which collapsed last year. Hammerson, which also owns Cabot Circus in Bristol, raised £552 million last August through an emergency rights issue priced at a 95% discount, and a further £274 million through the sale of its stake in European business VIA Outlets. This year, another £330 million was raised through the sale of seven retail parks to private equity giant Brookfield. Hammerson’s net debt stood at £1.9 billion at the end of June. Hammerson, which paid its 538 staff £48.9 million last year, has long been regarded in the property industry as a top-heavy organisation. Gagné announced her intention in August to slash Hammerson’s costs by between 15% and 20% by 2023. Hammerson said: “We are working on an organisation review, which will create a more agile and efficient business focused on our assets, occupiers and customers.” Mark Bourgeois, who had served as Hammerson’s UK and Ireland managing director for four years, confirmed last week that he would be leaving the company in the coming weeks. (Sunday Times) 

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Oslo Court, St John’s Wood: When I mention to people in this organisation that I’d like to review Oslo Court, reactions range from mild bafflement to “Oslo Court?!?” But I feel it should have a tribute paid to it at least once a decade while it continues to exist. Because by all the rules of logic it really shouldn’t. Nothing about it makes any sense in today’s restaurant scene. Its location at the base of one of those mournful 1930s blocks of flats that mushroom north of Regent’s Park; the fact that you have to squeeze through a cloakroom to access the restaurant; the place itself – a riot of pink napery, fancy concertina-folded napkins, bud vases and formally dressed staff. It’s billed as French but it’s not really. It’s a restaurant that serves a 1970s version of French food – lobster bisque, Dover sole Véronique, chateaubriand, with rogue sightings of Parma ham and melon and beef wellington – to a clientele that remembers it from first time around. Some of the menu items, I’m pretty sure, exist only here: “Chicken Princess Oslo Court”, “Fillet Mignon Sigano”. And my “Crab à la Rochelle”, a dense pink dollop of crabmeat, mushrooms and béchamel bound up in pastry. The dandied-up waiter asks if I’d like brandy sauce with it – why, of course I would. What I don’t expect is for him to glug about a quart of what appears to be thick, boozy marie rose from a great height out of a sauce boat. An actual sauce boat. The dish ends up as pink as our surroundings. Sadly, the pandemic seems to have taken its toll on some of the more baroque service flourishes. Some of its brio has dimmed. Is it the greatest food in town? Pals, I cannot tell a lie: it’s not. That Chicken Princess Oslo Court, for instance, has a definite air of the condensed mushroom soup. And I have no idea what they do to the petits pois to render them such a grey-green sludge. But is it an extraordinary experience, the sort of thing for which you’d usually need a Tardis? Absolutely. On it sails, stately as, cosseting its regulars like family, all wrapped in the pink glow of familiarity. For this – and the fact it’s such fun to feel like the friskiest young thang in the room – I salute it. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Jay Rayner reviews Fadiga, London: New restaurants need to hit the ground running to start making back the investment, so breathless news always pops up online. But of Fadiga, I had heard nothing. I found my way to the restaurant’s new-born Instagram account, which suggested this might well be so: here were images of candy-striped tortellini looking like humbugs and rhubarb and custard sweets. Here were ravioli in rainbow colours, or filled with blueberries or pear and goat’s cheese. It was both diverting and a touch worrying. Based on a lovely dinner there I can tell you this was all merely come-hither window dressing, though only of the electronic kind. The actual window dressing is courtesy of the ribbons of egg yolk-yellow tagliatelle they sometimes roll and cut on the wide marble sill hard against the real window. When we arrive for dinner, that marble slab is scattered with the promise of squid ink black tortellini. They are made, like all the pastas here, by Michela Pappi. The dishes are then cooked by her husband Enrico Fogli and served by their daughter Carlotta. In Bologna the family ran hotels, before coming to the UK four years ago to run a catering company. Now they have this restaurant, which carries the maiden name of Enrico’s late mother. Here’s what you need to know: that pasta, made daily, is bloody lovely, full of the requisite slipperiness and bite and tension. There are nine main dishes, all priced in the mid-teens, supplemented by a trio of specials. Despite the exuberance on display on Instagram (a lockdown project, Carlotta later tells me; her mum just got bored), it’s all comfortingly familiar. There is pappardelle with a wild mushroom sauce, or tagliolini with summer truffles. There are ricotta tortelli with tomato and basil, squid ink bucatini with seafood, and gnocchi in a butter and sage sauce. Portions are for those with ambitious appetites; if you ask, they will happily split a dish between two so you can try more. Fadiga deserves all the love. Incidentally, it turns out that the shiny display case is not just for show. You can buy their pastas to take home. (The Observer)

Tom Parker Bowles reviews Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, Reading: I’ve been looking forward to Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen for a while. Ever since I first tried its at-home dishes, in lockdown, as was once the way. Hyderabad was the furthest outpost of the great Mughal Empire, a city where lavishly scented, courtly cuisine – with its fragrant echoes of Persia and Turkey – meets the thrilling tang and heat of the Andhran south. This was love at first bite. An easy stroll from Reading Station, the restaurant is small and softly lit, busy even past nine. The walls are painted a gentle terracotta, plants hang from the ceiling and there’s a cracking wine list from my old mate, Zeren Wilson. The only problem is the menu. We want it all. Every chat, pakora and pepper fry, each kofta, bhuna and daal. Now, Bill and me are serious eaters. I would go as far as to call us elite athletes in our own particular way. We certainly put in the training, and once managed ten different meals, ranging from tasting menus to tacos, in one particularly glorious (albeit ultimately dyspeptic) 12-hour Baja California bacchanal. But even we can’t break the entire menu. There are salty cabbage pakoras that wear their fragile batter like exquisite wisps of crisp silk, dunked in a green coriander chutney of bracing verdancy. And grilled jumbo prawns, the very essence of sweet succulence, lavished with mustard and ghee. Pork belly, the fat artfully rendered, is cooked in a thick chilli jam, the sweetness tempered by a sharp tamarind kick. Andhra-style chicken fry, heavy on the fresh chilli, curry leaves and seasoned salt, is Indian fried chicken on an almighty, epic level. These are just the starters. ‘Village style lamb’ is baked in a dough-sealed clay pot with onion, ginger, lots of chilli and a whole bulb of garlic. It tastes of love, and a life well lived, richer than the Nizam of Hyderabad, and every bit as mighty. Biriyani, also cooked in that clay pot, uses lamb loin, served pink. Each luscious grain is swelled with spiced, fecund delight. Even more remarkable is that chef and co-proprietor Sharat Syamala does all this alone. One man! Damn, he can cook. His wife, Nandana, runs front of house with warmth and charm. I cannot tell you how much I love this place. And there’s still half the menu to discover. Hey ho. Any excuse to return. (Mail on Sunday)

Giles Coren reviews MiMi Mei Fair, London: I lit upon MiMi Mei Fair, whose menu looked to offer broadly what I wanted: dumplings, crispy beef, chilli prawns… And, this being 2021 and it being Mayfair, it even came with a little backstory: “The menu pays homage to Empress MiMi’s travels across mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore as she made her way to her private London residence.” She’s fictional, of course, this MiMi. Jeremy King started it at the Colony Grill, but now every fancy new opening needs a made-up tale to tell. And I liked the sound of her. MiMi had travelled the world and now she was home, and what she wanted, like me, was a proper Chinese. Twenty minutes later, our drinks arrived. Too slow. Empress MiMi would not have stood for it. The food took too long too, and was not especially worth the wait. I felt bad for MiMi, who had come such a long way. My first mouthful was of the “silken tofu”, which was not silken at all, but firm and dusty, more like a Linda McCartney fish substitute than freshly made bean curd. The chilli and spring onions tossed over it were tired, scattered no doubt from a giant box. It wasn’t horrid, but it was not worth £13. And it was ultimately issues of value, rather than any genuine grimness, that would come between me and my enjoyment of the evening. The “Xiao long jewels” cost £20 for five multicoloured, soup-filled dumplings. So we had to order two portions to get more than one each: £40. We could have had change out of that for a meal of five main dishes plus rice, for all of us, down the road at Wong Kei. And these were poorly made bao, served in little individual baskets to which half of them stuck, then broke as the body of the dumpling came free of the base, leaking soup out into the steamer. Listen, I could eat it all again. And for £122.40, including service, at paper-topped tables with red paper lanterns, it would be value. Even if the flavour profile of every mouthful was simply “fried”. But at this price, it’s a nailed-on outrage. Okay, it’s Mayfair. But, still, they need to either slash the prices in half or improve the cooking by a factor of two. Either is fine. (The Times Magazine)

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