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Sun 14th Nov 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Waiting staff accuse restaurants of cutting their tips to pay chefs: Restaurant owners in the UK are being accused by waiting staff of unfairly distributing tips to boost the salaries of chefs and managers as the industry battles severe shortages of skilled labour. Waiters and front of house staff at restaurant chains including PizzaExpress, Wagamama and Byron who have spoken to the Financial Times have, in some cases, had their income cut by as much as half. They said the loss of income was because of the changes made to the way the service charge on the bill was distributed to staff in the months since restaurants were allowed to reopen. Those who spoke to the FT have asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs – in some cases, their contracts restrict contact with the press. A waitress at PizzaExpress in London’s West End said she had lost about a third of her income since the 360-site restaurant chain made the change in May. “People are actually suffering; you might have an optician or a dentist appointment that is hundreds of pounds that you don’t have money for now.” Another waitress, who until recently worked full-time at a north London Wagamama restaurant, said the amount of tips she earned per hour had fallen from £5 to 90p: “I left Wagamama after the financial situation. They changed so many things we couldn’t get the money we used to.” She said 12 of the 15 waiting staff at her outlet had left following the change. She said the readjustment was voted through by staff, but a decision to include takeaway workers for the first time meant that more people stood to benefit from the change among those who were allowed to vote. PizzaExpress told the FT the share of tips has gone from 70% to waiting staff and 30% to the kitchen to a 50/50 split since the sector reopened in May but denied it had influenced the tronc committee. It added that a six-month review of the revised distribution was due this month. Wagamama confirmed the share of tips that back-of-house staff received increased from 15 to 25%. It declined to comment further. (The FT)

Burger King UK picks banks for planned stock market float: The owner of Burger King’s British operations has picked two banks for its planned London float next year. Bridgepoint has hired Bank of America and Investec to spearhead the initial public offering during the first half of 2022. The precise timing and size of the deal have yet to be finalised, but City sources suggested a flotation was now a likelier outcome than a sale to another private equity firm. A sale remains possible depending on public market conditions at the time. Floating will represent a bet for Burger King’s management team and stock market investors on a sustained recovery for the UK’s pandemic-hit restaurant industry. Burger King UK itself weighed a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) mechanism for one of its subsidiaries as it sought to close a small number of its 530 sites. Burger King UK’s performance has been boosted by an expanded portfolio of drive-thru restaurants, while it also has partnerships with Deliveroo, Just Eat and UberEats, which helped to maintain sales momentum during the UK’s various lockdowns. Burger King is said to have scores of further drive-thru outlets in the pipeline. Burger King UK owns roughly 150 of its UK outlets and has been buying more of them back from franchisees in recent months in an effort to boost profitability. In May it acquired Zing Leisure, an Essex-based franchisee which operated 17 Burger King restaurants. Burger King UK chief executive Alasdair Murdoch recently unveiled plans to eliminate some of its meat menu items and shift to a 50% plant-based menu by 2031 amid growing demand for vegetarian and vegan options. The company has also committed to phasing out all single-use plastics in its restaurants by 2025. Bridgepoint has owned Burger King UK since late 2017. It is thought to believe that the chain continues to have significant growth potential given that its UK estate is only about one-third of the size of rival McDonald’s. Bridgepoint owns about 80% of the UK estate and is also a shareholder in Burger King’s French business. The Burger King brand is owned globally by Restaurant Brands International, which is listed in New York. Burger King UK declined to comment. (Sky News)

Covid ‘super-spreader’ office Christmas parties abandoned: Worried about embarrassing dance moves in front of colleagues this Christmas? Or even photocopying body parts while in a drunken stupor? Fear not: most companies appear to be abandoning the traditional office Christmas party once more owing to concerns that they will become “super-spreading” events. Businesses that offer catering services for office events say that demand has slumped. Several large employers have chosen to cancel this year’s parties in case they lead to covid-related sickness and absence. Companies that are choosing to proceed with parties are implementing strict covid safety measures, with one making all staff take a PCR test in advance if they wish to attend. Another firm, uncertain of whether it should proceed, put the question to a staff ballot; they chose to go ahead with the party. Hospitality businesses that rely on the Christmas season fear they will struggle this year. Philip Inzani, who owns the Polo Bar near Liverpool Street in the City of London, said that Christmas party bookings were down 30% on a normal year, and that the bookings he had taken were for smaller groups on average. “We’re finding that there are inquiries but for a lot less people. So, where we would have had an inquiry for 30 people previously, we’re now finding that it’s ten people or something like that,” he said. “One issue is a lot of staff are flexi-working, so fewer are in central London offices, and of course, some people are still nervous about gatherings because of covid.” Inzani, 50, also offers catering for office-based Christmas parties, but demand for that has slumped even further. He said: “We’d probably end up doing about 15 to 20 events throughout the pre-Christmas period normally. But so far this year we’ve just got two inquiries.” (The Times)

End of furlough scheme had smaller than feared impact on unemployment: Staff who were placed on furlough are six times more likely to lose their jobs than other workers – but the end of the scheme had little impact on the levels of unemployment, an assessment of the programme has revealed. There had been concerns that with more than a million workers still on the scheme when it came to an end last month, its withdrawal could lead to a spike in unemployment and dent the UK’s stuttering economic recovery from the pandemic. However, with sectors such as hospitality, care and heavy goods transport complaining of a major shortage of workers, research by the influential Resolution Foundation suggests that only around 136,000 workers moved from furlough to either unemployment or inactivity when the scheme was closed. Its study, based on a survey of around 6,100 working-age adults during the second half of last month, is the first attempt to analyse the effects of closing the programme. It is still not clear whether people simply returned to work at their existing company or moved to new jobs. However, the lack of any clear economic dislocation since the scheme closed suggests workers largely returned to their existing jobs on an either part-time or full-time basis. “During its 18-month duration, the Job Retention Scheme has supported over 11 million employees, preventing lockdowns and huge behavioural changes from causing catastrophic rises in unemployment,” said Charlie McCurdy, economist at the Resolution Foundation. “Plans to prematurely close the scheme led to concerns that its end would spark a fresh rise in worklessness. But extending the scheme to beyond the reopening of the economy this summer has helped to limit this rise. While it is welcome that unemployment has remained low, recently furloughed staff did face a much higher risk of losing their job in October. This reinforces the need for Britain’s stuttering economic recovery to strengthen so that more of these workers can be helped back into work swiftly rather than leaving the labour market altogether.” (The Observer)

Consumers in no hurry to spend savings, says report: Consumers are likely to draw only gradually on savings accumulated during the pandemic, dampening hopes of a sustained and consumer-led recovery, a new report says. People are not displaying much inclination to spend any extra income, with wealthier households more likely to put additional income into savings and poorer households to use it to pay off debt, an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found. Purchases of services decreased by 30% during the covid-19 downturn, compared with 4% at the equivalent point in the 2008 financial crisis, according to the economic research institute’s report, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. For a services-oriented economy such as Britain’s, a reduction in services spending is problematic: while purchases of goods are often postponed rather than abandoned, cancelled holidays, for example, do not mean that people will take an additional one in future. Household savings tend to rise during periods of economic uncertainty. In the second quarter of last year the savings rate increased to 23% – far higher than in previous downturns – and this year it remained at 18%. Increases in net wealth were more common for higher-income households, which are less likely to change spending behaviour as the economy recovers, the IFS said. Mark Franks, director of welfare at the Nuffield Foundation, said that the reticence of people to spend freely would “limit the extent of consumer-led growth” and that there was “concern that the poorest households are the most likely to have seen a large proportionate drop in their overall wealth, especially given the high levels of household poverty that existed before the pandemic”. This week it was reported that growth in Britain’s GDP in the third quarter had slowed to 1.3%, down from 5.5% in the previous three-month period. (The Times)

British pasta in Italian delis? It’s not as fusilli as it sounds: The UK’s Italian delicatessens are stocking British pasta for the first time because it has become so difficult to import products such as spaghetti and tinned tomatoes from the continent. Exports of Italian pasta to Britain were down 25% between January and July this year compared with the same period in 2020. Global exports of pasta have dropped only 10%, according to the Italian farmers’ lobby group Coldiretti. Tinned tomato UK exports were also down 12% over the same period compared with just 1% globally. Italian suppliers blame Brexit, congestion at British ports and driver shortages for the more dramatic fall in exports to the UK. Since January, goods entering Britain face hurdles from customs declarations to product safety certificates, food inspections and rules-of-origin checks. One Italian firm said it is now easier to export to Japan – and warned Britons to brace themselves for “relatively empty shelves for some time and big cost increases”. Kathryn Bumby, 30, launched The Yorkshire Pasta Company, based in Malton, North Yorkshire, with her husband Thomas, 37, in 2019 after quitting her job in wafer product development for the food giant Nestlé. She said: “The business is growing exponentially. I think people are making a conscious effort to eat locally.” (Sunday Times) 

Giles Coren reviews Sumi, London: From the starters, we order a seaweed salad and a mushroom miso soup, skip the mains and order the three types of tuna – lean, fatty and very fatty – as well as trout (which you don’t often see), scallop, sea urchin and yellowtail, and ask for them all as nigiri. Plus, a temaki roll each – one scallop, one fatty tuna – and “whatever that meat and rice thing is those ladies are having”. It is a special, apparently, called beef gohan. The soup is very good and clean and the seaweed salad is fine, nutty with sesame oil and chopped hazelnuts, and the sushi is good, top-drawer. Or second-top-drawer. Clean t-shirts rather than pants and socks. The three tuna nigiri offer a fine procession through the fat levels of better-than-average raw fish. The yellowtail is clean and sharp, the trout lively, the scallop sweet and yielding, the urchin reassuringly expensive. But as the waitress lowers the beautiful fish on their black slate bed to the table, she bangs it loudly on Esther’s water glass, goes “Oops! Sorry,” jinks sideways and plonks it on the table at the second attempt. It is still good raw fish after that, on the right kind of fresh, sticky rice, but it cannot be magical now. Not after the “Clang! Oops! Plonk!” The temaki rolls come half-folded in clever little wooden holders for us to pick up and roll ourselves, but there is a little too much filling for the square of seaweed, so they won’t quite roll over (bad dog!) And the seaweed is a little chewy, not frangible enough to bite mouthfuls away from the roll and leave it intact (can this be the “signature” seaweed they use at the Rotunda, so beloved of Endo’s grandfather? I’m guessing not) so that Esther’s falls to bits over her plate and she gives up on it. And then the beef gohan, the cast-iron dish of rice with stew on top and a raw egg, that we had seen the waiter very much “performing” to the two Japanese ladies. Our waitress does not perform. She slots us in between seating duties, one eye on the door. I know this is not Benihana, but any dish that the server prepares and serves at the table is surely intended to have a narrative. She just stirs it around a couple of times while telling us the pot is hot and asking us if we’d ever had it before (“What, beef stew? Food?”) and then slops out portions into our bowls like a school dinner lady or a busy mum feeding her kids at teatime, spilling some on her towelled hand as she does so, and some on the table. I couldn’t fault it as a beef, rice and egg dish, especially the crispy “soccarat” scraped up and stirred in (by me, because she didn’t bother), but as a performance? Nul points. And thus, I leave this very good restaurant rather disappointed. I try to console myself that nowhere is perfect. But, you see, I’ve been to Endo at the Rotunda, so I know different. (The Times Magazine)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Chapter One, Dublin: As ever with a tasting menu, listing each component would be overkill. But every single course is dazzling. There’s a scallop dish that, no hyperbole, leaves me breathless. The fattest, most impeccable specimen, pearlescent at its core, barbecued till crusted, in a sparkling bouillon spiked with the restaurant’s own oxtail vinegar. Yes, oxtail vinegar. It’s the gently sour umami slap of this, improbably delicious with the scallop, that drops jaws. (There’s no hand-diving for scallops in Ireland, weirdly, so the perfectionist Viljanen gets his from the man who supplies Noma.) If this weren’t enough it comes with Guinness bread, like a darkly savoury kouign amann, layer upon crisp layer of buttery laminated dough. As they say here, savage. Yes, it’s expensive. Blowout expensive. For this level of artistry, so it should be. It’s still a fraction of the price of that funny wee man and his silly, clickbaity, gold-plated steaks, still less than its equivalent in Paris. Were Chapter One in St Germain rather than Parnell Square, I’m pretty sure the tyremen would be falling over themselves to award the full trio of twinklers, and the stars-chasers would hand over €1,000 without drawing breath. Also, lunch costs €65 (£55). So, there’s that. Chapter One has reignited my love for the whole intricate, maddening haute cuisine shebang; for the bonkers creativity that exists only at these levels. (Sunday Times Magazine) 

Jay Rayner reviews Brutto, London: Just as he did for his cookbook about Venice, Russell Norman spent a lot of time in Florence in preparation for this opening, alongside his head chef, Oliver Diver. I’ve come and gone from Florence many times over the years, and I swooned when I learned the menu would include a crusty lampredotto, or tripe roll, of the sort they serve in the Central Market there. It is one of the world’s great sandwiches. They have had problems getting hold of the right tripe from the fourth stomach, but he promises it’s coming. The correct rolls have been commissioned. Still, he already has a corner tiled in white and green, a tribute to the legendary Florentine trattoria Sostanza, where they cook chicken breasts in fizzing butter over coals. There’s also a blackboard list by weight of big old Scottish T-bones, playing the part of the bistecca alla Fiorentina at a good value £8.55 per 100g. But my interests lie elsewhere: with fat brown anchovies, sourdough and cold butter; with bruschetta heaped lavishly with sweet and funky chopped chicken livers. From the main courses we have taut-skinned pork and fennel sausages, plump with seeds and no filler whatsoever, for £14. There is a dune of braised lentils and a dollop of nose-tickling mustard to bring it all together. The peposo, a beef-shin stew heavy with whole black peppercorns that pop pleasingly against the roof of the mouth, is proof, if it were needed, that long-cooked brown food is the best food. These are all big, heavily built flavours, like they’ve been working out down the gym for a good few months before landing on your table. As I once lectured Norman on the “correct” way to do salt beef in a New York style deli, I cannot now also lecture him on the pitfalls of authenticity even though, as I always say, authentic is not the same as good. Braised Cantonese chicken feet are proof of this. But next time, I might see if I can order some extra tonnato sauce on the side. And his refusal to put vin santo on the menu because it’s a bit naff is slightly annoying, especially as it’s bloody everywhere in Florence. Still, he finds some amaretto (from a bottle branded Amaretto; none of your Disaronno muck here) and it is a lovely accompaniment to a pitch-perfect tiramisu and a bowl of ice-cream with “ugly but good” hazelnut meringue cookies. It is common to describe a restaurant like this as a “passion project”. That makes it sound emotional and gushing. Norman, who also founded the Polpo group and Spuntino, is too experienced in this business to let gush get in the way of the fundamentals. London has an enormous store of exceedingly good Italian restaurants. Brutto is the new one we didn’t quite know we needed. (The Observer)

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