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Mon 29th Nov 2021 - Update: West Berkshire Brewery, Itsu and AG Barr
West Berkshire Brewery on brink of falling into administration: The Berkshire brewery at the centre of allegations of bullying and sexual harassment is understood to be on the brink of falling into administration. The Times reports West Berkshire Brewery, which makes beer including Good Old Boy bitter and Renegade lager, is believed to have appointed Grant Thornton to find a buyer and has put the firm on standby to step in as administrators. Propel revealed last month that Tom Lucas was removed from his post as managing director in September, four weeks after a report in The Times highlighted an open letter from a group of current and former employees making a number of allegations of improper behaviour. Although the letter did not identify the perpetrators, it claimed a survey had elicited allegations of “multiple accounts of bullying, racism, homophobia, sexism, sexual harassment [and] a disregard for staff’s physical and mental well-being”. The pressure group, calling itself WBB Renegades, claimed that the brewery, which also has three pubs, ignored a request for an independent review of company culture and senior management behaviour, promising only an internal review. Lucas, who was appointed managing director three years ago, worked at the brewery for 13 years, initially as an accountant then finance director. Since he left, he has run his own business, GFT Consultancy. According to WBB Renegades and two other sources familiar with events at the brewery, Lucas was sacked after the internal inquiry found he had behaved improperly towards some members of staff. The brewery in Yattendon, which was founded in 1995, has been chaired for the past eight years by David Bruce, who founded the Firkin brew-pubs chain and co-founded the City Pub Company and Capital Pub Company. Bruce, 73, who did not return calls from The Times, raised more than £17m to expand the business from more than 800 small shareholders, and has talked about the possibility of a flotation. Industry rumours suggest he may be considering making a bid to buy it back out of administration. Lucas declined to answer questions about the circumstances surrounding his exit, while Grant Thornton also refused to comment.

Fifth edition of The New Openings Database to show details of 366 new sites, 19,000-word report included: The fifth edition of The New Openings Database, which is produced in association with StarStock, will show the details of 366 newly announced site openings and upcoming launches for Premium subscribers when it is published on Friday (3 December), at midday. The database shows the details of which company has opened a site or its plans to open one in the future. It will have details on what type of site it is and its location. There will also be a website link to the businesses so you can find out more about them. It is published on a monthly basis. The fifth edition of the database features a number of brands making their UK debut, regional brands in growth, unique cuisine and expanding hotel and leisure concepts. Premium subscribers will also receive a 19,000-word report on the new additions to the database. Premium subscribers also receive access to two other databases. The latest Propel Multi-Site Database, which is produced in association with Virgate, was sent to Premium subscribers on Friday (26 November). The database contained 54 new companies, bringing the total number of businesses listed up to 2,206. The 369 sites run by those 54 new additions means the entire database of sites has reached 61,745 sites. Premium subscribers also received a 3,900-word report on the new businesses added. The go-to database provides company names, the people in charge, how many sites each firm operates, its trading name and its registered name at Companies House if different. In a new feature this year, there is a synopsis of what the business does and significant news associated with it. Premium subscribers also receive the Turnover & Profits Blue Book, which is produced in association with Mapal Group. The Blue Book, which is also updated every month, provides an insight into UK operator turnover and profitability over five years, profit conversion and directors’ earnings. Subscribers also receive access to Propel’s library of lockdown videos and Friday Wrap interviews and now also have access to a curated video library of the sector’s finest leaders and entrepreneurs, offering their insights on running outstanding businesses in the sector. Premium subscribers also receive their morning newsletter 11 hours early, at 7pm the evening before our 6am send-out, regular video content and regular exclusive columns from Propel group editor Mark Wingett. Companies can now have an unlimited number of people receive access to Propel Premium for a year for £895 plus VAT – whether they are an operator or a supplier. The regular single subscription rate of £395 plus VAT for operators and £495 plus VAT for suppliers remains the same. To subscribe, email jo.charity@propelinfo.com.

Metcalfe insists Itsu will not put up prices despite rising costs: Julian Metcalfe, founder of Itsu, is adamant the healthy Asian food chain will not put its prices up despite rising costs. Metcalfe has stuck to the principle the price of a hot meal at Itsu should never veer from about £7. Itsu has increased pay for its shop-based workers three times this year, while the cost of shipping a container of ingredients from Korea has veered between $2,000 and $16,000 in recent weeks, Metcalfe told the FT. But while other operators have warned menu price rises are inevitable, Metcalfe insists it won’t happen at Itsu. Metcalfe said he has become “ruthless” about making the business more efficient. Itsu, which Metcalfe founded in 1997 after a trip to Japan, has slashed its menu from 75 cold dishes to 18 predominantly hot ones, cutting down the choice of high margin but high-cost sushi. He said: “Soon only 20% of what we sell will be sushi. Only a lunatic would think you can challenge the fast-food industry with sushi. It’s a ridiculous idea. What you can do is challenge the fast-food industry with brown rice and vegetables and dumplings and bao. I want our food so you can eat it every week.” The next step is to simplify the menu yet again to reduce prices in the evening and allow customers to add extra ingredients such as a poached egg or meatless meatballs. Metcalfe admits pushing the business to run efficiently enough that it can sell meals for £7 – the most expensive dish is £8.29 – has been the work of almost 20 years and the investment means Itsu has rarely turned a pre-tax profit. But, he says, with the opening of the company’s Guildford site, the eighth that will have robots and kiosk screens, “if I was hit by a truck, my work would be done”. Margins are now “fantastic” but the money is going back into growing the business, he added.

Hake and sirloin off the menu as pubs fight surging inflation: Hake and sirloin steaks are being taken off pub menus as inflationary pressures ripple across the UK. Jonathan Lawson, chief executive of Liberation Group, which operates 119 pubs and inns in Jersey, Guernsey and the south west of England, told The Telegraph the business had been hit by “huge inflation” on some ingredients on its menus and is being forced to swap out expensive items as a result. He said: “I think people would be surprised how much inflation has already come through. Hake is a good example of this. It’s massively popular at the moment and very expensive so we don’t have it on the menu. Sirloin steaks are another, so we have to think, ok, can we develop a really good rump product and change the way we cook it to deliver a really good premium beef product to a customer who wants that?” It comes as costs spiral for hospitality bosses, with official figures showing prices had jumped 4.2% in the 12 months to October. Lawson said the company, which trades under the Butcombe brand in England, is constantly assessing the impact of rising costs but that a jump in utility bills after energy prices rocketed had made the biggest impact so far. His comments echo those of pub operator Mitchells & Butlers, which last week said cost rises were piling pressure on the sector. Chief executive Phil Urban said utility costs are on track to double this year, costing the business up to £70m. Urban, whose company runs the Harvester and All Bar One chains, said he would struggle to offset those cost increases if they spike as much as expected. However, he said it would prove difficult to simply pass the increase along in full to customers. Urban said: “The notion that you can just pass this through is just wrong, because customers will vote with their feet.”

AG Barr reports full-year pre-tax profit expected to be ahead of expectations: Drinks producer AG Barr has reported full-year pre-tax profit is now expected to be ahead of expectations. The company stated: “The positive trading momentum reported at our interim results in September has continued and sales have grown ahead of our expectations, across both our Barr Soft Drinks and Funkin business units. Our performance in both the ‘on the go’ and hospitality sectors remains particularly strong and our recent innovation launches have exceeded our expectations. In what remains a challenging supply chain environment, our production and wider supply chain have maintained their resilience and supported the growth in volume we are experiencing. As a result of our continued strong volume performance and despite ongoing near-term operating cost pressures, we now anticipate both revenue and profit before tax for the full year to be ahead of current market expectations. Assuming no significant changes to current market conditions, we expect revenue to be in the order of £264m and profit before tax to be around £41m. The fast moving situation in relation to the covid-19 pandemic remains a risk, however, we expect our revenue momentum to continue into 2022 and we plan to provide a further trading update in early February 2022.”

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