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Mon 20th Dec 2021 - Update: '24 hours to save 10,000 pubs and restaurants from closure', Leon, Pret and JD Wetherspoon
Rishi Sunak has ‘just 24 hours to save 10,000 pubs and restaurants from permanent closure’: Chancellor Rishi Sunak has just 24 hours to commit to a package of support for businesses or risk the permanent closure of 10,000 pubs and restaurants, industry chiefs have warned. The Telegraph reports hospitality bosses demanded Sunak end the “limbo” for businesses and pledge Treasury support immediately as venues suffer a dramatic fall in bookings and a surge in cancellations just days before Christmas. A fresh emergency VAT cut for the hospitality and tourism industry and additional cash boosts for businesses are among the measures being weighed up by the chancellor after prime minister Boris Johnson was accused of introducing a “lockdown by stealth” following new covid guidance. Whitehall sources said support is inevitable in the event of an official lockdown, but business leaders said the situation is desperate regardless of further rules and clarity was needed from Sunak within the next 24 hours. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said as many as 10,000 sites could close if support is not announced imminently, with measures necessary even without further restrictions. She said: “We don’t have another week, the industry is hanging on by its fingernails. We need an announcement that something is coming by the beginning of this week – even if the details aren’t worked out yet. Even if the details aren’t clearly spelt out, we need to end this limbo. My inbox is full of people asking how to pay staff in the run-up to Christmas. If no support is coming we will see an acceleration of business failures.” Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, agreed a “support package is needed early this week” so businesses can make their winter survival plans. She said staff shortages meant some pub chains have moved workers to concentrate bookings in one venue, while other venues have been forced shut over the Christmas period. She said: “Food has been stocked, cellars are full, we just hope we can deliver Christmas for our customers and receive enough support to sustain our pubs and brewers through this winter.” Business leaders who have spoken to officials in recent days said ministers seemed “taken aback” by how quickly consumer behaviour changed following the guidance, with households dramatically cutting back on socialising at pubs and restaurants. Sunak was told that as a result of the fast shift in behaviour help was needed urgently and before Christmas, sources said. A survey on the impact of the Omicron coronavirus variant carried out by the Tourism Alliance for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport found 51% of businesses had suffered a slump in revenue of at least 50% in December – up from 34% in November. The survey found 58% had suffered at least a 25% cancellation rate, with 48% reporting similar cancellations for January to March. Almost a quarter said that they had no cash reserves, while another 31% had only one to two months of reserves. About 11% said they were “very likely to fail” and a further 29% “were quite likely to fail”, reports The Times.

Propel Premium Advent Video Calendar, to feature Tim Martin: Propel has launched its Premium Advent Video Calendar, giving subscribers access to a great video each day in December from our autumn conference series. Each day in December in the run-up to Christmas, Premium subscribers will be sent a video featuring some of the sector’s leading operators, who will share insights, advice and expertise. The next video – which will be sent at 9am today (Monday, 20 December), – features Tim Martin chairman and founder of JD Wetherspoon, who talks about the lessons he and his business learnt during the pandemic and how they are putting them to good use. Earlier this month, Premium subscribers received the fifth edition of The New Openings Database, which is produced in association with StarStock. The database showed the details of 366 newly announced site openings and upcoming launches. Premium subscribers also receive access to two other databases. The latest Propel Multi-Site Database, which is produced in association with Virgate, and the Turnover & Profits Blue Book, which is produced in association with Mapal Group. 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

An 8pm curfew on pubs and restaurants one option being considered by government: Prime minister Boris Johnson is considering an 8pm curfew on pubs and restaurants as part of one options to curb the spread of the Omicron variant. The Telegraph understands Johnson has been presented with three options drawn up by officials for further restrictions to curb the spread of Omicron. The lowest level of intervention would see families asked to limit indoor contacts, without legal enforcement. However, Johnson is also weighing up option two, which would mandate curbs on household mixing, the return of social distancing and an 8pm curfew on pubs and restaurants. Option three is the return to full lockdown. However, Cabinet ministers warned on Sunday (19 December) that such regulations would not be “stomached” by ministers. Johnson is understood to favour the most “light touch” option presented to him. “It is guidance but not regulations on household mixing,” said a government source – similar to the Scottish government’s advice that currently urges families to limit gatherings to three households except on Christmas Day. However, the source added: “The third tier is the heaviest covering everything up to and including lockdown. On the basis of the data, there are some who believe we could quite easily justify locking down before Christmas.” The Irish cabinet agreed last week that hospitality venues, cinemas and theatres will have a closing time of 8pm from today (Monday, 20 December) to deal with the threat from the Omicron variant.

New push to cut isolation period to a week to avoid crippling economy: Ministers are considering reducing the quarantine period for people who test positive for covid from ten to seven days. Health experts, MPs and business leaders have called for a change, warning the current rules risk crippling healthcare and the economy, reports the Mail Anyone who is infected with the virus must isolate for ten days after first developing symptoms or testing positive. Now it has emerged that modelling by government scientific advisers indicates it would be possible to reduce the isolation period without having a significant impact on infection rates if people had a negative test before they were released. Sources said the change in policy is “being looked at” to stop the country grinding to a halt. Officials estimate a million people a day could soon be infected with the Omicron variant, which would leave “swathes” of the population interned. Experts said this could cripple the economy by leaving shops, bars and restaurants with too few workers and customers while emergency services would also be understaffed.

Leon to accelerate expansion plans: Natural fast food brand Leon is set to accelerate expansion after its estimated £100m takeover by the brothers who own Asda. EG Group, the forecourt and roadside operator controlled by the Issa brothers, is announcing plans to increase the number of UK restaurant openings next year from an original target of 20 to more than 50, creating 1,000 jobs, and a total of 4,000 posts over the next three years. New restaurants will include new formats such as drive-thrus, smaller branches on petrol forecourts and in Asda stores, plus Leon To Go coffee shops, reports The Times. Much of the expansion will be focused outside London, with openings in Scotland and Wales early next year. Leon, which also sells its products in supermarkets, will open its own company-run restaurants in the Netherlands. The first will be opened in Honswijk, on one of the country’s busiest motorways, followed by a further ten more before a wider European push.

Pret customers complain over drinks subscription deal: Pret A Manger has received thousands of complaints over its drinks subscription service following frustration that not all promised beverages are available. The £20 a month deal offers unlimited hot and cold drinks. But the BBC understands that Pret has received 5,000 complaints about the offer, such as smoothies often being unavailable. Ex-Pret staff have also told the BBC its introduction has meant workers feel overwhelmed by the increased workload. Pret launched the subscription in September 2020 after sales plunged during covid lockdowns. Some customers have taken their complaints to the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The regulator has contacted Pret to say it should “consider reviewing the ads for their subscription service”. The ASA said it informed Pret “its ads should not state or imply the service was available in all store locations, or it covers its entire range of products if that wasn't the case”. Pret said: “We have spoken with the ASA to ensure all Pret marketing for the coffee subscription is in accordance with its latest guidance.” Meanwhile, some former Pret employees said working conditions became “unbearable” after the subscription was launched and one claimed that staff deliberately turned blending machines off as it takes one-and-a-half minutes to prepare a smoothie or frappe. Pret claimed less than 1% of the complaints about their subscription are about the lack of smoothies or frappes. A spokesman added when Pret suggested frappes and smoothies would be removed from the subscription earlier in 2021, “there was a public outcry so Pret listened and kept them as part of the subscription” In the same month Pret launched the deal, Leon offered a similar promotion for £15 a month – but it was limited to 75 coffees a month and excluded other drinks such as teas and hot chocolate. Leon has since suspended it, stating: “To help our teams during these difficult times, we have stopped taking on new subscribers.”

Choppaluna plans ten UK sites next year: Salad bar concept Choppaluna, which is owned by Hero Brands, has laid out ambitious growth plans that will see it open ten restaurants across the UK next year. The concept opened its first UK site in London in October 2020 but has said it will now kickstart plans to rapidly grow across the country. Choppaluna, which operates in London’s Bloomsbury and has sites in Germany, is the latest concept from Hero Brands, which also owns the German Doner Kebab and Island Poke chains. Hero Brands said the Choppaluna expansion will start with plans to open another London restaurant in High Holborn in the first quarter of next year. A site in Glasgow will open in the second quarter, alongside openings in Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford, Birmingham and Cambridge later in the year. The group said a number of further locations will be announced next year. Choppaluna, which was founded by Nikras Agha and Bijan Azadfard, specialises in salad bowls and wraps. Agha said: “It is pleasing to forge ahead with plans to open seven new restaurants across the UK so quickly after the launch of our first restaurant in London Bloomsbury in October 2020, and in my hometown of Berlin last year – it’s a huge achievement for our team. The opportunity is truly resonating with our franchise partners within the Hero Brands group and we will work with them to explore opportunities for further expansion throughout the UK.” Athif Sarwar, Hero Brands chief executive, said: “Hero Brands is responding to emerging consumer trends and focused on growing the brands of the future. Choppaluna responds to this trend and we worked very closely with Nikras and Bijan to develop the brand and a proposition that truly disrupts the healthy eating space.”

JD Wetherspoon appoints employee directors: JD Wetherspoon has appointed four employee directors to its board. The appointments are effective from today (Monday, 20 December) and have been made for an initial three-year term. The company stated: “After consultation with shareholders and employees, it was felt the company would benefit from having more pub experience at board level. As a result, suitable applicants from within the company were invited to apply. More than 100 applications were received from talented and experienced managers. After a thorough selection process, four appointments have been made – two as employee directors with full plc director status, and two as associate employee directors. The employee directors are: Debbie Whittingham, regional manager for the West Midlands. Debbie joined Wetherspoon as a shift manager in 1992 and was appointed as a pub manager in 1993 and as an area manager in 2002. Debbie is chair of the company's Women's Network Group and was named Wetherspoon's ‘Area Manager of the Year’ in 2014. Hudson Simmons – area manager for Sheffield. Hudson joined Wetherspoon as a shift manager in 1997, was appointed as a pub manager in 2003 and as an area manager in 2014. In 2010, he was named ‘Pub Manager of the Year’. The associate employee directors are: Will Fotheringham – regional manager for the Manchester area. Will joined Wetherspoon as a shift manager in 1998, was appointed as a pub manager in 2000 and as an area manager in 2006. He was awarded ‘Area Manager of the Year’ in 2011 and Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (now UKHospitality) ‘Area Manager of the Year’ in 2013. Emma Gibson – pub manager of the Imperial, Exeter. Emma joined Wetherspoon as a bar associate in 2004 and was appointed as a pub manager in 2010. She is chair of the ‘Best Bar None’ groups for Torquay and Exeter and, in 2019, received the Commissioner’s Award from the Police and Crime Commissioner of Devon & Cornwall Police for services to Best Bar None.” Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin said: “A successful pub company depends primarily on gradual improvements, based on suggestions from employees. Pub and area managers, and other members of pub teams, have always participated in weekly decision-making meetings, which distil suggestions from the ‘front-line’. The appointment of employee directors will extend this approach to board meetings and will help to preserve the culture of the company for the future. Wetherspoon is pleased to welcome Debbie, Hudson, Will and Emma to their new roles.”

£12m capital raise completed for Virgin Active to help company ride out pandemic: Sir Richard Branson has pumped millions of pounds of fresh funds into Virgin Active to help the gym company ride out the pandemic. Sir Richard’s Virgin Group and South African investment firm Brait completed a joint £12m capital raise for Virgin Active in recent weeks as the Omicron variant pushed leisure firms’ recovery into reverse, reports the Mail. Brait, which owns just under 80% of the fitness chain, contributed £9.6m and Virgin Group put in £2.4m to reflect its 20% stake. The latest round of shareholder support follows a £70m restructuring completed in May, after Virgin Active came close to collapse during the pandemic. Under the rescue plan, the group renegotiated debt with its lenders and landlords, and Virgin Group and Brait injected £45m. Brait, which is controlled by South African tycoon Christo Wiese, launched a R3bn (£140m) rights issue last month, saying Virgin Active's “underperformance” over the various lockdowns had required “significant” shareholder support. It had funded its 80% share of the capital raises through extending its bank debt. It is understood that this month's £12m cash injection for Virgin Active has been put in place to ensure the company can shoulder a bumpy and protracted recovery from the pandemic. Sir Richard founded Virgin Active in 1999 and it now has 43 clubs in the UK, with a further 194 in Europe, South Africa, Asia and Australia.

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