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Sun 23rd May 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Staff drought forces restaurant bosses to offer cash bungs to fill vacancies: Pub and restaurant bosses are pushing ministers to introduce a “coronavirus recovery visa” to persuade foreign workers to return, as they resort to increasingly desperate measures to attract staff. Hospitality chiefs want a version of the visa used in Australia to plug worker shortages and keep food chains and hotels open. The mass reopening of the sector has exposed a dearth of immigrant workers, many of whom returned home at the start of the pandemic. Bosses are offering generous perks to tempt workers. Steak chain Hawksmoor, which has eight restaurants in the UK, has offered employees up to £2,000 if they recruit friends. Caravan, the London restaurant chain, last week emailed customers to offer a £100 gift card if they successfully recommend staff. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade association UKHospitality, said: “The government urgently needs to review the ‘shortage occupations’ list. We’ve also suggested an Australian-style coronavirus recovery visa for lower-skilled workers who don’t meet the point-based system [but] who are crucial to the recovery.” Will Beckett, co-founder of Hawksmoor, said his chain had emerged from lockdown with 90 vacancies. He is offering £200 for the first friend hired, £300 for the second and £500 for up to three more. “We knew we were going to have to put money behind this problem,” said Beckett. “People who we thought were going to come back from furlough waited until the last possible moment to tell us, but you can’t blame them.” Currently, those on the government’s shortage occupations list who can apply for a skilled worker visa include staff in healthcare, science and engineering. There are now calls for hospitality workers to be added to this list. A survey to be published by UKHospitality this week shows that 80% of respondents are looking for front-of-house workers such as bar, reception and waiting staff, and more than 70% are looking for kitchen staff. Two thirds think ministers should create a short-term visa for overseas workers. (Sunday Times)

Admiral Taverns wants to toast £250m takeover of rival Hawthorn: Admiral Taverns, one of Britain’s biggest privately-owned pub groups, is plotting a takeover of rival Hawthorn Leisure that would nearly double the number of sites in its portfolio. Sky News has learnt that Admiral is among several parties expected to table offers for Hawthorn Leisure ahead of a deadline on Friday. Hawthorn, which is owned by the publicly traded property group NewRiver and comprises just under 700 pubs, is being earmarked for a sale or separate stock market listing in the coming months. Analysts cited groups such as Punch Taverns or private equity firms including Platinum Equity – which recently approached Marston’s about a takeover – as among other possible suitors for Hawthorn. A deal is expected to value Hawthorn at between £200m and £250m. Admiral trades from about 1,000 venues and describes itself as the UK’s “leading community pub company”. It is owned by C&C Group, the owner of Magners cider, and Proprium Capital Partners. Industry sources said its estate would be complemented by that of Hawthorn, making it a strong contender to strike a deal. A person close to Admiral said it had taken “a highly supportive approach to their tenants during the last year, having been one of the only pub companies to suspend rent at the start of the pandemic”. Admiral declined to comment on Friday, while a NewRiver has been contacted for comment. (Sky News)

How two guys introduced Five Guys to burger fans in Britain and beyond: Having opened the first site – appropriately – on 4 July, 2013, in Covent Garden, Five Guys reached 100 outlets in December 2019, while the joint venture had been extended to include France, Spain and Germany. Five Guys UK was established as a 50-50 joint venture between the Murrell family and Sir Charles Dunstone rather than the more usual franchise agreement. Everything was going swimmingly, with group turnover that year of £263 million, an operating profit of £30 million and underlying earnings of about £50 million. Then the pandemic hit and “things got pretty funky” as the group lost £30 million of sales and swung into the red. Yet instead of retrenching, Five Guys kept the tills ringing during lockdown via delivery and kerbside collection, while pressing ahead with an ambitious opening programme. It notched up 23 openings last year, including ten in the UK, while this year 55 sites are due to come on stream, including 25 British outlets, as it takes advantage of the travails of the casual dining sector. In chief executive John Eckbert’s view: “For those of us who have been fortunate enough to operate throughout and have the backing of their shareholders, it’s an amazing opportunity. There will be great site opportunities over the next few years we probably would never have had. We’re going to open a lot of sites this year. The pipelines are bursting and we have a very aggressive growth plan. At a cost of about £1.3 million per site, we’re approaching £75 million investment this year.” Next on the menu is Portugal, which is also covered by the joint venture. Given Dunstone’s long experience of public companies, it seems pertinent to ask whether Five Guys could be floated. “It would certainly be of a size that you would say would be a good candidate for public trading, but whether they elect to or not has yet to be determined. The focus has been on creating a successful, profitable, growing, dynamic business. That’s been my mandate.” (The Times)

UK animal rights group blockades four McDonald’s depots: Animal rights protesters have set up blockades at four McDonald’s distribution centres across Britain, which they say will affect about 1,300 restaurants. Activists from Animal Rebellion used trucks and bamboo structures to blockade distribution sites at Hemel Hempstead, Basingstoke, Coventry and Heywood in Greater Manchester from about 4.30am on Saturday, the group said. The group wants McDonald’s to commit to becoming fully plant-based by 2025. Animal Rebellion said it would remain at the sites for at least 24 hours, causing “significant disruption” to the company’s supply chain. Kerri Waters, who has been a member of Animal Rebellion since its inception two and half years ago, spoke to the Guardian from Heywood where she and about 20 other activists have been since 4am on Saturday. She said she hoped the action would make people stop and think. “As an ordinary, working-class woman, what I would like to say to others like me is that this isn’t about taking anything away from you but if we continue to consume the way we do, this will seriously impact future generations. Today we have the ability to be able to create meats and dairy products in a plant-based version or a cultured version.” An Animal Rebellion spokesperson, James Ozden, said the action was aimed at calling out the animal agriculture industry for its part in the global climate crisis. “The meat and dairy industry is destroying our planet: causing huge amounts of rainforest deforestation, emitting immense quantities of greenhouse gases and killing billions of animals each year,” he said. “The only sustainable and realistic way to feed ten billion people is with a plant-based food system. Organic, free-range and ‘sustainable’ animal-based options simply aren’t good enough.” The campaign group tweeted that it planned to cause “significant disruption” to McDonald’s by staying at the sites for at least 24 hours, which would affect restaurants restocking over the weekend. A McDonald’s spokesperson said: “Our distribution centres are currently facing disruption. We are assessing the impact on deliveries to our restaurants and to menu items. We apologise to our customers for any disappointment caused.” (The Guardian)

Public increasingly fearful once again: Although scientists have now become less fearful of the spread of the Indian variant since Boris Johnson’s press conference, evidence suggests his comments have had some impact on the public. A nationwide survey of more than 2,000 people for The Sunday Telegraph by online polling firm Find Out Now, showed one in three were less likely to socialise indoors over the next week following the Prime Minister’s remarks. Among the over-65s, a crucial group spending more on leisure and a demographic that has accumulated more lockdown savings, the proportion rises to 40%. “Most of our recent research shows rising consumer confidence,” says Chris Holbrook, the company’s founder. “There is no doubt it has wobbled somewhat lately – people are a bit worried about the Indian variant and confused by some government statements.” Hospitality firms will also be concerned by the findings that 19% of people – almost one in five – have cancelled at least one trip to a cafe, theatre, restaurant or cinema since Johnson’s intervention. For all the recovery hopes of the sector, habits can also be hard to break, according to Patrick Fagan, a behavioural scientist and lecturer at Goldsmiths University’s Institute of Management Studies. “You have two camps: people who are scared if there is a variant and then people who are tired and cynical for whom it is not going to have much effect,” he says. “Habits take between 66 and 100 days, and a year is more than enough time. The last year has certainly had profound psychological effects on people.” Anna Angell, a consumer behaviour expert at the Shift consultancy, adds: “It’s almost going to create a bit of a polarisation effect where if someone’s already feeling anxious about getting back out to hospitality, or they haven’t done so, I can see this being something that would push them even further down that route because they’re focusing on information supporting that anxiety and belief. If you’ve got people that are eager to get back out and they’ve gone to restaurants and things like that, I would expect them to be paying less attention to it and probably focusing more on information that’s supporting that behaviour.” (Sunday Telegraph)

The shows are on once more, but cautious consumers still shun theatres and cinemas: As the curtains came up at the Barn Theatre in Cirencester last week, Beth George felt a pang of disappointment. After months of being closed, and talk that people were desperate to get back to some sort of normality, she had expected a larger turnout for the opening night of A Russian Doll. Instead, out of the 100 seats the Barn Theatre was allowed to fill under social distancing guidelines just half were taken. “I guess you don’t know how people are going to react,” George, a producer at the theatre, says. “It was a huge relief to be able to open the doors to audiences, and I would have liked to have thought there was a bit more confidence, given so many people have had their first vaccine.” Like many others in the entertainment and leisure industry, George is learning that going out still appears too much of an unnecessary risk for a huge number of Britons. The rise of the Indian variant, flagged by the Prime Minister just days before as potentially presenting a “serious disruption to progress”, has fuelled concerns. “Inevitably, there’s going to be people who don’t feel comfortable,” says Alex Sheldon, the director of commercial operations at the Curzon cinema chain. “I don’t think it’s as clear as, ‘we’re coming out of lockdown and everything will go back to normal’ because it won’t.” Curzon has been preparing for this step-change, and has its own streaming service that it hopes will retain those audience members who have been watching films in their homes for the past year, and aren’t yet ready to come back to the cinema. If early figures from the box office are anything to go by, there could be many who feel this way. ComScore data for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week show that there was not a boom in ticket sales across UK cinemas. For the first three days cinemas were able to open in England, Wales and Scotland, box office takings came in at just under £2m, compared to £4.7m on the equivalent days in 2019 – although cinemas were only able to operate at 50% capacity since the reopening. Curzon says some of its screenings did sell out, although Sheldon admits the company has smaller screens and so has fewer seats it can fill. (Sunday Telegraph)

Giles Coren reviews Kol, London: The opening in London of a world-class, genre-defying, entirely new and original modern upscale Mexican restaurant such as Kol, which would have been a nailed-on gastronomic highlight in any other year, was simply inconceivable in 2020. I did know that Kol would be some kind of supersmart, glitzily etiolated modern Mexican joint because the guy in charge, Santiago Lastra, launched the Noma Mexico pop-up in Tulum in 2017, which was a massive big hairy deal for a lot of people and marked him out as the coming man. But it wasn’t until I walked in and handed over my coat at reception and turned the corner into the room that the truth of where I was sank in and I smiled, invisibly, beneath my snot-encrusted face covering. It is just the kind of high-concept, simultaneously traditional and futuristic new restaurant that used to be so… normal. When ten or twenty restaurants were opening in London every week, the big ones had to make this kind of effort to get noticed. But in late 2020 – when we were glad of a plastic tent in a Wetherspoon’s car park and a cold Scotch egg to make drinking our pint of soapy lager legal, well, it seemed kind of… unnecessary? But after a couple of cracking margaritas, crisply made and beautifully served in lovely glassware (on a small square of hessian as culturally appropriate and deeply thought out as any beer mat in England), things began to make sense. It was a cracking restaurant. And I was all set to run the review that you’ve just read in the first week of January, when poor Santiago had to fling the tarpaulin over his barely opened baby for a third time. So I packed it away in a drawer, and waited for my moment to pull it out, blow the dust off and file it again. And on Tuesday that moment came, when Kol opened up for a third time, now with a standalone mezcaleria on the ground floor (which managed just a single service in December before being closed down and is thus having its grand opening again this week). I’d get along pronto, if I were you. There is no telling how long it’s going to last this time. (The Times Magazine)

Tom Parker-Bowles reviews Sonny Stones, Bristol: Sonny Stores is an Italian restaurant on the site of an old off-licence in Bristol’s Southville. We sit outside, as is the way these days, at a small table that struggles to fit the seemingly endless cavalcade of plates – this being the sort of place where you really have to order everything. Because the food here is River Café quality, at almost local cafe prices. Which makes sense as chef and co-proprietor Pegs Quinn worked at that peerless West London institution for four years, before moving down to Bristol and shaking the pans at the doubly adored Pasta Ripiena and Bianchis. We start with a soft sliver of farinata, that Sicilian chickpea pancake, anointed with grassy young olive oil, then home-cured Cantabrian anchovies, sweet and subtle, and heavy on the oregano. There’s burrata, fresh and gloriously lactic, served on chargrilled, garlic-laden toast, and a crisp, clean little gem salad, snowy with grated parmesan, studded with almonds, and heady with fresh mint. Then the potato bread, dear god, that bread. ‘Like pommes Anna on toast,’ sighs my friend Mark, a veteran eater and not easily impressed. Thin slices of potato, piled high on bread, then drizzled with habanero-infused honey, and topped with crisp slices of pancetta. The honey packs a serious punch, and brings together the pork and potato in blissful unity. The flavours are big but never brash. Raw wisps of deliriously fresh seabass are doused in olive oil, gently seasoned, and finished with a squeeze of lemon. The very essence of piscine simplicity. Sweetbreads, gently spongy, come with fresh peas and a marsala sauce of such profound depth and elegance you want to lick the plate clean. But even the famously easy-going Bristol might balk at such a sight, so I make do with my fingers. Fresh tagliarini is as delicate and joyous as a Puccini aria, each strand coated with a creamy parmesan emulsion, and the whole dish studded with asparagus. And because we hadn’t ordered quite enough food, a margherita pizza, all puffy, blistered cornicione, thin crust, puddles of mozzarella and a tart tomato sauce. Oh, and finally, a tiramisu, light as a cumulus cloud. Beautiful food, charming service and incredible value. Yet another Bristol belter. (Mail on Sunday)

Jay Rayner reviews Casa Madeira, London: Sometimes restaurants call to me. Sometimes I just don’t listen. Casa Madeira is one of those restaurants. I have driven past it hundreds of times. It is on my route home from the centre of London: south over Lambeth Bridge, right along Albert Embankment, and there it is tucked into the railway arches under the line from Waterloo. Over the years I have glanced at the tables beneath the umbrellas as I have passed, at clusters of people leaning in over their plates, and thought that it looked like fun. I’ve thought I should go there. Then I haven’t gone there. But the food, when it arrives, is everything. I feel foolish for not having been here before. Rugged bread arrives with little foil-lidded pots of a salty sardine or mackerel pâté. We all dig in. I remind the other elders at the table that it’s a snap for the fish paste of our youth. We conclude that’s why we like it. We place an order of dishes to share. Thick lengths of taut-skinned chorizo arrive perched in custom-designed terracotta dishes with a well of booze at the bottom to be ignited. Broad blue flames gutter and spin for a good few minutes at the end of the table. It lends hunks of the chorizo a welcome char and splits the skin so the juices run. We have a deep bowl of thumbnail-sized white clams, in a garlicky broth which demands to be finished off by the bread, and grilled prawns which have been split open and generously smothered with piri piri sauce. Mains are variations on the same theme, which is what we’re here for. There is very little in the way of flummery coming out of that kitchen. It is solid ingredients, treated with due care and attention. There are mixed grills, with chicken and pork escalopes, a little more chorizo and the stars of the show, expertly trimmed lamb chops. We have grilled sardines, their silvery skins blistered and curled, so that the flesh comes away from the bone, and a stew of pork with more clams which provides further opportunities for bread moppage. Chips are hot and crisp. Salads are fresh and vinegary. Prices are reasonable and in places extraordinary. (The Observer)

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