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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Sun 17th Oct 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Raymond Blanc’s restaurant group set for £50m takeout: The restaurant chain founded by celebrity chef Raymond Blanc is poised to change hands in a deal that will allow it to expand its pubs business. Brasserie Bar Co, which owns the French chain Brasserie Blanc and the pub group White Brasserie, is understood to be close to selling itself to Alchemy Partners, the private equity firm founded by Jon Moulton. The deal, with Alchemy paying up to £50 million, is expected to complete in the coming weeks. Brasserie Blanc was founded as Le Petit Blanc in 1996 by Raymond Blanc, 71, the chef patron at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, and executive chairman Mark Derry, 61, a leisure veteran who previously led Loch Fyne. It serves French-inspired classics such as moules marinière and coq au vin. Blanc will remain involved as chef patron if the deal for Brasserie Bar Co goes through. The company’s current backers include private equity firm Core Capital and some of its management team, who led a buyout in 2006. Today it employs about 1,000 people and has 14 restaurants and 18 pubs that operate under the White Brasserie brand – serving brasserie food in pubs across the UK. Like most of its peers, Brasserie Blanc has suffered from the lockdowns as well as enforced restrictions such as the “rule of six” and a curfew that forced venues to close at 10pm. It entered covid with 37 premises and now has 32. Alchemy bought the northeast pub chain Inn Collection in 2018, and in the past year it has added at least eight pubs with rooms to its portfolio, taking the total to 18. Moulton stepped down in 2009. As part of the deal with Alchemy, management in Brasserie Bar Co are expected to retain a small holding. Brasserie Bar Co declined to comment. Alchemy could not be reached. (Sunday Times)

Playtime’s over for Rishi Sunak, reform of alcohol taxes mooted: Tim Shipman in The Sunday Times writes: “There is a view that Rishi Sunak’s economically orthodox approach, at a time when firms have been hit by a fivefold increase in the cost of fuel, is politically naive when Boris Johnson has vowed to look after the red wall seats he won in 2019. “We can’t allow a temporary increase in global gas prices to send otherwise viable businesses to the wall,” a Tory adviser said. “People in Scunthorpe didn’t vote for us because we are devotees of Adam Smith [the father of free-market economics].” Johnson and Sunak have an understanding that spending should be fully funded so they can build a war chest to offer tax cuts before the next general election. But while Sunak wants to be judged by the number of jobs the economy generates, Johnson has defined the key metric as rising wages. The Treasury is concerned this will simply fuel an arms race between wages and prices. Business leaders say that Sunak has confided his trepidation that elsewhere in Downing Street there is insufficient appreciation of what this will mean for the country. “Some people don’t seem to understand the dangers of inflation,” said a source familiar with the chancellor’s views. “You’ll get an interest rate rise, which will push up the cost of borrowing, and that will make it more difficult to put more money into the public services. A whole generation has no experience of their mortgages getting more expensive.” Johnson’s team is unrepentant, insisting there is very little that divides the two men. A No 10 official told a friend in business last week: “The clue is in the name: Boris is the first lord of the Treasury.” Officials also insist that the better-than-expected economic bounceback has given Sunak more wriggle room that he expected in the spending review later this month. One of Sunak’s most eye-catching plans in an otherwise dull announcement on 27 October will be to reveal a reform of alcohol taxes. Sunak is also still keen on changing business rates, although that has been delayed. Indeed, Sunak’s only significant fiscal measure on the way is the £12 billion raid on national insurance to fund social care.” (The Sunday Times)

UK companies cool on IPO plans as investor jitters grow: Several UK companies have halted plans to float on public markets as investors signal greater hesitancy while fears grow of a winter lockdown and inflationary cost pressures. Hawksmoor, the London-based steak chain, has shelved its planned flotation, partly because of the broader uncertainty in the hospitality industry caused by shortages of labour and supply chain disruption. PureGym, the budget fitness company, is also reconsidering its intention to list, said people with knowledge of its plans. Will Beckett, founder of Hawksmoor, said the company had paused refinancing talks, including through an IPO, as he wanted to focus on building the business back after the pandemic, as well as reopening and launching new restaurants, including its first in New York. He said there had been good interest from a number of potential cornerstone investors, and trading was above 2019 levels, but pointed to the “instability in the sector as a whole”. The chain had been working with Berenberg on the plans. Companies, particularly in the hospitality sector, are also facing increasing pressures from a lack of staff given the departure of many EU workers in the pandemic and after Brexit, while costs are rising thanks to supply chain disruption and haulage costs. But despite wavering investor sentiment, other companies are pushing ahead with stock market offerings. Hostmore, owner of the American diner chain Fridays, revealed details of its plans to list on London’s main market in a prospectus on Friday. The group – until last year known as TGI Fridays – will demerge from its parent company, the private equity firm Electra, and list next month with an estimated value of about £275m. Robert Cook, former chief executive of Virgin Active, who took over Fridays in 2019, said the company had worked “tirelessly” to maintain its staffing level and had hedged its key meat and energy costs. Graeme Smith, managing director at AlixPartners, said that this year, “getting [IPOs] away in late summer, early autumn was the sweet spot”. “People are thinking [that as] we are getting a little close to winter, we might have problems in terms of further spikes in cases,” he added. (The FT)

Warner – It’ll take more than higher pay to get work-shy Britain working: Jeremy Warner writing in The Telegraph says: “Some will blame Brexit, but there is actually a much more worrying problem at work here – whisper it, for fear of causing offence, but we have a culturally workshy labour force that has grown used to migrants filling the jobs that indigenous Brits don’t want to do. I’m going to get myself into a lot of trouble for saying this, but Brits do not on the whole like working unsocial hours, including evenings and weekends. The market will eventually prevail, and some kind of new equilibrium will establish itself. Wages will rise to a level where people do find it acceptable to work as a matter of course from 5pm to midnight and at weekends. But it will also mean a substantial rise in costs, pricing many mid-market eateries and pubs out of business. The sector will instead polarise between high end establishments whose customers are not price conscious, and heavily automated self-service chains such as McDonald’s. One industry insider predicts that unless the government changes its mind, and allows a lot more short-term visas for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, the industry will shrink by about a third over the next several years. If that seems an exaggeration, just consider the following. The explosive growth we’ve seen in away from home eating and drinking in the past 20 years coincides almost exactly with the advent of mass free movement, and has indeed been substantially driven by the apparently inexhaustible pool of relatively cheap and willing workers it provides. The other half of the globalisation story is the outsourcing of production to low labour cost markets such as China. In defence of the consequent high levels of immigration and global trade, it means that we no longer have to do the menial, unsocial jobs of our forebears. Others do them for us. But cheap goods and nights out come at their own price – a lost sense of belonging, tradition and community. In reversing these trends, we’ll just have to get used to higher prices, less choice, and for many of us, doing the sort of jobs we’ve been turning our noses up at. Maybe that’s what people want, I don’t know, but it’s a big change that requires the sort of careful and sustained management that has not been much in evidence these past several years.” (The Telegraph)

Chips down as fry bag shortage hits Burger King: Fast-food chains are facing the ­prospect of chip bag shortages ahead of the busy half-term break. Burger King is understood to be grappling with a shortage of fry bags in the latest sign of supply chain woes. Until recently, the chain had been experiencing shortages of plastic cup lids. Burger King is working on various measures to ensure the latest supply shortage does not hit orders, sources said, including swapping in unbranded fry bags and using different-sized bags. Earlier this year McDonald’s ran out of milkshakes and bottled drinks at some of its restaurants. It said at the time that a “nationwide shortage of HGV drivers” was partly to blame. Half-term is traditionally a busy period for fast-food companies as families visit drive-throughs on long journeys and footfall in city centre sites is boosted by higher lunchtime trade. Burger King did not respond to requests for comment. Trouble sourcing packaging is something that has rippled across the UK, with industry group UKHospitality ­saying last week that higher energy prices meant boxes and wrap were becoming harder to source. Factories are having to rein in production to cope with the high costs. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “That means food supply grinds to a halt rapidly if we ­cannot pack and protect food.” Paper is among the most used materials in packaging, and has been one of the industries hardest hit by high energy prices, brought about by spiralling wholesale gas prices. While Ofgem sets price caps for energy for consumers, there is no such cap for industries. Last week, paper bosses warned ­factories could have to close if energy prices continued to rise. Britain’s biggest producer of newsprint Palm Paper, meanwhile, was reportedly looking at cutting its production this year, with Bloomberg saying the group had not sufficiently hedged its gas purchases. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, has put forward proposals to the Treasury to provide temporary subsidies for paper companies, as well as for steel, glass and ceramic firms. Factories have been struggling with a tight labour market, competing for workers against retailers and restaurants, which are also recruiting. (The Telegraph)

Labour shortages causing delays to new store openings, says Wm Morrison chief David Potts: The boss of Wm Morrison warned that labour shortages were causing delays to new store openings, investment in automation and products reaching shelves as he hit back at an MP’s claim that supply chain failings were in the “long-term interest” of the economy. David Potts said the supermarkets group had 100 shipping containers stuck at sea amid port disruptions in Asia and Britain, which would delay products such as toys and homewares. The price of shipping a container from China to the UK has increased tenfold. Potts, 64, said that there was “underlying strain” in the food supply chain that was affecting the production of ready meals and the availability of fresh chicken. Fizzy drinks were in short supply as a result of disruption to carbon dioxide supplies last month. A lack of cement, bricks, store signs and metal posts was delaying investment in new shops and refurbishments. “There’s plenty on our shelves, but there’s a more limited choice,” Potts said. “It just feels harder than it needs to be. It’s a combination of Brexit, which was slightly masked by covid, and then the two being together the following year. In the near term, we need more pairs of hands, more visas. If you know there are people around the world who would like to work here, to help themselves and to help us help the country, that’s a good thing. It’s challenging and we have more vacancies than normal.” He dismissed sentiment against supermarkets, after Chris Loder, a Conservative MP, said that it would be good for supply chains to break because it would help local farmers and village shops. “Over decades [supermarkets] have built up quite a sophisticated supply chain that many millions of people rely on for availability for freshness and for value,” Potts said. (The Times)

Only a fifth of workers are back in the office for five days a week: Just one in five people are back in the office five days a week as covid restrictions ease, a new poll has revealed. Commuters say they are turning to ‘hybrid working patterns’ because they can save money by cutting their commute. Others say they are still avoiding the office because they fear catching covid on public transport. In the survey of 1,000 London commuters by transport app TUBR, only 20% say they are in the office five days a week. 42% of respondents are in for ‘one or two days a week’ and spend the rest of their time working from home. A further 14% have no plans to return to the office at all. Boris Johnson has urged workers to get back to the office or risk being ‘gossiped about’, adding: “For young people in particular, it’s really essential to be in. If you are going to learn on the job, you can’t just do it on Zoom.” The poll found that Monday was the most common day for employees to go to work and Friday saw the fewest commuters. More than two-thirds of respondents said they would be more likely to travel into the office if mask-only carriages were introduced in trains. 60% said a return to making masks mandatory would encourage them back to commuting. Dash Tabor, co-founder of TUBR, said: “Post-lockdown, the usual nine to five, Monday-to-Friday commute is a thing of the past. Home working may be good for some but it’s not great for everyone. And our town and city centres will rely heavily on people eventually returning to the office. Transport providers can and should be doing more to help that process.” (Mail on Sunday)

Selfridges’ owners in talks with Qatar about potential £4bn sale: Selfridges’ billionaire owners are in talks with Qatar about a potential £4bn sale that would see the world-famous department store change hands for the first time in nearly two decades. Sources with knowledge of the negotiations said funds linked to Qatar had taken the lead in the race to snap up Selfridges. Such a deal would see the Middle Eastern state take ownership of a second, major London department store. Qatar acquired Knightsbridge-based Harrods in 2010 through its sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). The Weston family in July launched an auction for Selfridges after a difficult year during which it was forced to close for several months. The group operates four Selfridges stores in the UK – in London, Birmingham and Manchester where it has two. Sources said the Qataris – who bought the iconic Printemps store in Paris in 2013 through Divine Investments – are not yet in exclusive talks and it is possible a rival bidder for Selfridges may yet be successful. It is also understood that discussions with the Qataris had included the possibility of buying only the Selfridges department stores, possibly excluding the group’s Irish shops Brown Thomas and Arnotts, Holt Renfrew in Canada and de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands which are also owned by the Westons. (Mail on Sunday)

Jay Rayner reviews London’s Kebab Kid and Nusr-Et Steakhouse: A Sunday lunchtime and I am sitting outside a restaurant in London’s Knightsbridge famed for serving a £1,450 steak, eating an £8.50 kebab. I have brought my own table, chair and chequered tablecloth. It’s a ludicrous gesture, but then the Nusr-Et Steakhouse is a ludicrous restaurant, and one stupid turn deserves another. Still, I’m certain that I am eating better than all the customers through the huge wooden doors behind me, spaffing their sticky largesse over gold-leaf wrapped steaks. Because my lamb shawarma comes from the legendary Kebab Kid in Parsons Green, and very nice it is, too. The Nusr-Et Steakhouse, inside the Park Tower Hotel, is the latest opening from Turkish butcher-turned steak monger Nusret Gökçe, better known as Salt Bae. A few years ago, a video of his signature steak salting move went viral. He was pictured in a tight white T-shirt and dark glasses, sprinkling salt down his muscular forearm as if proving he could both season the beef and pop an ovary in one move. Imagine Rod Hull’s Emu, bare naked and disgracing himself by vomiting down his own neck. Salt Bae, which means Salt Baby, was born. He now has 38m followers on Instagram. If you were looking for something to illustrate the male terror of sexual inadequacy, a Salt Bae video would serve beautifully. He wields knives. He likes to be photographed bare-chested. There are now 19 Salt Bae steakhouses worldwide, trading in stupidly expensive steaks, many of them entirely wrapped in gold leaf, flogged to people who should know better. They include David Beckham, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. The gold-wrapped burger is £100. The gold-wrapped eight-hour short rib is £765. There’s the 2kg Tomahawk at £1,450. Finish with gold-wrapped baklava for £50. Shortly after the London branch opened, a photograph of a £1,812.40 receipt for a table of six went viral, including £1.40 cans of Red Bull at £11. Here’s the thing. Some metals are more reactive than others. Never try eating with brass cutlery. Your dinner will taste horrid. Stainless steel is great. And then there’s the least reactive metal of all: gold. Food wrapped in gold will literally taste of nothing, at least at first. Weird as it may sound, I like my food to taste of something. Which is why I decide to get mine from Kebab Kid. (The Observer)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Sucre, Soho: Sucre is properly dazzling. A striking building, the former London College of Music, done out in a kind of hectic, fin-de-siècle glamour: faux-foxed mirrors, chandeliers that, on closer inspection, turn out to be made of hundreds of glittering, cut-glass decanters, a lot of upholstery in a sludgy-opulent palette. After years as a travel writer I’ve usually a toehold in cuisines and mores, but this isn’t one of those times: I’ve never been to Buenos Aires and I’m pretty clearly not Argentinian. But I do know food, good or otherwise. And so many dishes here miss the mark, one after another. Some are just a shimmer away from being excellent: black rice with squid and smoked paprika would have been glorious if the rice hadn’t been so underdone it was crunchy – while lacking the actual crunch of the layer of socarrat you hope for in an arroz negro. “Who is she to say?” the acclaimed chef might tut at my complaint that the rice was oversalty and undercooked. “She’s never even been to South America.” And some are just badly thought out and constructed, with a basic lack of understanding when it comes to seasoning. Scallops tiradito are drowned in so much soy, horseradish and chilli that they’re reduced to nothing more than a fleshy textural note, all the shellfish’s subtlety and sweetness bludgeoned into invisibility. Dorset crab tostada sounds lovely, the tortilla chips laden with crabmeat, avocado and tatemada, an almost black squidge of scorched chillis. But it’s a mess – the various flavours don’t sing, there’s not enough sharpness, the crab is lost among the rapidly sagging chips. And the tatemada, astonishingly, makes hardly any impression: muddy and muddled. That two dishes are pretty much flawless – a gorgeous empanada, perfect blistered pastry stuffed with caramelised onion and aged cheddar; and very fine roasted Norfolk Black chicken on a seductively savoury mush of corn, spiked with tomatillo and chilli – only makes the duffers more disappointing. The chef might look at his popular, beautiful restaurant, currently oversubscribed by its designer-clad, performatively loud clientele and shrug, what does she know? But what I do know is what real hospitality looks like, what constitutes a pleasurable restaurant experience, wherever in the world you might be. And this, for me, ain’t it. Pfft, he could continue, my exquisite restaurant is not for the likes of her. And, in fairness, he’d be right. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Tom Parker Bowles reviews A la Mexicana, Smethwick: Jonathan Gold, the late and inarguably great restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, once wrote that ‘the best choice is always the restaurant 15 minutes further than you are willing to go’. As ever, he was right. Because A la Mexicana is a good hike for most Brummies, let alone this train-tied Londoner, situated in Bearwood, a suburb that isn’t even technically part of Birmingham. But inspired by a rave review from the ever-reliable Meat and One Veg blog, my only real concern was how quickly I could be there for lunch. A la Mexicana is not particularly smart, being little more than a small room – with an open kitchen and freestanding drinks fridge – wedged between large electrical showrooms, on an unlovely stretch of Midlands A-road. What it is, though, is good. Very good indeed. A television sits in one corner, blaring out Mexican travel shows, while bright papel picado (punched-paper banners) flutter from the ceiling. José Galindez, warm and gently garrulous, runs front of house while his wife, Patricia, cooks. At the moment, it’s BYO. But anywhere with ice-cold bottles of Mandarin Jarritos is fine by me. Tortillas are made fresh each day. As are the salsas, five in total, ranging from mild, chunky pico de gallo through rich, smoky chipotle to a fierce little habañero number that melds fruit with fire. Guacamole is creamily luscious and sharp with lime. I eat chilaquiles – fresh fried tortilla chips slathered in a piquant tomato sauce, lavished with fresh cheese, sour cream and slim shards of radish. Two immaculately fried eggs sit on top. The art lies in that contrast between soggy and crisp, sharp and sweet. All bound together in the yolk’s concupiscent embrace. Tacos al pastor – the pork crisp, charred and stained red with achiote – bring a small, greedy tear to my eye. Tiny chunks of pineapple add acidity, while raw onions provide essential crunch. Carnitas tacos are equally fine, soft strands of good pig, slow cooked in lard. The tortillas themselves, small and just chewy, are scented with masa and the Mexican street. All wear as many salsas as I can pile on, and dribble as they’re devoured. A la Mexicana is the sort of home-style, family-owned place you’ll find all over Mexico. But to have somewhere this wonderful, in a distant suburb, is nothing short of miraculous. Viva Mexico. Viva Bearwood. And viva la familia Galindez. (Mail on Sunday)

Giles Coren reviews Vegan PizzaExpress: The shopfront was, to me, thrilling. The old familiar logo but… green! Same, same but different. Walking in, it didn’t smell quite like a PizzaExpress. It’s not so warm and pillowy-cheesy. More vegetal. But at the same time, it doesn’t have that damp, auberginey smell of student bedsits so many vegan restaurants do. As it happens, I am no keener than you are to give up the occasional bacon and egg breakfast, a roast chicken at the weekend, a nice bit of comté with a glass of burgundy or a spot of sushi from time to time. And I don’t plan to. But for most of the stuff we throw down our faces without thinking, the burgers and pizzas and pies and snacks and all that, it’s just all going to have to be plant-based one day, so we might as well start practising. I wanted to order six pizzas and taste them all, but throwing away five sixths of my lunch would rather contradict the ecological point. So I ordered a vegan American Hot (Romana base) to test the “jackfruit pepperoni” and a Sloppy Vegan (“an icon reborn”) to see what I thought of the Quorn. Falling into conversation with a vegan American lawyer of about my age, who was eating alone to “give it a try”, I agreed that it was all a bit processed tasting, which tends to go against the “whole food” philosophy that much of veganism is about. He thought it would be better to have gone the way of the northern Californian vegan pizzas he loves, which eschew fake “cheese” for either a pesto or straight tomato base and “whole” toppings. Look, I won’t pretend these were the most delicious pizzas I’ve ever had. In fact, they were probably the least delicious. But we should all be lowering our fat intake, encouraging the exploitation of fewer animals, emitting less carbon, hanging with younger people and entertaining new ideas. And if, in the end, our lunch is a bit rubbish, well, that’s called “taking one for the team”. (The Times Magazine)

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