The naked truth: are diners fed up with Jamie Oliver?
Over-expansion may be just one reason for the collapse of the celebrity chef’s restaurant empire
Last August, Jamie Oliver admitted 40% of his business ventures had soured.
He can now add his restaurant empire to the list after it crashed into administration: 22 of the chef’s 25 restaurants were immediately closed and 1,000 staff will lose their jobs.
He said he was “deeply saddened” by the collapse, while KPMG said other directors had worked “tirelessly” to save the outlets of Jamie’s Italian, Jamie’s Italian Coffee Lounge, Jamie Oliver’s Italian, Jamie Oliver’s Diner, Barbecoa and Fifteen.
Oliver shocked insiders by pulling the plug late on Monday.
Sources close to the negotiations claimed that one of the reasons talks to save the business by offloading it to an outside investor were scuppered was the looming wage bill.
“The business was consistently portrayed as a viable going concern,” said one person connected to the sale. “It wasn’t the world’s hardest deal.”
In truth, the failure of Oliver’s restaurants had been a long time coming.
Restructuring experts Alix Partners had been scrambling to find a new “investment partner” for months. But the seeds of Tuesday’s collapse were sown much longer ago than that.
Oliver rose to fame in the late 1990s as the “pukka” happy-go-lucky frontman of The Naked Chef.
He’d made fame and food stick through the 1990s. He was one thing other TV chefs weren’t: cool. He cooked for, and mixed with, Hollywood. He even played the drums in a band.
It was this brand Oliver set about expanding at a breakneck pace.
Cookbooks, historically the stuffy preserve of the likes of Delia Smith, were an easy target. It was only a matter of time before he opened the first of his eponymous eateries, in 2008 in Oxford.
Aggressive growth followed. By 2016 he had 43 restaurants. At that point, things started to go badly wrong.
In a rare interview Oliver said he had two hours to decide whether to save his restaurants: “We had simply run out of cash.” In the months after that, he pumped £13m of his money into the business.
Thereafter came a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) that shut 12 restaurants and cost 600 jobs.
Angering some in the trade, Oliver went on to complete a pre-pack administration of one of his Barbecoa steakhouses, meaning he would not be on the hook for some of its debts.
The portfolio stumbled on.
The gloss, which had impressed even the most discerning of food critics, was wearing off.
Customer reviews revealed experiences at best no different to your average restaurant and at worst littered with profanities.
The group was not alone in struggling. Gaucho, Byron, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Prezzo, La Tasca and Cafe Rouge all felt the pain.
Several years ago it felt like there was a Strada on every street corner. Now there are just six.
Restaurant failures spiked by 35% to more than 1,100 last year.
“Sky-high rents, particularly at its premium sites, combined with soaring business rates, have been at the heart of Jamie Oliver’s recent woes,” explains Gareth Ogden, a partner at accountancy firm haysmacintyre.
“Jamie’s Italian, the group’s largest brand, is perhaps guilty of over-expansion and has lost the passion and zeal of its founder which was its USP.”
Insiders said he was given “bad advice”, particularly on Jamie’s Italian.
“He has got people around him who have probably overleveraged his brand,” one said.
Julie Palmer, of restructuring specialists Begbies Traynor, says there is a growing challenge from delivery firms such as Uber Eats and Just Eat, adding “the decline in custom, combined with higher rental costs on the high street, more online discount offers and increases to minimum wage has led to the business going off the boil”.
Even as his empire crumbled on Tuesday, Oliver hailed the success of “positively disrupting mid-market dining in the UK high street”.
That suggests the Naked Chef is ready to move on, but it provides no clue why a sale of the business was suddenly pulled.
Perhaps it was “deal fatigue”, one insider wondered. Or perhaps he concluded that Britain's diners were fatigued with him.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)