“You’re in business to make money. I’m in it to make history”
Last week it hit the industry press that the restaurant man himself, Russell Norman, had stepped away from operational duties at Polpo, the restaurant he co-founded – the zeitgeist restaurant, that made mid-range fun, cool and affordable and laid the foundations for the UK’s soon to develop obsession with prosecco and of course Aperol spritz.
Polpo is one of many hospitality businesses that emerged from the last recession with the moniker of ‘game changer’. What became the meat liquor, started out as a just about legal ‘gyro’ van on a Peckham car park in the late noughties which had hipsters queuing round the block to sample THE burger worth travelling across London for. The Dirty burger was no longer an insult, can’t afford glasses to sell drinks in? no worries we’ll use jam jars! Wood fired pizzas were novel and flat whites – becoming de rigeur.
Food fashion, like any trend, can soon seem tedious and shallow – either that or my cynicism has reached new heights, but we should not forget how many of these businesses changed the food & drink game – because it’s going to happen again and its already begun.
The recession chic of the hipster late noughties meant a make do and mend approach to décor – I still have a TV stand made from a shipping container. With money and hope in short supply, it was life’s little pleasures that were re-worked and changed forever. Fast food classics got a makeover, burgers became dirty & pink, pizza woodfired, BBQ went distinctly American, smoked not charred, fried chicken got even better.
Traditional high value and footfall sites were unaffordable and off-message, disused and under loved spaces were to be re-imagined and re-energised. KERB put on a food rave in a Peckham goods yard next to an NCP car park with its own Campari Bar and pop up art gallery, food scenes were emerging and were fluid. Restaurant chefs were inspired by street food and vice versa, pop ups and supper clubs filled space left by more formal entertainment – food and drink had become more affordable, more accessible, and more fun.
The joy of great hospitality, the energy within each establishment, the innovation & the scene that developed over the following decade became the norm, evolving into and, later, often being copied by fast casual and casual dining chains and others.
In ten years, we have turned from an emerging sector, questioning and challenging everything to becoming [almost] part of The Establishment. We now find ourselves again at a cross- roads, a pandemic and an economic collapse, truly uncharted waters – the outlook to many is arguably is bleak, but I’m not so sure. Change is certainly accelerating, and a major economic bump is expected as furlough ends and uncertainty persists.
The decline of the traditional high streets and markets pre Covid- 19 created opportunities for budding restaurateurs and street food businesses as places to trade or rent became more affordable, however, prime location rents remained high. The commercial property bubble is surely going to burst in the next 12 months as businesses cannot afford rent for the months, they were unable to open – sectors of the economy, & established business models such as traditional retail are beginning to crumble.
Multi-Award winning cocktail and good times establishment milk and honey in Soho reported paying £4,000 a week rent for their Soho club, with no office workers, tourists and day trippers AND the need for distancing, £4,000p/w is unachievable, especially as the landlords is insisting on full rent for the lockdown period – the decision has been made to close and London’s bar scene will have lost a gem.. , possibly one of many. Should hospitality businesses pay twice the new market rate, even if it’s possible? Are the landlords playing hardball, holding out for government cash or are they steeped in debt themselves and unable to renegotiate? It’s seems incredible to expect hospitality businesses to work their landlords out of trouble.
This new normal, however it will look, will be, at times, destructive, but will create space for opportunity and innovation. The shame so long associated with business failure, will be diminished. There is no shame in business failure due to Covid-19, those staring down the barrel should seek legal and financial advice to protect themselves in the event of failure, to be able to pivot away from unpayable rent and a loss of trade. Many business owners will dust themselves off, start again and blow our minds once more, with their creativity and energy.
More so than last time around, the whole economy, especially hospitality is splintering under the pressures of operating during Covid-19, rent and tax debts accruing, and broken business models. The chains are shedding unprofitable sites and renegotiating with landlords, many indies will likely have to do the same, with far less leverage. But the game has changed and just like the end of the noughties, there will be opportunities for the bold and the innovative.
With so many people working from home and spending locally, will food trucks and click and collect/deliver become the new way forward? Will environmental and obesity concerns lead to more plant-based eating or will people double down on comfort food as the recession begins to bite?
Businesses are already beginning to answer these questions and many more, it’s going to be a choppy couple of years and it’s not going to be easy, but it wasn’t easy ten years ago. Back then it looked like it was never going to happen, that the chips were stacked against us, that the big boys would always take the candy in the end. But it didn’t work out like that then and it won’t this time.
This is not the first time we’ve faced adversity and it won’t be the last. Over a decade ago, the country was in the midst of the financial crisis, the good times were over, austerity on its way. Yet from this emerged food businesses (and many others) that re-wrote the book on what worked and why; that challenged preconceptions about what the customer wanted and how they wanted it.
With hindsight we look back and declare the genius of some of those innovators and game changers, however at the time it felt more like endless thankless graft, I wonder how close some of those we consider successes came to giving up, throwing in the towel -whether they ever realised they’d ‘made it’?
I read a quote recently from the business partner of Tony Wilson who created Factory Records and the legendary nightclub the Hacienda, “Tony used to say to me: ‘You’re in business to make money. I’m in it to make history.’” It reminded me of conversations with caterers and chefs ten years ago, who changed the game driven by the need to create – not to get rich, to build a bit of the world how they thought it should be and stamp their name on it.