Walk down any one of Birmingham’s thoroughfares and it’s obvious the city’s restaurant scene is booming, but how many of these are chain restaurants, and why?
It seems as though every week brings about another eatery’s grand opening, offering Brummies a new style of cuisine to fill a gap in the increasingly busy market.
In fact, it has to be said that there cannot be many gaps left. And it seems that the growth has been evenly spread right across the culinary landscape, from artisan pop-up vendors plying their trade at regular events such as Digbeth Dining Club, through to the high-end restaurant scene that has garnered the most Michelin stars of any UK city outside of London.
But despite this meteoric upturn of the restaurant business in the second city as well as the country generally, there has been a creeping sense that the bubble may be about to burst – if it hasn’t already. And possibly the biggest casualties of this burst? The chains.
Over the last year or so there has been a steady stream of well-known chain restaurants reporting financial troubles and restructuring plans. These include, to name just a few, Jamie’s Italian, Byron Burger, Handmade Burger Co, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Carluccio’s, Strada and Prezzo.
Jamie’s has announced a plan to ease debts by closing 12 of its 37 outlets across the country, with Byron likely to axe up to 20. Carluccio’s has identified up to 30 restaurants that will close under a restructuring plan, with many Strada outlets due to go the same way. The firm that owns Prezzo is also going ahead with the closure of a massive 92 restaurants under various different brands.
The good news for Birmingham, for now at least, such is the robustness of the city’s dining out economy most of these names still exist in the city centre. But for how long?
Handmade Burger Co and Strada have both closed branches in the past year, and the Moseley Prezzo quickly fell victim to a shunning by the local community, who continue to be actively hostile to chain businesses moving into the suburb.
The downturn in fortunes for these businesses, labelled by some as the ‘casual dining crunch’, can be attributed to something of a perfect storm in the industry. There has been an increasing financial strain on chain restaurants caused by increases in the minimum wage, as well as increases in the cost of rent and produce only exacerbated by a weak pound caused in the wake of the Brexit vote.
However, while several events seemed to have conspired against the sector, many of these businesses must have to shoulder a considerable amount of the blame for their demise. As national appetites soared for wood-fired pizzas and brioche-encased beef patties, the chains scrambled to open up more and more branches, only for it to come back to bite them.
The market became swamped, and every high street began to look the same. Then when they were feeling the economic pinch, many compromised on quality to make up the shortfall. So perhaps the more pertinent question to ask about this situation is – should we care?
If you were to take to the street for a poll of opinion, it is likely that few would. In a saturated market, your average restaurant punter want’s something different if they are going to part with their hard-earned cash. For many, the choice (especially in a city like Birmingham) is just too great to be bored by mid-range mediocrity.
This is the age of Instagram and Snapchat, where people care as much about how photogenic their plate of food is, as they do the taste. Ultimately, you’re not going to accumulate as many social media cool-points by posting a photo of from Gourmet Burger Kitchen as you would from an Original Patty Men for example.
For all of their faults though, perhaps we should care about what happens to the chains. High streets up and down the country are looking increasingly ghostly with the even more urgent crisis in retail, so chain restaurants must surely be part of the solution in keeping our town and city centres alive.
In Birmingham they reside in some of the most prominent buildings in the city which, if left empty, would have a dire effect on not only the economy but also the vibrancy of the place. Even though we may see more of these restaurant brands struggle in the coming months, they are still an important part of the dining marketplace. They just need to raise their game.