When I was growing up, special family occasions always meant a trip to our favourite trattoria. Stepping inside was a transformational experience for me: the gentle Sicilian folk music on the mandolin; the barely audible trickle of the miniature plastic Trevi Fountain; candles flickering in those straw-covered wine bottles.
Suddenly, you were no longer in the Gateshead MetroCentre, but somewhere balmy, somewhere continental. Meeting you was an immaculately dressed waiter, resplendent in a crisp white shirt and black bow tie. He was always so courteous at the door, but you knew he’d be flirting with your mam before the starters had arrived. “Buona sera” he would purr in a baritone. It didn’t matter that his real name was Kev and he was about as Italian as Jimmy Nail.
Like so many other independent restaurants, that trattoria is long gone, unable to compete with the casual dining chains that have exploded, fuelled by private equity investment and cheap debt. Last time I checked, our old haunt was a Bella Italia.
The boot is on the other foot these days though, and it’s the chains that have taken a kicking in recent months. Cote Brasserie is the latest to have looked at closures as a way of shoring up its business model in the wake of difficult trading conditions. This comes after Prezzo announced in March it was closing nearly 100 restaurants as part of a company voluntary arrangement – a process which allowed it to restructure debts.
Jamie’s Italian also announced closures in January, as did Byron Burger. Strada, Carluccio’s and Franco Manca are also reportedly feeing the heat. It’s no coincidence that these chains are all suffering at the same time, as the casual dining market is massively over-supplied.
To fill all these new restaurants, many chains have aggressively courted new customers through discounting and voucher schemes, but this may have backfired. Consumers have figured out that for a few clicks and a bit of personal data, they never need to pay full price. They no longer value the product, and the resulting decline in brand value is going to be difficult to reverse – as many travel agents have learned.
The travel industry has also seen a boom in private equity investment, but growth has been more controlled. Nevertheless, there are certainly parallels between the sectors.
These days I rarely venture to the high street to eat. I’m more likely to order from Deliveroo, a convenient, technologically slick alternative to leaving the house. Such intermediaries are well-funded and growing fast.
Differentiation has long been a buzzword in travel too. The more successful travel agents on the high street are doing something authentic and experiential. Agents punting without adding any value have a shelf life as limited as those of the brochures they are giving out.