In recent years, the bloodbath that is the British Chain Store Massacre has become a fact of life: changing shopping habits have seen town centre stalwarts like Woolworths and BHS wiped from the earth, and retail park behemoths such as electrical equipment specialists Maplins and once-mighty Toys ‘Я’ Us put to the sword. And it’s not over yet.
Because now it seems the cull is closing its dread fingers around another high street neck: the chain restaurant. Since mid-2017, the sector has seen restructuring plans and restaurant closures from Byron, Prezzo, Jamie’s Italian, The Handmade Burger Company and Strada, amidst dire warnings that the ‘casual dining crunch’ is is about to become the only dish in town.
Of course, if you’re reading this in Coventry, I’ll forgive you for thinking ‘Why should I give a rat’s arse?’. After all, none of the aforementioned restaurants has a branch in the city. If you’re looking for something to lose sleep over, this probably isn’t it.
On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that the adverse trading conditions currently exercising Jamie’s Italian and the rest are symptomatic of a malaise that – to a greater or lesser extent – is also affecting many other restaurant chains. These problems include the weak pound, difficulties around recruitment and retention (both exacerbated by Brexit) and the squeeze on consumer spending. Rises in rents and business rates (and in the living wage) and their knock-on effect on profits are also in the mix. Lastly, rapid expansion of the casual dining sector as a whole has – arguably – resulted in an over-supply of same-y, uninspiring eateries of which the public, bless ‘em, is now beginning to weary.
This is categorically NOT meant to imply that any of the chains that have (or plan to have) a presence in Coventry city centre is in financial trouble; but it is a plea to look to the future. If the casual dining bubble really is about to burst, does a city centre food culture that has placed so many of its eggs so firmly in the casual dining basket, have the resilience to withstand a possible shake-out? More urgently still: does that same city centre food culture have the resilience to withstand a possible shake-out by January 1st 2021?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to that. Coventry has scant serious alternatives to chains, and in any case, those independents that do exist are obviously grappling with many of the same realities that beset their chain restaurant rivals. They may have some advantages however.
Citing a report by business consultancy Deloitte, a recent Guardian article assessed that currently in the restaurant industry ‘key consumer trends [include] more healthy eating, informal and experiential dining and increased consumer focus on food provenance and sustainability’.
Independent businesses, unburdened by the dead weight of corporate identity, can be lighter on their feet when it comes to reacting to these changing tastes. And far more than centrally-sourced chains, they have the potential to forge closer links to the local producers whose goods consumers are so keen to access. It all adds up to yet another reason why Coventry city centre really, really needs more great quality independent restaurants if it wants to avoid serving dining decimation in 2021.
Post-script: The day after I posted this, Cosmo announced the closure of its Coventry restaurant with immediate effect. In a statement, the company blamed ‘well documented pressures on our industry’ for its decision.