If you don't support independent restaurants, get used to soulless pizzas

Pizza express pizza, chains, independent restaurants

Michael Boyd

1st July 2010, The Times

The effect of restaurant chains like Pizza Express is that independents barely make a profit

After a particularly joyless visit to an Edinburgh Pizza Express last Sunday, all four of us ended up with mild food poisoning.

Of course, I can’t prove that the restaurant was responsible, but the leathery undercooked pizza, the warm drinking water served without ice, the bored waitress chewing on a snack as she served, the debate with the duty manager (“Please can we have some new garlic butter? This one hasn’t got any garlic in it.” “Yes it has.” “It hasn’t — try it.” “I don’t need to, because I know”): all this made us grumpy.

You can read the rest here at Times Online

After a particularly joyless visit to an Edinburgh Pizza Express last Sunday, all four of us ended up with mild food poisoning.

Of course, I can’t prove that the restaurant was responsible, but the leathery undercooked pizza, the warm drinking water served without ice, the bored waitress chewing on a snack as she served, the debate with the duty manager (“Please can we have some new garlic butter? This one hasn’t got any garlic in it.” “Yes it has.” “It hasn’t — try it.” “I don’t need to, because I know”): all this made us grumpy.

As usual — and I reckon one in three of our far-too-frequent visits to Pizza Express ends in recriminations — I asked my wife and kids whether we really had to go there again. “No, not to that one, not ever,” they agreed. “But we’ll go to the one in Leith, where the staff are nice.”

The faceless venture capital company that now owns Pizza Express must have done a rigorous cost-benefit analysis and decided that overpriced pizza + unhappy staff + moderate levels of customer dissatisfaction still equals very good business. You can see similar effects in other taken-over chains — such as the once wonderful and refreshing Loch Fyne Restaurants, which have now sadly declined since selling up to the pub’n’grub giant Greene King three years ago. I never talk to anyone who’s been there recently without hearing moans.

The problem of course is that we, and a million families like us, end up in these restaurants every week because of the simple, dull practicality of it. You know what you’re going to get, fussy children won’t cause problems, and it’s not that bad.

But life is short and I’d really like to try and break this cycle. It’s all very well complaining — goodness knows the British still need to learn how to do that when eating out. I have complained in the past at Pizza Express, usually over ridiculous waiting times: once the manager gave me the mobile phone number of his boss to call. You may get a £20 voucher, but you end up back at their tables with a depressing sense of déjà vu. The thing is to say to the children: “Enough. We’ll go and spend our money somewhere that deserves it.”

My stomach recovered, on Tuesday I went to a very different restaurant — Creelers (right), just off theRoyal Mile, Edinburgh. In this pleasant, modest fish bistro I ate a two-course set lunch that cost £10.50: exactly what we’d spent per head at Pizza Express. There was a gorgeous, tomato-based fish soup, gravadlax, mushroom risotto or seafood crêpe in a delicate mustardy sauce. Creelers is themed on the Isle of Arran — and it is from there and the Mull of Kintyre that much of its fish comes, some of it from the proprietors’ own creel boat. They run a smokehouse, too The waitress made me feel welcome, and she was Scottish. I’m all for foreigners in the British restaurant business — it wouldn’t survive without them — but to have someone from these islands serve you with charm and smiles, at this level, is a rare treat.

But Creelers, like thousands of independent restaurants, is starving.

Fran James, who started the restaurant with her husband Tim 15 years ago, says: “It’s very, very tough. I’m not sure how the independents are going to survive.”

Last year, for the first time, the business made a loss, and this year could be even worse, even though they’ve just won a big award. The recession is a factor, of course, but so are sharply rising costs in rates, electricity supply and staffing. Endless new legislation is a killer:

“Now someone has to have formal training just to pour a drink.” A change in licensing law in Edinburgh cost them £5,000 last winter. “Fixed costs,” says Fran, who works 12 or more hours a day, six days a week, “are up 70 per cent in four years.”

That splendid fixed-price lunch is £3 cheaper than it was five years ago and hardly delivers a profit. This is largely the effect of the chains. Nearby branches of Pizza Express and Bella Pasta offer two-for-the-price-of-one lunches. This sort of aggressive marketing — and the advertising that pushes it — is not something that the likes of Creelers can ever match. It reminded me of course of the supermarkets and their programmes of expansion into every possible high street outlet, taking advantage of the recession. If Creelers goes, so do jobs, and the four chefs whom Fran and Tim employ have learnt real skills — rather than Identikit-dish production. The lesson, for us, is the same as it is when we go shopping for groceries: if you want choice and diversity on the high street, go and support the independents. Or it’ll be identical not-too-bad pizzas for us all, up and down the land.

alex.renton@thetimes.co.uk

Alex Renton is this year’s winner of the Guild of Food Writers Food Journalist of the Year. He won for articles in The Times and The Observer. 

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