Trade associations are even better journalistic sources than talkative taxi drivers. If you want to know what’s happening in the economy of physical goods, consult a conclave of forklift truck operators; for a barometer of optimism among middle-class homeowners, mingle with managers of the nation’s garden centres. And if you want to feel the true pulse of discretionary spending, try suppliers of catering equipment. Invited to address a meeting of the latter on the inevitable topic (‘How the hell did we get into this Brexit mess?’ was my brief), I’m certain I learned more from them than they did from me.
‘Crisis in casual dining’ makes a less eye-catching headline that ‘bloodbath on the high street’ but the problems afflicting chain restaurants are almost as acute as those of retailers such as Debenhams. First came a post-recession surfeit of new eateries, fuelled by private equity competing to back scalable formats. Then came rent and business rate reviews, the fall of the pound affecting costs, reduced availability of European staff, minimum-wage rises and pickier consumers. Lately we’ve seen the likes of Giraffe, Byron, Polpo and Jamie’s Italian closing outlets, renegotiating leases and resorting to ‘company voluntary arrangements’ to hold creditors at bay — not to mention the strange collapse of Patisserie Valerie.
Many more are likely to follow; the failure last year, after big rent rises, of the once thriving Villandry ‘grand cafés’ in Great Portland Street, St James’s and Bicester Village was quoted as an example of how the tide turns; one serial restaurant entrepreneur spoke of a shift from ‘peacetime to wartime’ in the way he runs his businesses. The fear is that as shops and banks continue to close, fewer and fewer consumers will choose to spend their diminished spare cash eating out in desolate town centres. Instead, we’ll be slumped at home texting Deliveroo and watching interminable bulletins from Peston and Kuenssberg. That’s such a dismal picture that I can only urge you to buck the trend and book a table today.