Thursday, 21 March 2013

Death of a Restaurant

Fixed to the wide old restaurant window, on the North side of Spitalfields Market, in front of a weirdly bare and desolate former dining room, is a poignant note penned by its former owner, announcing in the simplest, sparest language, the last day of trading and, after some twenty years or more, regret at the necessity of leaving, and thanks and best wishes to loyal customers and neighbouring businesses alike.

And yet this splendid, family-run and -owned Spanish tapas restaurant was always much admired, busy and successful. It was never quiet. It made good money. It was a City favourite, an institution, specializing in grilled fish, Spanish beers and Rioja shipped direct from Spain. There was no shortage of that precious commodity that every restaurant seeks, ‘atmosphere’; there was a relaxed and easy vibe, and permanent buzz in both dining room and bar.  The restaurant closed for two weeks every August, to rest staff and owners (very civilized, very Continental that), then immediately bounced back straight after.

So what went wrong? What happened, after twenty years of highly successful, profitable trading? Where now are the ranks of tables for two, the bentwood chairs, the wine barrels in the bar, the iced fish and open charcoal grill, the dangling cured hams, the racks of Spanish beers and Riojas? Where are the raucous, brassy girls, the boozy, boisterous City lads, the reclusive courting couples? Where, in the centre of things, is our splendid, intrepid, larger-than-life, Iberian patron: choreographer to this whole sumptuous, theatrical display? What will become of the ever-so-assiduously cultivated clientele, a precious resource it took decades, it may be, to acquire, then cast aside like a careless scatter of pebbles in the road?

The story is an age-old one, and in essence amounts to no more than a rent hike, and the difficulty of making a profit for small, independent businesses which are in competition with slick, much-hyped, and highly-leveraged chains. The actual, eye-watering sum of money involved, I mustn’t disclose.  But the story goes that when the owner was made aware of the extent of the increase, he responded by saying he was handing back the keys.

You might wonder at the apparent greed of the landlord, and yet there are numbers of heavyweight, corporate restaurant chains who seem eager to take up such opportunities. Money is no object for these garlanded, bank-rolled firms. They don’t even need to show a profit, it would seem.  It’s all about branding, location, product placement... status, or prestige, in other words. Add into the mix the name of a celebrity chef, or celebrity restaurateur, and then for good measure a famous food writer as business partner, and you have a recipe to entice the most sceptical banker. For this they will pay any price, with a promise that lines of credit will be maintained. Investors are playing a very long game, and of course heedless of any collateral damage suffered by competitors. Neighbours have even admitted to us that they are trading unprofitably. What is the sense of this? Why continue? Where will it end? These same questions the Spanish restaurant in the market clearly asked themselves. There could only be one conclusion, and they made it.

We make no secret of the fact that we are highly favoured, and unusual in Central London, in being freed from the burden of paying rent for our premises. We own our building, and may pass on something of this saving to our customers. If we were paying a grossly-inflated market rent, as the Spanish Tapas restaurant was called upon to do, then like them we should be driven out of business. We have no backers, no borrowing, no big money men pulling the strings from above. We revel and delight in the freedom this bestows, indeed we wouldn’t do it any other way. Our successes and failures are all our own.  This is the thrill, and pleasure, and sometimes it may be, cold fear, of being in business for ourselves. A business model which permits trading indefinitely without profit is one which threatens incalculable harm. And yet we see this again and again on our high streets. This all seems a parable of our shallow, superficial times. If “zombie” companies on life support are permitted to prosper and proliferate, will this not poison our already ailing economy?

A lot of small, independent restaurants in Spitalfields have fallen by the wayside in recent years. There are not so many of us left. In my opinion, this seems a shame. Enveloped in corporate and featureless chains, our community is deprived of tonality, suppleness, and sensitivity to local texture. Our own restaurant has been under siege of late, from a famous, predatory High Street chain it would be indelicate of me to name. They phone us weekly almost, testing our resolve, looking for the proverbial chink in our armour. Harassment? Certainly not. Discomfiting? Perhaps. Should we hold out? Need we stay independent? Is there really any point (we sometimes ask ourselves), especially when one is so harshly judged, and roundly condemned, merely for being different?

So why not swallow our pride, and take the corporate shilling? Heaven forbid. No way, not yet at least....

We shall miss the colourful, cheery and independent old tapas restaurant. We shall miss its brio and flair, its sawdust floor and bustling bar. Will we ever see its like again?