Maz Demir of Skewd in Cockfosters won British Kebab Awards Chef of the Year in 2017 and 2018. Image: Andy Parsons
January is always the toughest month for the hospitality industry, with the Christmas splurge over and diners watching their wallets and waistlines. But a January in the middle of a cost of living crisis, stalked by Covid and Brexit? It’s existential.
The news has been littered with stories of post-Christmas closures. Celebrity chef Simon Rimmer was forced to close Greens, his restaurant in Didsbury, after a 35% rent increase. Phil Vickery’s restaurant, The Merryfellow, shut this month citing bills, cost of living and the lack of support from government. Local newspapers are dotted with closures of acclaimed restaurants: Knutsford Courthouse, the Smoke House in Cardiff, Greens in Gretna. Even Wetherspoons is selling off its pubs.
In 2023, at least 2,240 restaurants shut their doors. If the big places are struggling to survive, what about those outlets we walk past every day? The Big Issue is a business that acutely feels the pressures on the high street. If footfall and ready cash is down, we’re a canary in the mine. It’s vital we support the lifeforce of Britain’s town centres.
Kebabs, curry, and fish and chips all have a claim to be our national dish. Yet their survival is at stake. We went under the grill at three high-street kitchens to take the temperature, and find out how Britain is set for the hospitality crisis. Amid the pressures, they know how they can be saved – if they can be given the tools.
The fish and chip shop
“It’s getting to the point where I’d be better off working in a supermarket than having all the hassle of having to go to cash and carry, managing staff,” says Andrew Crook, who runs Skippers of Euxton fish and chip shop in Lancashire.
“It’s not a quiet shop, but by the time I’ve paid wages there’s nothing left in it,” he says. “I’m 48 now and I’ve started questioning, why am I doing my shop?”
Rising produce prices and tax bills are putting the squeeze on Crook, with little room to adapt. “I can’t charge £15 for fish and chips like I should do, so it comes out of the business and it comes out of profit margins,” he says.
For example, one of his shops has a leak on the roof, which he’s paying out of his own pocket to fix. “I’ve no chance of getting £6,000 built up in my business account,” Crook says, “especially with VAT and corp tax.” In fact, he’ll probably end up paying corporation tax out of pocket when the bill comes in the summer.
“Everything falls on the owner,” he says, summing up life as a small business owner.
“It’s not the government’s job to help every business. It is government’s job to create an environment where businesses that do everything right have the best chance of survival. And they’re just not doing that,” he says.
“I’ll end up paying to work in my business. I love what I do, and I work hard at it and I’ve got a reasonably good shop. That shouldn’t be the case. Why am I in that situation?”
At stake, he believes, is the independent hospitality sector. To try and fix things, he’s helped set up the Independent Hospitality Alliance, hoping to bring small restaurants together to achieve the clout of big chains.
“The big problem we’ve got, is that the government find it very easy to work with the big boys, McDonald’s and the likes, but it’s very difficult to deal with independents because we’re so fragmented,” he says. “But we’re probably the ones that need the most communication.”
Chiefly, he’s calling for a cut in VAT, and makes a stark warning: “If we lose all these independents, they’re not gonna come back.”
“I was brought up pretty much all my life in hospitality. Naturally you learn, you help your parents over the weekend,” says Maz Demir.
Demir is the executive chef at Skewd, a Turkish fine dining restaurant in Cockfosters, at the suburban northern end of the Piccadilly Underground line. Growing out of decades of family businesses, including a kebab shop in London, the restaurant is now pushing boundaries and winning awards. As the restaurant’s staff set about preparing dishes ahead of a 5pm opening, Demir sits in a bank vault at the back of the venue, converted into a private dining room.
“It’s like being slapped around constantly. You don’t get one slap, you’re slapped left, right, right left, it baffles you. You get dazed,” he says.
“You wake up in the morning, you think what is the future? What does the future hold?”
Take rising costs: a tub of butter went from £38 to £157, and overall produce costs have increased by around 30%. Demir, along with everyone else he knows in the hospitality trade, is signed up to a payment plan for energy bills, thanks to soaring prices.
“How do you bear that cost any more, because it’s a very hard industry as it is?” he asks.
Getting staff has been made harder by a recent government decision to raise the visa income threshold for skilled workers from £26,200 to £38,700. Skewd holds a sponsorship licence to bring staff over – it needs chefs who can work a grill and know the fine-tuned skills to put its menu together. Quality is paramount.
“What we’re going to start seeing in the future, is the quality of that execution is going to go down. Big time,” says Demir. “And when there’s so much competition around as well, you haven’t got the right skilled people to have your consistency in your business, it’s not looking great.”
Another shift has been the move to takeaways, as customers increasingly prefer to eat at home. “We are a fine dining restaurant, we would not have imagined [offering takeaway food]” says Demir. “Now it’s become such an important aspect, we had to consider it.”
This brings in income – but has a cost. Without guests to take care of, staff skills stop getting sharpened, and the atmosphere can go out of a place. Again, if you’re trying to push the envelope, it’s a bad sign.
Demir also believes a perception problem holds certain restaurants back. Take his favourite dish on the menu, a lamb shish made from the middle neck fillet of lamb, the animal’s tenderest cut.
“The cost of that and a good cut of steak is pretty much the same, but I can only charge half of what I can for a steak, because you’re still a ‘kebab joint’, a Turkish restaurant.”
The impact of the pressure is that energy goes out of the hospitality industry, and it becomes harder for new places to open up. Demir says friends and family are having to close or downsize. In Demir’s case, getting to his current level has been the product of decades of acquired experience in the hospitality trade. If businesses disappear, so does that pipeline.
“Here we’re always trying to innovate, refine, push boundaries. So rather than putting your energy and effort into being better at what you do, all your energy goes into sustaining what you have. What happens there, progress stops, which is very, very sad,” he says.
“We’re just hoping that they pull something out of the hat, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.”
The curry house
Bristol’s Urban Tandoor started with humble beginnings in 2013, banking on a USP of less oil, no colours and fresh cooking. But it is now perhaps one of the best-known restaurants in the country, thanks to viral success on social media.
From “Murder at the Tandoor” (when you order vindaloo) to “Sweet Pickle Lime” (to the tune of Sweet Caroline), its staff gamely adapt the biggest tunes for parody music videos, racking up millions of views.
“It’s the only saving grace at the moment. That is kind of holding us together at the moment,” says owner Sujith D’amedia.
Along with bringing customers through the door, people will travel from all over off the back of the clips. One man, expecting it to be his last supper before a big brain surgery, chose Urban Tandoor.
It’s welcome trade. Costs have gone up. Oil is up, rice is up. You name it, it’s more expensive. A bottle of Cobra has gone from from £1.20 to about £1.50, but “you can’t sell a Cobra for eight or nine pounds”, says D’amedia. There are limits to what people will pay – £10.50 is the limit for a chicken tikka masala, D’amedia estimates.
Even if you do raise your prices to stay afloat, there’s a knock-on impact. Customers cut back elsewhere, and won’t get poppadoms or an extra beer. So what has to give?
“You’ve got to sacrifice your profits,” says D’amedia.
“You don’t get the bottom line revenue in the business, and that is why you see the empty city centres.”
As with Skewd, increased visa income thresholds put an extra obstacle in front of recruiting specialist staff from abroad. Adding this burden, predicts D’amedia, will disproportionately affect the restaurants and takeaways on British high streets, whose staff need a particular cultural knowledge.
“You’ll see more speciality restaurants like Chinese, Indian, Italian, closing down,” he says.
Help is needed, but D’amedia isn’t expecting things to change: “We don’t see anything coming out of the blue.”
While D’amedia reiterates the positive ethos of Urban Tandoor, he points out that business owners who have stretched themselves to keep the doors open, without taking days off or holidays, will simply give up.
He says: “At some point, people are going to see they can’t burn the candle at both ends, they will say, OK, let’s call it a day.”