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Jamie Oliver’s empire collapses

A symptom of disaffection with restaurant chains.

It’s not inconsequential news. The sudden closure, in one fell swoop, of 23 restaurants in Jamie Oliver’s British chain, plunged into administration while 1000 employees are sent home, could appear of little relevance to Italy and its cuisine in general. Jamie Oliver, now 44, was already world-famous at barely 20. Hailing from an obscure village in Essex, he was the first cook to become a television star. Out of thin air, he had created a chain of 25 restaurants and a food retail empire; he published a popular monthly cooking magazine (Jamie magazine); he wrote recipe books and presented an acclaimed television programme with cooking courses. At his peak, he had over 3000 employees and a revenue of approximately 260 million Euros.
The topic is particularly interesting to us because in 2008, he launched the chain Jamie’s Italian intending to change the restaurant business in Britain through high-quality ingredients, replacing fish and chips with Mediterranean cuisine and olive oil. He had, therefore, laudably taken cues from Italian cuisine - or maybe pseudo-Italian, but nevertheless complimentary to our country. However, evidently something went wrong. In the background, a structural crisis which struck the British restaurant business (including the forerunner, Carluccio’s), perhaps Brexit-fuelled economic worries, perhaps rent increases, ingredient costs and competition from other chains. The fact of the matter is that times have changed: the chain offering Italian food, often unremarkable and by no means cheap, now faces stiff competition from the many Italian restaurants in London, from trattorie to pizzerie, from solid to prize-winning. A choice, that is, which didn’t exist a decade ago.
It is, above all, the concept of a chain guaranteed by its name which is no longer popular. Oliver had his own restaurants, while today franchises are often successful. With widely varying fees, depending on the brand’s importance (ranging from 20 thousand to 200 thousand Euros), one can open restaurants bearing the franchisor’s name. One must adhere to very stringent guidelines regarding furnishings, personnel attire, dishes offered, and usually also ingredients purchased; one then pays royalties to the brand’s owners. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. It works with fast food, but not with high-quality restaurants. The system inherently flattens overall food quality, encouraging standardisation, which is the opposite of what we seek in restaurants that we frequent not only for fuel but also for pleasure and exciting exploration of new foods. Since we even look askance at the numerous restaurants opened by the latest celebrity chef, a character often only loosely grounded in reality, how much more must we be suspicious of restaurant chains, mere middling eateries.

Paolo Petroni
President of the Accademia

June 2019