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Independent restaurants urged to fight for their future in city centres

12 April 2016 by
Independent restaurants urged to fight for their future in city centres

A Birmingham restaurateur has urged independent operators to make their voices heard with local planners so that they are not forced out of town centres by chains.

Benugo's decision to pull out of a City of London contract after Londoners mobilised to support the existing independent operator proves that people want to support local businesses, according to Jabbar Khan, who owns Lasan in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter.

He has called on city planners to take local prosperity and social fabric into account when assessing applications and for landlords to think longer term. Currently, says Khan, an independent will lose out to a PLC when trying to secure a city centre location even if it offers higher rent.

Khan raised the issue with the Birmingham Post on the same day as Benugo decided to pull out of the Hampstead Heath contract. He says he has since been inundated with messages of support from other independents facing the same problem.

While the Post quoted local property developer Tony Green that "in high-profile locations, a landlord will always favour the certainty of a chain", due to their ability to pay over the long term, Khan, who set up his first city restaurant 14 years ago, said that view was myopic.

"A lot of independents like ourselves have been tenants for a very long time," he told The Caterer. "If everyone takes a view that independents can't be trusted to be a good tenant, the city will lose its appeal in the long term and rents will ultimately fall." Too many landlords, he said, were making decisions for short term.

Khan accepts that it might be "wishful thinking" to persuade planners to give preference to local independents when considering applications, but he urged them to think of broader economic and cultural prosperity.

"All it takes is good decision making from a handful of people and a great deal can be changed," he said. "My view is that if nothing else, city planners could question all applications and ask ‘is this the best option?'. Do we passively approve every application that comes our way or do we pay some attention to whether the long-term view is taken into account?"

Landlords, said Khan, should stop being covenant obsessed.

"The building you own will stay in the city. It can't move. You will benefit in the long term from having it in a prosperous city that appeals to people across the world as a food haven."

The Benugo decision "just proves my point," said Khan. "When people understand what is going on, they almost always reject the homogenous situation that is coming our way and want to do their bit to support the independent."

PLCs, he said, should also beware of driving out the independents to whom they turn for inspiration.

While reluctant to front a campaign for fairer treatment, Khan urged independents not to take no for an answer in dealing with landlords. He said he would happily give free advice to any independent on securing the best location for their business. Despite the odds currently stacked against small firms, persistence, he said, should not be underestimated.

"If you believe in your concept and articulate it to landlords… they might just get convinced you are the best operator for their building."

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