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Last stand of the West End not on the horizon – yet

11 August 2004
Last stand of the West End not on the horizon – yet

While report after report has revealed how we time-poor but cash-rich Britons are eating out more, creating a bonanza for food-led businesses, it appears that the rich pickings are not being spread across the board.

The protracted death of London's West End has been widely reported in recent years, as restaurant operators struggle to cope with the usual high street problems and a few others besides, most notably Mayor Ken Livingstone's congestion charge on car users.

In a recent survey of restaurant operators by the London Chamber of Commerce more than three-quarters (78%) said that customer numbers had fallen since the charge was introduced in February 2003, and almost 54% said that the £5-a-day charge was "all" or "mostly" to blame.

But it may be too easy and simplistic to lay the blame squarely at the c-charge's door. A whole raft of other blights are at play, including high rents, declining footfall and high theatre-ticket prices. Meanwhile, areas such as Leicester Square have become rundown and dirty, and are now more synonymous with drugs and crime than dinner time.

While the West End may still appear busy late at night, the crowds are largely made up of 18- to 30-year-olds who are more likely to pop into a Yates's or JD Wetherspoon outlet for a pint of strong Continental lager or two (or 10), instead of plumping for a cosy late-night meal. Consequently, these days there's more chance of seeing the punters heaving than the restaurants.

Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), said that the loss of trade was being felt most sharply at the top end of the market. As well as the drop in pre- and post-theatre business, Cotton pointed to the steady disappearance from the area of "ladies who lunch".

Compounding the situation is the fact that the local market is highly mature and competitive, forcing operators into an endless search for something different. The need for operators to differentiate themselves from the competition in terms of product offering and food service delivery is a given. And if their location is away from the high-footfall areas, it is even more important to create a strong reason for customers to go there, especially without a big name to act as a lure.

The eternal quest to be different or to pre-empt the competition or next fad can lead operators to go too far. Look no further than Shumi's decision (since abandoned) to use Japanese-style presentation, including chopsticks, despite the fact that its menu was a hybrid of Italian and Japanese. And then there's the fickle clientele: customer loyalty is a thing of the past.

But has the demise of the West End food scene been overplayed? "What we're seeing is different segments doing differently," said Cotton, who pointed out that the well-known and fashionable top-end establishments were doing good business, while midmarket branded chains such as Caff‚ Uno, La Tasca and Garfunkel's continued to show strong growth.

Other commentators were more bullish. "The market in the West End is as buoyant now as it has been for five years," said Julian Mitchell, of property agent Christie & Co. "The ones who struggle, like Shumi, are the ones who get the concept wrong."

One factor that bodes well for the sector is that business customers are flashing their corporate cards again, said Mitchell, who added that there is no shortage of entrepreneurs looking to take on struggling units.

Mitchell's sentiments were shared by Trevor Watson, director at leisure specialist Davis Coffer Lyons. "I don't buy into this idea that the sector is on its knees," said Watson. "Some operators aren't doing particularly well, but that is the nature of the sector."

To back up his view, Watson reeled off a list of outlets - including Eight Over Eight in the King's Road, the Wolseley, Hush, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, Chez G‚rard, and lots of the Conran restaurants - which were all doing well.

For Watson, one of the main battlegrounds in recent years has involved central London restaurants trying - and ultimately succeeding - to win back trade from the suburbs, which have offered stiff competition in terms of both quantity and quality. And he was not referring to the impact of the congestion charge, which he said was "not a major issue" for restaurant operators, who too frequently used it as a scapegoat for poor performance.

So it appears that the central London market is very much alive and well after all, with organisations such as Visit London and the BHA reporting recent increases in visitor numbers from traditionally big-spending areas such as the USA, Japan and the Middle East.

"For the first time, we're seeing a return to the levels of 2000-01," said Cotton. "Overall, we're quite optimistic for the next three to four months."

London restaurant facts - There are 6,128 licensed restaurants in London.

  • The capital has 22% of all Britain's restaurants.
  • Small, privately run operators make up the majority of the market.
  • London restaurants feature menus from more than 70 countries and regions.
  • Expenditure by international visitors has increased "significantly" in 2004, although it still hasn't recovered to pre-9/11 levels.

Source: GLA Economics, Visit London

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