Armed conflict, terrifying new diseases, Kate Bush back in the charts, increasingly rare restaurant visits. Are the Eighties happening again, ponders Jonathan Trew.
These are interesting times to be alive. Just as it looks as though we have Covid on the back foot, at least in many parts of the world, an elderly, egotistical maniac has lit the touch paper on a major armed conflict in Europe. At the same time, on the other side of the globe, China and the United States are growling at each other over Taiwan. We are a very long way from things escalating to nuclear weapons, but the background whisper of it being a possibility is unsettling.
For those of us who were teenagers in the Eighties, the return of the menace of nuclear war feels like a worrying old medical condition has unexpectedly resurfaced long after we thought it was completely cured. And while on the subject of medical conditions, we could take a slight diversion and draw another parallel with the Eighties.
Inner City Sumo? Cooking in Prison? Monkey Pox?
We will not be hysterical. Monkey pox does not pose the same threat as AIDS. However, as someone who was becoming an adolescent just when the government was warning us all not to die of ignorance, I can empathise with anyone now old enough to be on the cusp of exploring sexual relations just as a previously unsuspected, intimately transmitted disease seems to be spreading. Especially one with a name that sounds as though it was made up by Alan Partridge during his Top TV Ideas rant.
Interlinked with both the war in Ukraine and the impact of infectious diseases on global supply chains, is the cost of living crisis. In yet another unwanted throwback to the Eighties, inflation is rampant again. And much like an almost exhausted toothpaste tube, the restaurant industry is feeling the squeeze.
Hugh Osmond, former Pizza Express executive, told The Mail On Sunday recently that some ingredients are up 30% in price this year and that he expects the higher prices to last for months. Restaurants’ heavy use of gas and electricity is another factor putting strain on the industry in addition to a staff shortage caused first by Brexit and then by people leaving the industry during Covid.
Kitchen costs reach smoking point
As in other sectors, the staff still in hospitality are seeing their household bills rocket and are asking for pay rises to mitigate the costs. Future Shock – Hospitality in 2022, a report by industry body UKHospitality and data specialists CGA, calculated that sector operators were dealing with a 19% rise in labour costs. Not surprisingly, restaurateurs and bar owners are having to pass on those costs to the end consumer. That is you: the bistro diner, the wine bar drinker and the family that just wants a reasonable and convenient takeaway on a Friday night. A rise of 11% in the end price of a meal is being quoted widely. Some menu prices have already seen bigger price hikes.
Obviously, increased food and energy prices have more important consequences than how often anyone eats out and how much they spend when they do. If you are having to make impossible decisions about whether to feed your kids or heat your home then news that Simon Rogan’s three star L’Enclume Restaurant in Cartmel is having to raise the cost of its full tasting menu from £195 to £250 will not be uppermost in your mind.
More likely to focus the attention will be rising prices at supermarket checkouts. Recent headlines have pointed out that the price of pasta has increased by 50% in the last year, while bread and minced beef have gone up 16% and rice has risen 15%. One supermarket boss has suggested that chicken could become as expensive as sirloin steak due to the rising price of feed. For decades, chicken has been a cheap if not always cheerful source of protein but we could see a reversion to the pre-World War II situation when chicken was a rare treat. These rises will impact most severely on people with low incomes who already spend a greater proportion of their income on food than those who are better off.
Cruellest cut is one of many
A YouGov poll has already found that the public are cutting back their discretional expenditure when it comes to eating out and buying takeaways. Of those surveyed, 39% reported that they had cut back on eating out in the last six months while 38% said they were no longer able to spend as much on takeaways over the same period.
For the restaurant trade, it is a vicious cycle. Their costs are going up and, at some point, they can no longer swallow the reductions in their margins. They will need to pass the increases on to their customers. Simultaneously, the public are feeling pain in their purses and wallets which translates into fewer meals out and a lower spend when they do.
As in the financial crash of 2008/2009, restaurants will respond. Aiming for zero waste will become more and more important. Smaller menus and less choices are one way of doing this, as is specialisation with more restaurants focusing on one key ingredient, such as chicken, cheese or tofu. Prime cuts of meat will become an extravagance for many and chefs will extol the value of working cheaper cuts to bring out their best. Expect to see more offal on menus and even high end restaurants will be looking to swap premium fish such as turbot and monkfish for coley and mackerel. Opening hours will shorten. Prices will go up.
Been here before?
Innovative restaurants will survive. The smartest chefs will thrive. Others will not. People will still eat out, but perhaps not as often. For many, going to a restaurant will be kept for a special occasion rather than a default night out. Spontaneous restaurant visits will be less common.
It is all shaping up to be a re-run of the Eighties. The niggling fear of spotting a mushroom cloud in the sky. A strange new disease stalking the land. Restaurants reserved for landmark life moments only. All we need to complete the picture is a Prime Minister whose popularity ratings look set to disprove the laws of physics and somehow plummet even faster than a dropped stone that has achieved terminal velocity.
Oh, hang on a minute…