Barely a week has gone by in the last few months when Bristol has not welcomed at least one new restaurant. But following some high profile recent casualties, is the bubble about to burst? Martin Booth reports.
Head chefs and owners are worried, bailiffs are hovering, but so far most restaurant goers in Bristol have been able to enjoy their meals out in blissful ignorance. That changed sharply recently with the sudden closure of Bagel Boy taking many people by surprise.
This was a restaurant that had steadily grown, building a loyal fanbase along the way but then on the last day of June making the shock announcement that they were immediately closing all three of their sites as well as their pizza restaurant Proven.
Bristol’s restaurant scene continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. And yet along the way, Bagel Boy has not been the only casualty.
In recent weeks, Bangkok Joe’s opposite St Mary Redcliffe and La Tomatina at the bottom of Park Street have quietly closed their doors, and La Europa on St Stephen’s Street shut after more than 30 years – its site being taken over by popular pop-up Burger Theory. The city’s two Zazu’s Kitchens on North Street and Gloucester Road have also closed, as its owners look to concentrate on the pub side of their business.
It is a scene that is unsustainable according to many people within the industry, who are predicting more high-profile closures as we reach a saturated market and restaurateurs’ ambitions are not matched by demand.
Former Bell’s Diner head chef Sam Sohn-Rethel has recently got out of the kitchen to pursue other opportunities in food. Despite the regular acclaim heaped on Bristol’s restaurant scene, with Kuch on Whiteladies Road, Bertha’s Pizza in Wapping Wharf and Grillstock in St Nick’s Market the latest to get favourable reviews from Marina O’Loughlin in The Guardian, Sohn-Rethel thinks that there are, in actual fact, only half a dozen very good restaurants, headed up by chefs who have learned their trade working across the world with some of the best in the business.
“Restaurants are now stacking on top of each other,” Sohn-Rethel says over a morning coffee at Boston Tea Party on Cheltenham Road before taking his young daughter swimming. “That has not resulted in diverse and exciting cuisine. It’s resulted in a really beige food scene. It’s not exciting, it’s not diverse, and it hasn’t created really amazing food. It’s created in my mind restaurants that are really average and it’s not sustainable.”
Anybody going into restaurants should understand that it’s not something that you’re going to make a lot of money out of, unless you find a winning formula to grow your restaurant into a chain. Small, independent restaurants, don’t make a lot of money, and still have to support the core of a chef, a manager, KPs and waiting staff.
“To people outside the industry, they might think, ‘Great, lots of jobs created’,” Sohn-Rethel continues. “The problem is that there are not enough people to work in these restaurants and way more importantly than that, there are not enough customers as well. Bristol has got a lot of people that are willing to go out, have fun and spend money on food. But not enough people to maintain all of the restaurants. I predict that there are going to be closures and people losing money and livelihoods. The bubble is going to burst.”
Remaining optimistic is Alex Hayes, formerly of Rebel Roll, who is currently crowdfunding to open a new burger restaurant in Cargo 2. Hayes promises to offer his “personality on a plate” at Lemonade, with styles and creations that cannot be found anywhere else.
“I think there will always be space for more restaurants as invariably restaurants will come and go as the scene evolves,” Hayes says. “The food scene in Bristol is remarkably different to when I first started cooking here in 2003 and it has responded to the demand which has grown out of a culture shift, on how we spend our time and money and how important food is to us.
“I don’t think it’s a case of the scene becoming unsustainable. But not all restaurants will last it out for a great length of time. Establishing a business is tough going and there is a clearly a lot of competition. But as a whole I think the food scene will continue to thrive here.”
Bristol prides itself on its independence, with much of the restaurant scene defined by chef-owners such as Sam Leach and Beccy Massey at Birch, Elliott and Tessa Lidstone at Box-E, George Livesey and Katherine Craughwell at Bulrush, Jamie Randall and Olivia Barry at Adelina Yard, and Stephen Gilchrist and Kathryn Curtis at Shop 3 Bistro. It’s a long way away from many new openings in London that have some serious financial clout to pay for the gleaming fixtures and fittings.
Meat Liquor crash landed with a bang into the middle of Stokes Croft in late 2015 and has never had the queues of its London counterparts, while Hooters in what is now The Cuban on the Harbourside seems like it was a bad dream having closed in 2012 after two years of scantily clad waitresses serving chicken wings.
As Sohn-Rethel mentioned, it’s a dream of many restaurants to transform into chains, but it’s a very difficult step and one fraught with danger, as Bagel Boy discovered. Las Iguanas began in Bristol and have since grown to more than 50 restaurants across the UK, but the streets of the city are also littered with the failed dreams of ambitious restaurateurs.
Another new burger restaurant, Asado on Colston Street, is on the site of what for a couple of years recently was Rosemarino, whose original restaurant in Clifton Village was opened in 2010 by three friends who worked in a number of Bristol’s busiest restaurants including Riverstation and Goldbrick House, which closed in 2016 after 10 years, citing rising rents and increased competition.
“We’ve always considered competition to be a good thing as it keeps established restaurants on their toes, and a real focus on maintaining loyal customers has become our main priority,” says Rosemarino co-owner Sam Fryer. “After trading for seven years I’m fairly confident we’ve experienced many of the positive and negative effects of this industry explosion especially when we attempted to move from a single to double-site venture three years ago.
“Our ambition to grow the business was always fairly casual and after five years of positive trade opening a second site seemed the natural thing to do. We had a strong brand with a loyal following and that illusive all-day dining concept so critical for a successful food business. So when a feasible site came up in central Bristol the opportunity to take Rosemarino to another part of the city was jumped upon.
“After the initial buzz of refitting and then the post-opening shock of doubling all our headaches overnight we settled into the task of replicating what we’d achieved at the original restaurant. However, after two years we had a long hard look at the figures and made the tough call to shut up shop and re-focus all our energies on Rosemarino no.1. The reasons behind this decision are probably too multiple to go into but I would say they were more than purely financial.”
Here are Fryer’s three pieces of advice that he would give to anyone within or hoping to be part of Bristol’s hospitality sector from his own experience of growing and scaling back a small restaurant business:
1. Recruitment will always be your biggest headache. “The skills shortage at the moment within Bristol hospitality is no secret particularly when looking for trained and committed chefs. If you find a good one make sure you look after them and keep them engaged in what you’re trying to achieve.”
2. Location is key. “I can’t over-emphasise this. When we opened the second Rosemarino we were confident that the brand would succeed in pretty much any part of the city. In a place as diverse as Bristol, tastes and styles vary hugely from area to area. A lot of market research will be required.”
3. Listen to your customers and be flexible. “Finding a niche in such a crowded market is a challenge and understandably you’ll be precious with your concept when starting out. Our idea of what Rosemarino should and could be evolved hugely within the first three months. Getting that initial feedback from your clientele is so important as these could be the regulars that sustain you for years to come.”
Once upon a time, new restaurants would invite the Lord Mayor to their launch night to drum up media coverage. Now it’s all about the “buzz” as many new openings employ public relations teams to ensure that their launch becomes a trending topic on Twitter.
There are now many more PRs than there are journalists in Bristol, but also a growing number of people who write about restaurants, whether on food blogs or via Instagram, and a new breed of social media “influencers”.
“All I can really see is that these PR firms are boosting social media, which I accept is a really important part of restaurants now, it’s how you get people to notice the food that you’re cooking,” says Sohn-Rethel.
“But in an industry where many chefs and waiting staff are all paid minimum wage, why are restaurant owners willing to spend big amounts of money on these PR companies who from what I see are taking on tonnes of clients and giving them the same coverage on social media?
“I have a real problem with it, especially in Bristol and London, because I see these people are making a living out of our hard work.
“I don’t think any of them are truly qualified to understand what good food is. I don’t think any of them are picking clients because they are an amazing chef. It’s about how much money you pay them and that’s part of the reason why all these restaurants are all the same. They might be independent and have passionate people working in them, but they are all really similar.”
Mounting a passionate defence of her industry is Pam Lloyd, eponymous founder of PamLloyd PR, a Montpelier-based firm who will be helping to launch Bristol’s newest burger restaurant Hubbox, due to open on Tuesday on Whiteladies Road.
According to Lloyd, for a restaurant to keep being talked about in print, online and by word of mouth, it has to do more than consistently produce great food and give great service; it has to tell the world that that is what it’s doing.
“It must promote itself and it needs to think about PR,” says Lloyd. “If no one knows the restaurant is there, you might as well not bother.”
A PR company is typically paid for a few days’ work to write about the launch; contact media, bloggers and influencers; maybe set the restaurant up on social media; and organise and run a launch event to generate “noise” around the opening.
“Everyone I know who works to support the city’s restaurant trade is running a small business, just like the restaurants themselves,” Lloyd adds. “I’ve seen plenty of small agencies fail to survive if their clients fail, if they have to deal with bad debts, if they lose a contract. PR agencies have to work hard to maintain their reputation, just the same as restaurants do.”
The number of Deliveroo cyclists speeding their way around Bristol are a clear indication that the city’s eating habits are changing, with many people preferring the convenience of eating restaurant-quality food in their own home than schlepping across the city to a restaurant.
Margins remain incredibly tight, and then there is the constant problem of no-shows which can wipe out a small restaurant’s profits for the evening.
But there is no sign of Bristol’s restaurant boom slowing down anytime soon, with the latest news being that Wellbourne in Clifton Village is due to arrive next month from owners with Michelin-star pedigree. The number of new openings create healthy competition but also friendly collaboration, with The Cauldron in St Werburgh’s printing recommendations of their favourite eating and drinking spots around town on their receipts.
Also asked for her Bristol recommendations for Bristol restaurants is Deanna Thomas, a food writer at Manchester Confidential, whose brother-in-law and his family live in Bristol.
“When Twitter first became popular around 2008/2009, the food writers of Bristol were amongst the first to properly engage,” Thomas says. “That’s when I began to understand that many of the UK’s most respected food journalists, writers and experts actually lived in Bristol, not London, despite writing for high profile national newspapers and magazines; Fiona Beckett, Xanthe Clay, Elly Pear etc.
“As to whether the market can sustain all these new openings? Who knows? We’re having the same issue in Manchester. Unfortunately it’s not a simple case of the best ones will survive and if it’s good, enough people will come, because not all good, talented chefs make good businessmen.
“Yet mid-level, people-pleasing chain restaurants run by accountants and shareholders all over generic UK-wide menus and strict GDPs, continue to keep rolling on.”
Food blogger Natalie Brereton has her finger on the pulse more than most. “Whilst I am really sad to see the likes of Bagel Boy shut their doors, I also am a massive fan of some of the new kids on the block, including Box-E and Pasta Loco, who are only just turning a year old,” she says.
“Hence why I am always mindful as to where to spend my money, and often try to alternate restaurant visits between old and new. I also love to eat, so who am I to complain about the wonderful food right on my doorstep? Especially when I feel individuals have put their heart and soul into getting it off the ground, or to keep it competitive and current in an ever-changing environment.”
Main photo of Cargo 2 by Jon Craig