Express & Star

Stability is the winning recipe for restaurants in 2024

Liam Dillon

It feels like normal. Well, sort of. Pre-Christmas, it’s the first year since before the pandemic that a sense of pre-Covid normality seemed to fill the festive air.

There were parties, and lots of them. There was no social distancing. And there was the ridiculous do-everything-by-December-22 rush, that makes otherwise sane people wonder if we’re all going to hell in a handcart when we reach the other side? What’s the rush? What’s the panic? The world will keep on turning and life will still go on when we reach some future date.

If restaurateurs across the region had a festive wish it was probably this: stability. It might even have been this: a little growth, a little more demand. And, perhaps, they’d have hoped to have more staff, lower energy bills, the chance to make a few quid, and the reassurance that their business won’t close in the next 12 months. Literally, things have come to that.

The pandemic unleashed all sorts of hell and, remarkably, most restaurants survived it. Rishi’s great idea – furlough – kept people in business, though his awful idea, Eat Out To Help Out, served only to spread the disease and enable dodgy businesses to rip off the Treasury. Some things never change.

The pandemic was followed by the profound effects of Brexit, which has severely damaged the hospitality sector, as well as the wider economy.

The brilliant young staff from across Europe who once graced us with their presence are infrequently allowed to enter the UK, and certainly don’t want to work here.

That exit kick-started a downturn in the number of workers, while also fuelling higher wages among the reduced talent pool.

And that’s before we look at the issues surrounding the import and export of ingredients. It costs more to bring in basic stuff from Europe, and other items simply aren’t available.

By the same token, it’s become a nightmare for British manufacturers, growers, processors, and producers to ship goods the short distance across the Channel.

Did someone once tell us there’d be sunlit uplands? Well, they fibbed. And we – and restaurants across the region – have been paying the price.

And then there was Mad Vlad’s war in Ukraine, an act of madness that sent energy bills soaring and continues to have a profound effect. Who knew geo politics could increase the price of a bruschetta in Wolverhampton? Well, it does.

It’s not just been global affairs that have hit restaurants hard. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s kami-Kwasi budget wiped £30 billion off the economy, making us all poorer and adding to a cost of living crisis that had already loomed large.

And so restaurants have in the past year been hit by two things: higher costs and lower demand. It’s been a nightmarish recipe, the sort that even Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares would have been unable to sort out.

As Square Meal recently put it: “Though we’re now a few years removed from the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, the reverberations of these two era-defining events continue to be felt throughout hospitality.

“We saw lots of fantastic new restaurants open throughout the year, and yet, many more have been forced to close as global events, rising produce costs, energy rates and more make life increasingly hard for restaurant owners.”

That’s meant a number of good restaurants have gone to the wall – the region’s biggest and most obvious casualty was Pensons, near Tenbury Wells, which had been the last remaining Michelin-starred restaurant in Shropshire’s hinterland.

The threat of recession also hangs over the economy – another potential outcome that would have huge ramifications on the state of the restaurant industry in 2024.

Looking forward, restaurants simply want a fair crack of the whip. They want locals to return, rather than eat at home, while hoping the Government might listen to their perfectly reasonable demands for assistance – not least on the issue of VAT, which is the death knell for many. They want, quite simply, some of the gloom to lift.

While trading conditions have seldom been more difficult, that’s not diminished the quality on offer in our restaurants. If anything, the opposite is true.

The best restaurants continue to flourish, to excite, and to demonstrate remarkable flair. It’s impossible not to look towards the region’s primary destination, Birmingham, as we look ahead to 2024. It has the West Midland’s finest restaurants, those who hold or who are gunning for Michelin stars, as well as a diverse array of affordable independents that showcase exceptional and authentic cuisine from around the world.

One of the most exciting new openings will see Andy Sheridan take on Bracebridge, in Sutton Park, with an opening date of late January or February. Sheridan is one of a small handful of chef-patrons who is close to a Michelin star, having built his name in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Worcestershire, with a series of award-winning restaurants.

Bracebridge will offer something different, with a chance for people to enjoy relaxed dining in one of the region’s most picturesque venues, which overlooks a lake.

We can expect good things from Andrew Birch, at The Checkers, in Montgomery, on the Shropshire-Mid-Wales border. Birch is another with a Michelin pedigree who has made an impressive start after moving to rural Wales following a stint as head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill, in London. After two decades working in some of the country’s finest kitchens, it was his dream to return to his Welsh roots and open his own restaurant.

Andrew began cooking as a boy in Swansea and honed his skills working for the Tanner brothers in Plymouth, two-Michelin-star Whatley Manor, Kenny Atkinson at the one-Michelin-star Tean restaurant on the Isles of Scilly, and at one-Michelin-star Montagu Arms.

Over the next year, we’ll continue to look to Lichfield, too, as an emerging centre of excellence, where the Michelin-starred Tom Shepherd is joined by Liam Dillon’s The Boat Inn, and the delightful Larder restaurant, in providing great experiences.

Yet for all the high ambitions for 2024, most chefs and restaurateurs would hope for one thing above all else – that they survive.