Fork out to eat out to help out

As London’s pubs and restaurants make the first tentative steps towards re-opening after a disastrous year, with excited punters booking weeks in advance for chilly pavement tables, reports suggest they are struggling to find staff.

Restaurants, bars and hotels were having difficulty recruiting and retaining even before Covid, as Centre for London revealed in its 2019 report into kitchen jobs. Since then, the implementation of tougher immigration rules has combined with an exodus of overseas workers (estimated at anywhere between 35,000 and 700,000) from the capital during the pandemic to turn the crisis acute.

As the UK’s borders open up, some foreign workers will return, though the exclusion of many hospitality jobs from the “shortage occupation lists” that allow mid-skilled workers to obtain work visas will make replacing those who choose not to come back more difficult.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said last summer that “the new points-based system will encourage employers to invest in the domestic UK workforce, rather than simply relying on labour from abroad.” Given that more than 50 per cent of hospitality and food workers are foreign nationals, this approach may be tested sooner than she had planned.

Can the domestic workforce plug the gap for London’s hotels, restaurants and bars? With unemployment in the capital higher than in any other region (nearly 10 per cent of the workforce were claiming unemployment benefits in February), there’s a deceptively neat answer to the recruitment challenge.

But jobs in hospitality can be a tough sell. Despite the camaraderie and fun many experience, the work can be tough, with antisocial hours and limited opportunities for advancement. Right now, unemployed Londoners may be worried about exposure to the virus as customers return. They could also hesitate before seeking employment in a sector that will be first in line for closure if the government’s “irreversible” lifting of Covid restrictions results in the brakes being slammed on again.

And there are deeper issues of pay and conditions. In 2020, around one million people worked in hospitality (“accommodation and food services”) in London, according to government surveys. Almost 25 per cent of those workers were paid less than the National Living Wage of £8.20 per hour (for 21-24 year olds), and 75 per cent were paid less than the London Living Wage (designed to reflect the actual cost of living in the capital) of £10.75 per hour.

Can employers afford to pay more? Ingredient costs have been rising as a result of Brexit, and business rates in London penalise enterprises that take up space, such as the places people meet to eat, drink, dance and sleep. Business rates payable by restaurants in London increased by a third in the 2016 revaluation. On top of this, many hospitality businesses that have struggled to survive lockdown now face a precarious future, as social distancing persists even as tourists and commuters start to trickle back. It is a lot to ask the sector to shoulder the burden of raising wages on its own.

The government could do more, by extending business rate holidays in the short term and reforming business rates in the longer term. Landlords should show restraint when negotiating rents. But we also need to ask whether we are paying enough when we go out to eat and drink. Londoners eat out more frequently than people in other parts of the country, and the capital has restaurants that offer great value alongside the glittering palaces of oligarch-baiting excess.

Many Londoners celebrating the emergence of hospitality from its enforced hibernation and reflecting on how much they value eating out will have built up a stockpile of cash during the lockdown periods. Perhaps this is the moment to re-appraise the prices we pay, so that essential and skilled tasks such as taking orders, cooking food and washing plates are well enough rewarded to attract people with the skills the sector needs, both from the rest of the world and London itself.

[First published by OnLondon, 7 May 2021]

Reheating London’s hospitality industry

 [First published in OnLondon, 29 December 2020]

After Boris Johnson’s election victory in December 2019, some of his supporters heralded the approach of another “Roaring Twenties”. 

With hindsight, it was an unfortunate analogy, for the 1920s boom followed the devastation of World War I and an influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide. But the comparison has stuck, and as we look nervously but hopefully into 2021, even sober-minded think tanks such as the Resolution Foundation are deploying it, predicting a boom in deferred expenditure, particularly in the hospitality sector, once vaccines have enabled social mixing to return to something like normal.

Anecdote bears this out, as those friends who are still in work discuss which restaurants and bars they will visit – we are all planning to get “lit up in London”. But the capital’s hospitality sector is a lot more than the subject of lockdown fantasies. Over the last ten years, employment in the sector has grown by 40%, which is faster than any other apart from professional services, IT and communications. 

This growth is driven by and supports London’s global role. Spending by overseas visitors forms a major chunk of London’s exports, and it is London’s cultural offer – from nightlife to galleries to restaurants – that helps the city to retain its position at the top of global surveys, such as this year’s Global Power City Index, published by Tokyo’s Mori Memorial Foundation. Hospitality isn’t the froth on the top of “serious” sectors, such as financial and business services. It is foundational to them.

And as we lose the advantages of access to the European Single Market, these “soft power” assets will assume ever more importance in bringing the world to London, enabling us to play our part in “Global Britain” – another phrase that has taken a battering in this year of mutating viruses, lockdowns and travel bans.

But hospitality has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. The sector accounts for around 25% of current furloughs (compared to less than 8% of jobs), and has seen the most substantial job losses of any industry. And the outlook is grim: recent national surveys suggest that almost 30% of pubs and bars are pessimistic about surviving into the spring. London’s pubs and restaurants had a particularly tough year, with visits to the city centre dramatically reduced even during the summer period of relaxed restrictions.

As ever, the situation is complicated by Brexit. London’s hospitality sector is particularly reliant on foreign workers, with overseas nationals comprising around 50 per cent of the workforce. New immigration rules will make it far harder to employ foreign nationals in hospitality. Managers and a few specialist roles such as chefs are classified as “skilled” and therefore eligible for work visas but, bar staff, waiters, baristas and other hotel and kitchen staff are not.

Furthermore, the coronavirus crisis appears to have triggered the type of exodus that many were predicting (but failed to materialise) after the EU referendum in 2016. More than 700,000 people born outside the UK (around 500,000 from the EU) left employment between the first and third quarters of this year, according government surveys. Most appear to have left the country (or at least the survey sample) entirely. They may be biding their time until London re-opens, or they may stay away.

So, come the great unlocking, London’s hospitality sector may be in the unhappy situation of experiencing business closures and labour shortages at the same time – just as the city is trying to renew its global appeal. There may be an opportunity here for unemployed young Londoners to pick up the slack. But that is likely to put – long overdue – upwards pressure on wages and working conditions, which may in turn threaten the viability of pubs and restaurants facing higher food costs and already financially scarred by the coronavirus winter.

London will re-open, and its restaurants and bars will once again buzz with life, as they fill with people from across the city, the nation and the world, underpinning London’s status as a global meeting place. But recovery will be tough for the hospitality sector, and it could need almost as much support as during the long winter of coronavirus closures.

Big Bang and Grande Bouffe – the eateries that boosted London (March 2019)

 [Originally in OnLondon, 8 March 2019]

‘There’s a Big Bang in the City, We’re all on the make.” (Shopping, Pet Shop Boys, 1987).

The news this week that the Kensington Place restaurant is to shut its doors is more than just another restaurant closure. It completes a chapter in the incredible story of London’s 30 year resurgence.

The years 1986 and 1987 were pivotal for the capital and the high water mark for Thatcherism. In April 1986, amidst a blaze of fireworks and protests, the Greater London Council was abolished alongside other metropolitan councils, banishing the spectre of “socialism on the rates”. And in October – after years of wrangling – the “Big Bang” transformed financial services.

The details of the Big Bang are complex. Essentially it was a package of reforms that deregulated stockbroking, opened up London’s Stock Exchange to foreign-owned firms and enabled computerised trading to replace the frantic scrum of “open outcry” trading on its floor. But the Big Bang represented something more – the apotheosis of confident capitalism, personified by the mobile phone-toting Yuppie, in TV dramas such as Capital City, and by Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney – conceived as satire, but sometimes treated as a role model.

The Big Bang was also cited as a factor in the revival in net international migration, which meant London’s population started to grow again – albeit just by a few thousand a year – after decades of decline. At the time, London’s return to growth was seen as an anomaly, or even a blip. Writing in early 1987, Tony Champion and Peter Congdon suggested that the “surge in net international migration for City jobs will settle down after Big Bang”.

In 1987, as the Conservatives celebrated their third consecutive election victory, and the City of London was rocked by the twin shocks of the “Black Monday” crash and the emergence of Canary Wharf to the east, the Big Bang was also having an impact to the west. Three restaurants opened to cater to London’s growing gang of globally mobile professionals with sophisticated palates. In doing so, they put London’s food scene on the road to transformation from international punchline to global draw.

In Hammersmith, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray took over a disused warehouse building next door to Ruth’s husband’s firm, Richard Rogers Partnership. The River Café started by serving lunches to local workers, before gradually opening for longer hours and a wider clientele. But from the outset Ruth and Rose focused on fresh flavours and carefully chosen ingredients, an Italian cuisine that was a world away from the mounds of pasta, check table cloths and straw-covered chianti bottles of traditional trattorias.

In South Kensington, Terence Conran opened Bibendum in the opulent Michelin Tyre Company building on Fulham Road. Chef Simon Hopkinson’s cuisine was as deeply rooted in the rich sauces and offals of French country cooking as the River Café’s was in in the bright and earthy flavours of Tuscany. But, also like the River Café, Bibendum matched this respect for the classics with a stripped-back modernist ethos. Both restaurants were a world away from the tweezered pretension of 1980s nouvelle cuisine.

A little further west, Rowley Leigh opened Kensington Place, serving modern British food (almost a contradiction in terms at the time) in deliberately informal surroundings, dispensing with table cloths to create a London version of the neighbourhood brasseries that dotted Paris, and pioneering dishes such as scallops with pea puree that have now become gastropub standards.

By 1989, the “Lawson Boom” that had driven the ebullience of yuppie culture had run out of steam and the UK began to dip into a recession that hit London particularly hard, with soaring interest rates, a property market crash and thousands of homeowners facing negative equity. But the three restaurants that reinvented London’s food scene survived, and London’s population growth picked up pace. As Kensington Place closes, to be redeveloped for housing, it is caught in the undertow of the wave of change that it surfed.

City Traders

[Originally published in London Essays, June 2016]

At seven o’clock on a drizzly April morning, Canary Wharf is just coming to life. Bankers, brokers and lawyers stream up from the station, ready for a new day of trading and deal-making. But in a low-slung yellow building just north of the gleaming towers, the working day is nearing its end.

Inside Billingsgate Market, traders in long white coats and wellington boots are chatting among themselves as they start to hose down their stalls. Polystyrene boxes packed with seafood glisten under bright fluorescent lights. The market is not as busy at it was earlier but customers still circulate: trade suppliers are keenly comparing prices and quantities alongside a diverse selection of retail browsers – a couple of Orthodox Jews, a Coptic Christian priest, Chinese families, bearded foodies.

There’s fish here from all round the British Isles: from Aberdeen and Grimsby, Brixham and the Shetland Isles, Whitstable and Lowestoft: coley and cod, sea bream and salmon, tiger-striped mackerel and scallops in the shell. Other stalls specialise in ‘exotics’ – species of fish from faraway oceans, many of which I have barely heard of, let alone eaten: redfish, milkfish, catfish, kingfish, needle fish, barracuda, croaker, tilapia, frozen breezeblocks of squid.

Billingsgate, which moved to Docklands in 1982, is the biggest fish market in the UK; 25,000 tonnes of fish a year, almost 100 tonnes a day, pass through on the way from sea to plate. Lorries arrive from 9pm until the starting bell rings at 4am, bringing seafood from UK fishing ports, from airports, from the cargo docks where frozen fish from the South Pacific and Indian Ocean is unloaded. The consignments are split between the 98 stands in the centre of the market and the 30 shops that line its edges, or sent to a freezer store the size of a football pitch at the back of the market.

Billingsgate is one of London’s five wholesale food markets. The Western International Market at Southall, New Covent Garden at Vauxhall, and New Spitalfields at Leyton all supply fruit and veg; Smithfield meat market remains on its historic site in Farringdon. Three of these – Billingsgate, New Spitalfields and Smithfield – are operated by the Corporation of London, which was granted exclusive rights to operate markets around the City of London in 1327. The Corporation estimates that their three markets handle nearly 900,000 tonnes of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables every year, and turn over nearly £1bn (though traders are cautious about disclosing precise figures that might lead to rent rises).

London’s streets may never have been paved with gold but they were always dotted with market stalls and filled with food. Shifting patterns of food production, trading and consumption have shaped the city, as much as struggles between church and state, nobles and merchants, industry and commerce.

London’s place names tell this story: Milk Street and Bread Street; Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London started; Eel Pie Island. Sometimes the old names have been erased: Old Fish Street no longer runs down to Billingsgate; and More London (the development by London Bridge that includes City Hall) eschewed the waterfront walkway’s old name, Pickle Herring Street – a salty reflection of Bermondsey’s history of food processing – opting for the stately The Queen’s Walk instead.

Meanwhile, London’s markets have been transformed. In London: the Biography, Peter Ackroyd describes the street market that formed the spine of the medieval City of London. You can trace the route down Cheapside today, from the bloody shambles of livestock and butchery at Smithfield, outside the city walls at Newgate (near the end of Holborn Viaduct today) to Poultry (the name is self-explanatory) and Cornhill, where vegetables, meat and fish were traded from what would later become the Royal Exchange, the foundation of London’s stock market. South of the Royal Exchange, on the banks of the Thames, Billingsgate was so ancient that the origins of its name are unknown, though it was granted a charter in 1400.

Until the Thames was overwhelmed with industrial and domestic waste, eels and other fish came directly from the river: as the city grew, the River Roding at Barking became home to Britain’s largest fishing fleet. There are records of a fleet at Barking from the 11th century, as Andrew Summers and John Debenham set out in London’s Metropolitan Essex. By 1700, boats would venture to Iceland, and by the 19th century the fleet was 200-strong, their catch cooled by ice harvested in the winter from flooded marshes. From 1850, decline set in, as the railways made remote northern ports quickly accessible by land, and street names like Whiting Avenue are all that preserve the memory of Barking’s seafaring heyday.

The arrival of the railways was pivotal for London’s food supply and urban development. Beforehand, most of London’s food was grown on its doorstep. In 1796, Daniel Lysons’ survey of the suburbs estimated that there were 5,000 acres (the same area as the Royal Parks) of market gardens within 12 miles of the metropolis, plus 1,700 acres of potato fields and 800 acres of fruit trees. Barges brought manure from London’s stables to feed the soil and returned food to the city’s markets. Ackroyd writes of “cabbages from Battersea and onions from Deptford, celery from Chelsea and peas from Charlton, asparagus from Mortlake and turnips from Hammersmith”.  The railways untethered London’s growth from its geography by dramatically extending supply lines: the population was no longer constrained by the availability of food within a few miles of the city, and the market gardens of the suburbs could make way for housing.

One walled market garden, between the City and Westminster, served the convent and abbey at Westminster. Covent Garden was seized by Henry VIII in the dissolution of the monasteries and granted to the earls of Bedford. In the following century, the 4th Earl began developing the land, with Inigo Jones designing the arcaded piazza and St Paul’s Church – a prototype garden suburb for prosperous Londoners. For a period the area flourished, but in time, Roy Porter writes, “the fruit and vegetable market also operating in the square sapped its smartness and the aristocracy quit, migrating to Mayfair”.

Covent Garden slid into seediness, but the fruit and vegetables market flourished particularly after 1666, when the Great Fire destroyed the City’s markets. In Victorian times, with new market halls in place, the market boasted 1,000 porters. In 1974 the market relocated to Vauxhall, after an epic battle between conservationists who wanted to preserve the old buildings and the Greater London Council, who proposed a comprehensive redevelopment in the worst traditions of 1970s car-based urbanism.

Every Day But Christmas, Lindsay Anderson’s 1957 documentary about Covent Garden, begins late at night in the fields of Sussex, where lorries are loaded with lettuces, mushrooms and roses, and set out through the darkness to London. The film records the quickening tempo of the market, as vegetables arrive, then flowers, then porters and customers (including London’s last female market porter and last flower girls, successors in trade to Eliza Doolittle), then cleaners and scavengers. The streets are a jumble of lorries, pallets and people.
Illustration by Lucinda Rogers
Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

There’s a calm interlude in the film, between the unloading and the stacking of the produce and the arrival of the customers, where the market workers retire to a café for a break – a cigarette, a cup of tea and a bacon roll. They are not the only nighthawks in the café. The camera lights on a group of gay men, chatting and shooting nervous glances at the camera (we are still 10 years away from the partial legalisation of homosexuality), and fixing elaborate coifs. Narrator Alun Owen intones archly: “Not everybody in Albert’s works in the market. Some of them, you wonder where they come from.”

Market workers would have been less naïve. Before London’s current redefinition as a 24-hour city, markets also stood out as permissive places, where the loud and the louche mingled with the traders who kept the city fed. As well as being a place of butchery and executions, medieval Smithfield was the location of St Bartholemew’s Fair, a notorious three-day debauch that ran for 700 years before being suppressed in the 1850s. In modern times, too, markets and nightlife enjoyed a curious co-existence: as in the Meatpacking District in New York, Smithfield and Vauxhall became hubs for clubbing, away from the potentially censorious gaze of London’s daytime population.

20 years ago, says David Smith, Director of Markets and Consumer Protection at City of London Corporation, wholesale markets looked like a spent force, a relic from a pre-modern era. Supermarkets were establishing their own supply chains and their own warehouses on the edge of London; the wholesale markets’ niche would only become narrower. In 2002 and 2007, reports recommended the slimming down of London’s markets, proposing that Billingsgate and Smithfield be closed and their business consolidated to New Spitalfields and/or New Covent Garden.

These plans foundered in the complexity of legislation and commercial interests, but then the wholesale trade experienced a revival: today, the Corporation’s markets are fully occupied and returning a small surplus. Three factors threw the markets a lifeline: one was London’s phenomenal boom in dining out, encompassing everything from opulent Michelin aspirants to inventive street food pop-ups. A city whose food had traditionally served as the butt of other people’s jokes became one of the world’s great dining destinations.

Another factor was immigration: supermarkets work at scale but the choice they offer is heavily circumscribed. ‘International food’ aisles have been outpaced by the growth in specialist suppliers of everything from Chinese greens to curry leaves to Polish sausage to pomfret. At Billingsgate alone, ‘exotics’ are now reckoned to make up 40 per cent of turnover. New Londoners have revitalised the city’s markets as well as its cuisine.

The third factor was a change in food-buying culture and a resurgence of middle-class interest in authenticity and provenance. The markets increasingly operate at the edge of mainstream consumption, providing specialities for minority cuisines and exquisite ingredients for epicureans, as well as acting as a secondary market for produce that is just a little too gnarly and imperfect for the supermarkets’ exacting aesthetic standards.

But the irony of London’s voracious appetite, for land as much as for food, is that the city is forever devouring its edge, driving markets and other food services further from the centre. Rational planning pushed Covent Garden, Billingsgate and Spitalfields out of central London, narrowing their focus to wholesale trade and relocating it to fringe industrial areas, but today these locations – alongside the massive redevelopment of Vauxhall, next to Canary Wharf’s new Crossrail Station and at the edge of London’s Olympic Park – are far from peripheral. Yesterday’s remote trading outpost is today’s property hotspot.

The City of London Corporation’s Markets Committee have asked for another strategic review, and at Billingsgate rumours of relocation abound. Moving to New Spitalfields is still discussed as one option, but space there is short; relocation to a new facility in Barking is another possibility. Meanwhile, at New Covent Garden (currently owned by central government), a joint venture is in place to build a new 500,000 square-foot market, together with 3,000 homes and 135,000 square feet of offices.

Curiously, the market that feels most secure is Smithfield, which has occupied the same site for the best part of a millennium. As London grew around the livestock market, Smithfield became increasingly controversial, not just for what one Victorian campaigner described as the “cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights” of the market itself, but also thanks to the chaos caused by driving animals through the narrow streets. A new cattle market was opened in 1855 in Islington, and Smithfield was re-established as a meat market, with carcasses delivered by underground railway.

The 42 traders at Smithfield today have successfully battled against redevelopment, the most recent proposal for which was rejected in 2014, following a public inquiry. The now-disused General Market, alongside Farringdon Road, is earmarked for the relocation of the Museum of London, but the Victorian East and West Markets and the 20th century Poultry Market are all listed, severely limiting the scope for profitable redevelopment, especially once the costs of relocating traders are taken into account.

The possible future for London’s wholesale markets is not simply survival or displacement. Markets could become re-absorbed by the city in their new locations, rediscovering the mix and urban quality that was lost in rezoning. The plans for Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea see New Covent Garden as an essential component of local character, and include proposals for a new ‘Garden Heart’ of workspaces, with a ‘Food Quarter’ of specialised shops and restaurants alongside it.

The story of London’s wholesale markets is rich in anomaly. Trading animal carcasses and crates of fish on the doorstep of Europe’s leading financial centres is certainly a surprising use of prime real estate. But the markets’ survival should be celebrated, as should their continuing capacity for re­invention. In a city endlessly seeking novelty, variety and traceability in its diet, wholesale markets make visible the sinews and circulatory system of consumption, and draw a line connecting medieval trade in beasts, fowls and fish with the complex assets and derivatives that are bought and sold in financial markets today.

Living in a box

I watched the ponderously-titled \’Big Chef Takes On Little Chef\’, wherein Heston Blumenthal seeks to revive Little Chef, with a creeping and dismal sense of familiarity.

The show pivots on an initially contrived, but subsequently all-too-real clash between Blumenthal and Little Chef boss Ian Pegler. The problem is something like this: Blumenthal sees his role as recovering the reputation of a British classic and, for all his culinary curiosity, seems to nurse a genuine interest in and affection for the traditions of British cooking.

Pegler, however, seems to view Blumenthal as a performing food monkey, who will bring \’blue skies thinking\’ to bear on Little Chef\’s tired menus (but doesn\’t need to worry his little head with anything like business models).

I don\’t know much about catering, but my experiences on the fringe of architecture suggest that the clients who demand wacky, iconic designs for buildings with a \’wow factor\’ are those least likely to understand the careful, pains-taking accretion of change that the best architects can orchestrate. The neophiles want the glamour and the buzz, but are too superficial to consider the sweat and the craft that underpins it.

They want \’thinking outside of the box\’ (Ian Pegler came up with this with a mere two minutes of TV programme to go). To which my architect friend Mark has the only sensible response: \”Err, I don\’t really think in a box.\”