Pic Carl Sukonik

The Daily Mail recently devoted a whole page feature on what it called the “crisis” facing many high street restaurant chains.

A number of operations with household names are in retreat. Jamie’s Italian is set to close a third of its 27 restaurants. Prezzo plans to reduce its estate of 300 outlets by 94 and Byron is shutting 20 of its 69 posh burger joints.

They are not alone. Strada has already pulled the plug on a third of its restaurants. Carluccio’s are reported to have called in advisers and the Casual Dining Group, owners of, among others, Bella Italia and Café Rouge have revealed losses of £60 million to May last year, up 18 per cent.

The huge cull prompted the newspaper to beg the question: “Have we had our fill of eating out?”

Well my answer to that is no way, though we have probably had our fill of eating out in big, impersonal, predictable, boring, pseudo-Italian restaurants. Those mentioned above are almost entirely Italian themed serving centrally sourced, “safe” menus.

I think we’re experiencing a Berni Inn moment. Back in the 1970s Berni Inns were probably the most popular restaurants in the land with an outlet everywhere. And then there was none.

I have never been a fan of the big corporate chains, not necessarily because of the food they serve or the prices they charge, but because of their lack of adventure and the fact that their overwhelming presence has stifled the development of young, talented, exciting independents in city centres across the UK. Their come-uppance cometh.

To put it in stark terms, would you pass Rudy’s or Honest Crust at Mackie Mayor and Alty Market (a huge contributor to Altrincham being named one of the best places to live in the UK) on the way to a Pizza Hut? Or Sugo Pasta Kitchen on the way to Bella Italia or Prezzo?

Interesting, isn’t it, that whilst the big chains are retreating, Rudy’s and Sugo are expanding. The game is changing.

Good Italian food needs good ingredients, proper chefs and passion. Yes, passion.

Celebrity chef Aldo Zilli, consultant to the Manchester-based, massively successful and defiantly independent San Carlo group, told the Daily Mail: “The big chains were an accident waiting to happen. They have grown so quickly. There are so many of them now [up from 22,484 licenced restaurants in 2008 to 27,312 at the end of last year]. And you can’t keep on top of the quality ingredients, quality Italian food without chefs. These people employ cooks, not chefs who understand ingredients and recipes.”

Passion is founder Carlo Distefano’s watchword, echoed by his son Marcello, now managing director of the group. They’re opening San Carlo Pizza Madre at 47 King Street soon. I’d like a slice of the inevitable success.

Interestingly, before San Carlo opened its flagship on King Street West, the site had been occupied by national pizza chains Ask and Zizzi. Both were short lived.

And one wonders how might a chain with 13,728 restaurants worldwide – Texas-based Pizza Hut – or corporate venture capital companies that trade restaurant brands as commodities, can show passion even if they tried.

There are several examples of great ideas, gobbled up by corporates, then ruined. Neil Gatt opened the first La Tasca in Deansgate in 1993. When he sold the business there were 15 restaurants, expanded by corporate owners to 55 and then major problems kicked in. As of last August there were just ten left.

It could have all ended in tears too for Est Est Est, the modern Italian concept launched by Knutsford-based Derek and the late Edwina Lilley 30 years ago this year. They sold it to what became the Restaurant Group (TRG) in 1993, then went on to open Restaurant Bar & Grill and Piccolino.

Est Est Est was ailing badly under its corporate owners until, in a complex deal, the chain was bought by the late Tim Bacon’s Living Ventures. Two years later, Est Est Est was re-branded as Gusto and thrives. The completely refurbished Gusto in Didsbury will reopen by the end of the month.

Tim Bacon’s partner Jeremy Roberts, now Living Ventures CEO, said: “I believe eating out is as popular as ever, but the current difficulties experienced by the sector highlights ever changing customer requirements, so it’s important not to stand still and try to stay ahead of the curve.

“Our latest concept Grand Pacific, which opened last March, is a good example of something slightly different that our customers seem to like.  Grand Pacific recently won Casual Dining Concept of the year, and Best New Bar was awarded to Alchemist MediaCity at the Casual Dining Show.”

Croma is another made-in-Manchester concept defying the supposed gloom.

The independent group of people operating the franchise that made the South King Street branch of Pizza Express the busiest in the whole country, launched Croma in Clarence Street off Albert Square when Pizza Express swallowed its independent franchises.

The business now has branches in Chorlton, Didsbury and Prestwich, but it’s been a measured, thoughtful expansion over the best part of 20 years, Recently the group has struck a nationwide deal with Odeon cinemas.

Crisis, what crisis?

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