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Jamie Oliver Says His Restaurant Empire Was Two Hours Away From Bankruptcy

In an interview with the Financial Times, the celebrity chef says “we had simply run out of cash” 

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver of Jamie’s Italian gave a revealing interview to BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme
Jamie Oliver has broken his silence on the restructuring of his restaurant empire
Jamie Oliver [Official Photo]

In an interview with the Financial Times, the TV chef, cookbook author, and troubled restaurateur Jamie Oliver has for the first time spoken about the manner of his restaurant empire’s demise in the past 12 months. The 10-year-old restaurant portfolio — which was largely made up by the casual Italian chain, Jamie’s Italian — has gone from operating 43 restaurants nationwide to 25, which also included the closure of Jamie’s Diner in Soho and Barbecoa steakhouse on Piccadilly.

In the interview, Oliver discusses the moment he learned that the group was in dire trouble, that he injected his own money to ensure its survival, and talks about where it all went wrong. He also addresses the criticism (and the anonymous sources who briefed media) directed at his brother-in-law and CEO, Paul Hunt.

Here are the 15 most illuminating lines from Oliver and his most senior business executives.

On when he found out and took the call: “We had simply run out of cash...and we hadn’t expected it. That is just not normal, in any business. You have quarterly meetings. You do board meetings. People supposed to manage that stuff should manage that stuff.” He

The business was saved because he injected his own cash: He immediately put in £7.5 million “from his own savings”. A further £5.2 million of his own money would follow over the next few months. (The chef is reportedly worth £150 million, personally.)

But he didn’t have long to do it...: “I had two hours to put money in and save it or the whole thing would go to shit that day or the next day. It was as bad as that and as dramatic as that.”

(The £12.7 million of Oliver’s own money was supplemented by £37 million of loans from HSBC and subsidies from other companies within the Jamie Oliver Group.)

He briefly turns to his past record: He estimates that he “fucked up” 40 per cent of his business ventures over the course of his career.

When it comes to specifics on what happened to his restaurant business, he can only offer what every single analysis of the so-called casual dining crisis has identified: “I honestly don’t know [what happened]. We’re still trying to work it out, but I think that the senior management we had in place were trying to manage what they would call the perfect storm — rents, rates, the high street declining, food costs, Brexit, increase in the minimum wage. There was a lot going on.”

He still rides the same Vespa that he was seen using in his first TV series, the Naked Chef, in 1999. He also arrives at work at 5.30am, and often does not leave the office until after 9pm at night. His home, in Highgate, north London, is worth £9 million.

Jamie does not write “kind regards” or “very best” on any correspondence. Instead...: On one wall [in his Holloway head office], a massive mural bearing the phrase “Big Love” looms over the proceedings. Oliver signs off all his letters (including those to the prime minister about his campaigns) with that phrase.

Looking back on his career as a restaurateur, or at least the brand name attached to a national (and now international) restaurant operation, which launched in 2008, he remains proud: “We disrupted massively. We changed the whole mid-market landscape. Our story for the first six years was incredible. The culture that we built was phenomenal. We had it, and now it’s been taken away.”

On Barbecoa, around whose closure and immediate buy-back by a new Jamie Oliver company called One New Change Limited there was a significant amount of controversy. It meant that any creditors of the company which went bust were left unpaid: “The group insists that anyone who was left out of pocket has since been repaid.”

CEO of the restaurant division since last year, Jon Knight, who previously ran Oliver’s international interests, points to expansion and choice of location as a factor in the downturn: We were opening too many restaurants, too quickly, in the wrong places. We were opening in places that weren’t university towns and didn’t have enough of a tourism element.” He says it will take the restaurants four years to clear its debts and return to profit. Oliver will also get his own cash back. “Or at least most of it”.

Food and beverage chief, Ed Loftus, said it was about price-point, which was worsened by Brexit, a devalued pound, and increased ingredient costs. “We had become complacent. Our entry-level steak is now £15.50 when it was £17.”

Paul Hunt, Oliver’s brother-in-law, group CEO, and ex-trader (who has a chequered past) came under fire last year. His anonymous accusers, in the tabloid media, claimed that following his arrival in 2014, it was his incompetence and bullying style of management that had led to the business’ collapse. Oliver publicly defended him.

Hunt denies the allegations and says he had difficult business decisions to make when he arrived: “I wanted to change the model, Jamie wanted to change the model... We needed to make the business about Jamie again... we had to make some extraordinarily tough decisions. They were desperate times.” Both Hunt and Oliver put the “baseless” claims down to sour grapes, and “bad leavers” who were made redundant.

Oliver also continues to fiercely defend Hunt’s appointment: “I needed honesty. I needed clarity, and I needed trust to sort out a myriad of things...”

“Do you know why I chose him? Because he’s many things. But he’s honest, and he’s fair. I absolutely trust him. His job was to come in and clean up. He has done the hardest and most fabulous job. I’m not saying that because he’s my brother-in-law. I’m saying it because it’s a fact.”

When his brand is so valuable and his books and TV work is so lucrative, why doesn’t he just call it a day as a restaurateur? “It’s what I grew up in. I really care about it... And it’s a cocktail you have to get right...With Jamie’s Italian, we kind of got halfway there and then it all ran away. But now I am a bit more confident. We’re beginning to see a little bit of light out of a very dark year.”