Belfast Telegraph

How the restaurant business is biting back

Despite the recession, the number of acclaimed eateries here continues to grow. We ask four restaurateurs what can be done to bolster this success

By Margaret Canning

Ireland is in the throes of its worst recession for 30 years - but judging by the growing length of a definitive guide to the best food north and south of the border, the restaurant trade is going from strength to strength.

Cheap foreign travel has made our palates more sophisticated, and the ubiquity of celebrity chefs has made us all take cooking much more seriously.

Belfast-born John McKenna, who with his wife Sally has been publishing the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide for 25 years, has said people are more disposed to spending money in restaurants, reflected in the growing number of entries in their guide. The 2012 was published this month.

Mr McKenna said: "The guide was 500 pages in 2007 and 700 pages in 2012.

"In Northern Ireland, we've seen the arrival of a new pizza chain, Little Wing, and Northern Ireland also has the best chip shops of them all.

"There's no doubt people have less money to spend - but they are still willing to spend something."

But not all licensed premises were on the pig's back. "We are seeing the death of the Irish pub, and there's a number of reasons for that."

He cited the resistance of publicans over the border to the smoking ban - but also the lack of variety in pubs.

"Similar pubs serve identical drinks. But with restaurants, we're now at the stage where we expect choice as a given. People travelling abroad has changed everything. We want service, choice, value for money.

"When we have money we don't want to just spend it on drink but on food, wine and someone serving them to you in a nice room.

"But if we'd been publishing a guide to pubs it would have been getting shorter and shorter."

He cites Australian-born Dean Coppard of Uluru in Armagh as one of the 'third wave' of Northern Ireland chefs following Paul Rankin, Michael Deane of the first wave and Balloo Inns' Danny Millar and Mourne Seafood's Andy Rae of the second.

And he said the contribution of restaurateurs to the economy shouldn't be underestimated. "Without it you wouldn't become a tourism destination. In Denmark and Spain, the chefs Rene Redzepi and Ferran Adria are feted for Noma in Copenhagen and El Bulli, north of Barcelona, the world's number one and two restaurants respectively.

"They became almost like flag bearers for their country, and we need to celebrate our chefs in the same way."

This week, Belfast Restaurant Week will celebrate the best eateries in the city. But behind the gloss and studio kitchens, what is it really like to be in the restaurant business? We've asked four well-established restaurateurs to take us right into their kitchens and tell us how it is.

Case Studies

Michael O'Connor of Ace, Il Pirata and The Barking Dog.

What could the government do to to help the restaurant trade?

Bring Vat back down from the current 20% to help us to help the customer, so we don't have to charge top-end prices for our stuff. Food has gotten really expensive for us to buy in, even fish, but customers don't see that.

Is there too much red tape?

There is. We got told by health officers that we had to have five different vacuum package machines for different produce but we can't afford that because we are just a small business These are silly little rules that hurt restaurants.

Do you care about the prospect of a cut in corporation tax?

It's a fantastic idea. We are trying to make Northern Ireland and Belfast a better place to come and visit. I left to live abroad because Belfast wasn't that great and worked with Marco Pierre White in London and at the Astral in Sydney. There were no good, mid-level restaurants in Northern Ireland, just the really high-end ones. Now it's completely different and we are providing a great food service without hurting your pocket.

Would a cut in Vat help more?

Definitely.

How hard is it for a restaurant to get bank funding?

We are looking to open more restaurants in future but we constantly need to be able to tell the bank we can manage what we have. Hopefully we can get funding if we have our figures right.

How have you changed your business model to reflect the downturn?

We have meetings scrutinising every penny that's spent. We've changed menus to suit the customer. People come out not to have a really big meal but to have one course or two small courses. They are still spending money on alcohol but not on £40 to £50 bottles but maybe two bottles of wine at £15.

Nick Price of Nick's Warehouse, which has been in business in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast since 1989

What could the government do to to help the restaurant trade?

We'd like there to be a reduction in Vat in restaurants like there has been in the south [where Vat on tourism services has been cut to 9%] but it isn't likely to happen. It wouldn't half help us, though.

Is there too much red tape?

Don't talk to me about red tape. It's all about stupid things. It just gets worse and worse.

Do you care about the prospect of a cut in corporation tax?

Corporation tax is relevant. It would help us. If we make any money we still pay corporation tax - but no-one's making a fortune. Anything that we could save would be of benefit because it would mean we would be able to reinvest it.

Would a cut in Vat help more?

Yes - but I don't think Europe would let us and we don't have the clout here ourselves though the south seems to have gotten away with it. It's all about a level playing field.

How hard is it for a restaurant to get bank funding?

I'd imagine it's hard to borrow from banks but thankfully I'm not in that position - but at one time after we extended the restaurant, we were paying interest at 21%.

How have you changed your business model to reflect the downturn?

I don't think anyone's doing well these days. We need a lot of people to come through the door to pay the wages, though our workforce has gone down from about 40 to 25. When times are hard you really have to be as tight as you can.

But we had a lot of tourists over the summer for the golf, for the Titanic centenary and Our Time Our Place. I will be interested to see the tourist figures when they come out. Overall, we have cut our cloth to suit what people seem to want.

Dean Coppard of Australian restaurant Uluru in Armagh - motto: "People shouldn't have to move to Belfast to get good food."

What could the government do to to help the restaurant trade?

We lobbied our MLAs and had a motion before the assembly to push for a Vat reduction.

Is there too much red tape?

Yes. We have a great reputation as a restaurant and I want to keep that but it seems the government is making it really, really hard for us.

Do you care about the prospect of a cut in corporation tax?

None of us are making any money so corporation tax isn't going to make any difference.

Would a cut in Vat help more?

Definitely. People think we can claim back everything but I can only claim Vat back on drink and luxury items.

How hard is it for a restaurant to get bank funding?

If you go and try and get a loan it's impossible. I paid off a loan over seven years and went back to ask for a £2,000 overdraft, but the computer said no. It's heartbreaking.

How have you changed your business model to reflect the downturn?

We do a pre-theatre two course 'early bird', which has done us great good.

Ronan Sweeney is the managing director of Balloo Inns, the company behind The Parson's Nose, Lisbarnett House and Balloo House.

What could the government do to to help the restaurant trade?

From employment regulations to health and safety recommendations and the endless stream of questionnaires from government agencies - this all takes time and money, and if these regulations were relaxed, then much needed money could be spent on re-investing.

Is there too much red tape?

The restaurant sector is highly regulated. Both on a local and national level, the amount of man-hours put into government compliance is a very onerous financial burden.

Do you care about the prospect of a cut in corporation tax?

A de facto corporation tax cut would be a great thing if the Westminster block grant were to be unaffected, and indeed our neighbours in the Republic enjoy a 12.5% rate.

However, it would be a wasteful and pointless exercise to cut corporation tax only to hike up business rates and water rates to plug the gap between funding and expenditure that will inevitably develop.

Would a cut in Vat help more?

A cut in Vat would certainly help, but again it would be foolish to create a gap that will have to be filled by other government taxes.

How hard is it for a restaurant to get bank funding?

It is extremely hard. Firstly, the banks perceive our sector as unattractive and unstable, with most of them not investing in restaurants or hotels at all, no matter how strong your track record.

Having dealt with the Northern Bank for nearly 10 years, I managed to convince them of the strength of our business model and they trusted our appraisal.

How have you changed your business model to reflect the downturn?

We are planning our reinvestments more carefully and our projections are not as aggressive as once they were.

We have also found that we really had to focus on what the customers perceive as value.

Thriving scene celebrated

Belfast Restaurant Week, which continues until this Saturday, aims to showcase the range of dining experiences the city can offer.

Around 70 restaurants and food outlets are taking part, with many proffering themed dishes from their chefs and money-off deals.

The event - the city's first restaurant week - is organised by Belfast City Council.

Christopher Stalford, chairman of the council's development committee, said: "Belfast Restaurant Week is a fantastic initiative which provides huge support for the restaurant industry.

"Not only does it dedicate a week to celebrating our excellent restaurant and eating out choices, but it will also hopefully encourage more people to experience and enjoy our city's thriving restaurant scene.

"We have many food heroes in the city and extremely talented chefs who are receiving major recognition around the world and are true ambassadors for our excellent food and, indeed, for Belfast and Northern Ireland.

"Through Belfast Restaurant Week, we aim to recognise and profile their achievements closer to home."

Meanwhile, Peter McAlister, the restaurant manager of the five star Culloden Estate and Spa in Cultra outside Belfast, has been shortlisted for the 2012 UK Restaurant Manager of the Year award.

The competition, organised by the Academy of Food and Wine Service, tests entrants' front-of-house skills, ability to manage and inspire a team, and business acumen.

"I am thrilled to have been shortlisted, especially due to the high level of competition. It was a tough semi-final and I was tested on a range of practical and management skills," Mr McAllister said.

"I lead a fantastic team at The Mitre Restaurant at the Culloden Estate and Spa and this shortlist could not have been possible without their support."

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