Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver says he had just hours to take action to save his restaurant business from collapsing entirely, and he still doesn’t understand what went wrong.
In an in-depth interview with the Financial Times, Oliver opened up about the phone call that changed everything last year.
Oliver had been cooking prawn dumplings during the filming of an episode of his television series Friday Night Feast with actor Liv Tyler in September 2017 when his phone rang.
He said he told the crew to stop filming as he took the call, during which he was told that his hospitality business, led by the Jamie’s Italian casual eating chain, was on the verge of collapsing.
Oliver had opened the first Jamie’s Italian outlet in Oxford, England, in 2008 and by the end of 2016, the chain had 43 restaurants to its name.
But by the time Oliver received that phone call, the business had “simply run out of cash”, he told the Financial Times.
“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.
“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,” said Oliver.
“It was as bad as that and as dramatic as that.”
As reported in February, Oliver’s businesses had amassed £71.5 million ($128 million) in debts. Oliver revealed he quickly put in £7.5 million ($13.5 million) of his own money into the restaurant business, and followed that with another £5.2 million ($9.3 million) in the following months.
The business also embarked on a series of restaurant closures — 12 out of 37 Jamie’s Italian outlets in the UK have shut down over the past year with some 600 employees made redundant. The closures were part of a company voluntary arrangement, which allowed for the business to be restructured.
The celebrity chef’s Barbecoa chain of steakhouse restaurants was also affected, as was a Jamie Oliver-branded pizza business and Recipease, a cooking school and grocery business.
The fallout also affected Oliver’s Australian business, with the Jamie’s Italian outlets in Australia falling into voluntary administration in April this year, after Oliver had bought them back from former operator Keystone Hospitality Group, which went into receivership in mid-2016.
In April there were six Jamie’s Italian restaurants in Australia, and the venue in Canberra was the only one to close permanently. The remaining restaurants in Sydney, Parramatta, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide were taken over by Brisbane-based company Hallmark Group.
So what went wrong? Oliver told the Financial Times it’s still not clear.
“I honestly don’t know [what happened],” he said.
“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 perform storm: rents, rates, the high street declining, food costs, Brexit, increase in the minimum wage.
“There was a lot going on.”
But reflecting on the first six years of the Jamie’s Italian brand, he said he’s proud of the impact it made.
“We disrupted massively,” he said.
“We changed the whole mid-market landscape … The culture that we built was phenomenal. We had it, and now it’s been taken away.”