More means less when it comes to a great cafe | David Mitchell | Opinion

The first time I went to Patisserie Valerie, in December 1993, it felt really special. I was having a day out in London during the Christmas vacation after my first term at university and a college friend, who lived in London, took me to what I for many years wrongly thought of as the original Knightsbridge branch. It seemed extremely refined and continental – the cakes were like the ones that, in those days, you only really got in France. Lots of millefeuilles, no iced buns. To an undergraduate rube, it was a glimpse into the hidden London where only very posh people go.

I don’t know how many branches of Patisserie Valerie there were in 1993. But it was obviously more than the one Old Compton Street outlet that Enzo, Robert and Victor Scalzo bought in 1987 from descendants of the original Madame Valerie, and fewer than the nine that existed when they sold the firm to venture capitalists in 2006. When it went into administration last week, there were about 200.

Early last year, I went to one of them. It was in the Brunswick Centre near Russell Square, in London, next to an arthouse cinema. This time, it didn’t feel very special. It was fine, but it was pretty empty. I had a sandwich and a tea while someone swept the floor. But, unlike in 1993, it obviously wasn’t a genuine Belgian patisserie that had been running for the best part of a century. It was just a chain restaurant that had randomly taken “Belgian patisserie” as its vague theme. It could turn into a GBK or a Harry Ramsden’s or a Café Rouge or a Pret or an Eat or a Giraffe at the click of a financier’s mouse.

It feels so weird and arbitrary. I get no sense that the reason Patisserie Valerie leapt from a handful of branches to hundreds was because of public demand. I suppose there’s a demand for cafes in general, but I don’t think many people were saying: “You know the distinctive feel of that cake shop in Old Compton Street? If only that was available literally everywhere!” I don’t think people outside London had particularly heard of it – it wasn’t like Hamley’s or Fortnum & Mason. They were just suddenly presented with it. “That Zizzi’s turned into something called Patisserie Valerie.” “Oh. Do they still do cappuccinos?” “I suppose so.”

And it doesn’t make sense even if there did turn out to be a vast unexploited market for the very specific Belgian-metropolitan ambience I enjoyed in 1993, because a chain of Patisserie Valerie’s scale and nature is incapable of replicating that sort of atmosphere – as I discovered at the Brunswick Centre. It’s not like McDonald’s, which, whether or not you like it, you have to admit is pretty much the same everywhere. In this case, the original successful thing is too ephemeral to be recaptured by a team of local staff taken on when the TGI Friday’s closed.

I’m not saying this is why the chain failed. The current crisis was precipitated by the discovery last October of “significant, potentially fraudulent accounting irregularities”, which meant there was a £40m gap in its accounts. Until then, everything looked rosy, with Patisserie Holdings, the parent company, valued at over half a billion pounds in June. But it’s hard to believe that wasn’t a huge overestimation of its worth, and that there isn’t a fundamental weakness in the business motivating all the alleged books-cooking.

Patisserie Valerie.



Patisserie Valerie. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

I first properly noticed the weird way the restaurant business currently operates when the Ask Pizza near me changed overnight into something called Franco Manca. It still seemed to be a restaurant but I had no idea what sort. I initially assumed it was something vaguely Spanish, which was stupid of me as that would be like a Viennese restaurant calling itself Hitler Mitlo.

My confusion wasn’t eased when I discovered that Franco Manca, like Ask Pizza before it, is a pizza restaurant – the main difference being that Franco Manca serves sourdough pizza while Ask served what I think a gastronome would describe as normal pizza. So why the change? Was Ask doing badly? If so, what made someone think its problems would be solved by making the dough more sour?

Just like when going mad, having seen one inexplicable thing, I started seeing them everywhere. That’s how it was with Franco Mancas. So, out of curiosity, on one of the occasions when I would otherwise have gone to Pizza Express, I went to a Franco Manca. I thought it was fine, but no better than Pizza Express.

Is that sort of one-off curiosity visit enough to sustain such a chain? It’s almost like going to see a film because you’ve noticed so many posters for it – but, instead of posters, you’ve seen actual branches of the restaurant on every high street. So, if you’ve got time on your hands, maybe you pop in. If you don’t, you miss the release – personally, I never got round to Prezzo or Chimichanga and lots of them have closed now. Maybe they’ll bring out a DVD.

Obviously if, having popped in, you find this new chain restaurant to be really terrific, and better than the chain restaurants you’ve previously frequented, then this all makes sense. But how often does that happen? Not very often, judging by the parlous financial state of the sector. Poor old Jamie Oliver seems to be constantly cranking out books and TV shows purely to pay the staff wages in all the deserted branches of Jamie’s Italian. And every other chain, from Carluccio’s to Byron, seems to be feverishly closing branches or renegotiating rents.

I’m no businessman, which will become obvious when I say that, to me, all this feels like a huge waste of time and energy: this desperation to take any half-decent food service concept and then strain every financial sinew to immediately open versions of it in every town, city and shopping centre, only for the resultant frail, over-stretched company to collapse in the face of the lightest breeze of consumer parsimony. What’s the point? Patisserie Valerie was a small good thing and now it’s bloated and broken, a dispiriting echo of the effect of too much cake.

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