By Nikki Daly
The boom in themed restaurants looks set to continue, but there are signs this market may be reaching saturation point.
The ambience and the entertainment provided in mid-market, themed restaurants are currently as important as food, according to a report by the Sheffield-based Leisure Industries Research Centre (LIRC).
LIRC director Chris Gratton said: "London is leading the boom, and if restaurants work in the capital they are rolled out to the rest of the country. But there are growing concerns that this has gone too far.
"Tourists and locals are always attracted initially. But the second and third visit is not so straightforward and building customer loyalty is difficult. Heavy theming with an emphasis on entertainment might be reaching market saturation. In the future food may grow in importance."
The report predicts that the overall restaurant market will grow by 4.6% in 1998, followed by slower growth of 2.5% for 1999 and 2000.
But restaurant closures in London grew in 1997 and, despite the growth in mid-range restaurants nationwide, fast food outlets continue to dominate, with 30% of the market.
A row over a naan bread led a customer to blast the window of an Indian restaurant with an unlicensed Winchester shotgun, Maidstone Crown Court heard last week.
Tony Longley had been a regular at the Bengal Brasserie in Rochester, Kent. But, on the night of 23 May 1997, he and two companions were noticeably drunk while eating there and Longley became upset over his naan bread. The men scuffled with staff later when Longley was seen urinating in a pot plant outside.
Longley returned with his gun after the restaurant closed, and fired two shots through the window. One employee's ear was cut by flying glass.
The judge jailed Longley for six years. Longley admitted possessing a firearm with intent to cause the staff to believe that unlawful violence would be used against them, and possessing a firearm and ammunition without a certificate.
The court heard that Longley's explosion followed four years of misfortunes, including the decline of his building business, the repossession of his house and car, the collapse of his marriage, and the deaths of two close friends.
Burger chain McDonald's has given opponents to its planned all-night restaurant in Barnet, north London, an extra month to lodge objections.
The extension followed outrage that Barnet Council displayed the licence application in a retail park that opened on the day objections needed to be submitted (Caterer, 12 March, page 16).
Protester Lionel Gilbert believes he can add hundreds of names to a 75-signature petition he put together in a few days.
It is understood the restaurant may now close between 5am and 7am.
Navajo Joe, which opened last November, has been named Best New Restaurant in Carlton Television's London Restaurant Awards 1998.
Bank beat off strong competition to win the Best Modern British category, while the Capital Radio Café secured the Best Theme Restaurant award.
Best Indian was Cafe Lazeez, while Blue Elephant was named Best Oriental. Winner of the Best Italian was Zafferano and Langan's Brasserie got Best Brasserie.
A panel of 10 sponsors and commentators singled out Terence Conran for his Outstanding Contribution to London Restaurants. Outstanding London Chef 1998 was Pierre Koffman of La Tante Claire.
Crowds are flocking to the pavement tables and chairs outside a Bath coffee house. But they're not after something off the menu, simply a view of the buskers across the street.
So many of them pack around the city's street entertainers, which range from circus acts to musicians, that they drive customers away and block the restaurant entrance, claims the café.
Manager Marlane Walker-Jones of Monks Coffee House in the city centre said: "We have 16 covers outside and when the crowds block the way we notice a significant drop in business. It willget even worseonce the season really gets under way.
"We have tried asking the buskers to ask their audiences to keep away but there is nothing anyone can do unless a new bylaw is introduced, and that could take up to two years."
The wave of protests over Whitbread selling foreign beef in its Beefeater restaurants escalated last week as 250 angry farmers picketed a Gloucestershire beer depot owned by the company.
Local farmers, some carrying placards and banners,used Landrovers and cars to block the movement of beer lorries for four hours. Police were called but the demonstration remained peaceful. The protesters were demanding an assurance from Whitbread that they would back British beef.
Beef farmer and protest leader Ben Pullen said: "People who go into Beefeater restaurants assume because of the name that the beef is goingto be British, but it is not. Everyone knows that British beef is now the best and safest in the world and we wantan undertaking from Whitbread that they will now start selling it."
The blockade was the culmination of extensive lobbying of Beefeater managers across the country.
Whitbread said it supported British farming and wouldbe bringing in a new menuat Beefeater on 27 April, which includes two prime British cuts: a 10oz sirloin and 12oz rib eye.
By Angela Frewin
Tapas bar chain La Tasca has been granted a judicial review in its battle to obtain a full drinks licence for its fifth restaurant, which opened in Chester earlier this month.
The review will examine the lawfulness of a crown court ruling in November which turned down the restaurant group's appeal against the original decision to withhold the licence.
La Tasca founder and managing director Neil Gatt said that, in the meantime, Chester was the only Spanish tapas bar in the world that was unable to offer customers the chance to drink without eating.
La Tasca faced a similar battle to win a full licence for its Bolton branch, at a cost of £10,000 (Caterer, 5 June 1997, page 9). Gatt believes the Chester wrangle will cost the firm £40,000, on top of the £500,000 it spent acquiring and refurbishing the site.
While he claimed the 135-seat Chester outlet had nevertheless proved to be La Tasca's second most profitable, Gatt complained about the "ludicrous" situation which allowed a single law to be applied with such "incredible inconsistency" in different parts of the country.
The battle with the Bolton licensing committee was underpinned by real public order problems, explained Gatt, but he believes the Chester authorities are simply out of step with the modern world. He suspected they did not understand café-bar culture and saw no middle ground between a pub licence and a restaurant licence.
Gatt anticipates a similar licence battle over a new outlet in Sheffield, although he is more optimistic about prospects for branches in Leeds and Nottingham. All will open within six months.
The 113-bedroom County Hotel in Llandudno, North Wales, has been bought by coach holiday firm Wallace Arnold for an undisclosed sum.
The four-crown hotel, previously owned by Alan Flynn and his wife, has had a £500,000 upgrade and refurbishment since 1994.
Wallace Arnold, which six months ago was subject to a management buyout, owns five similar rated hotels on the South Coast.
Group managing director Ken Meddessaid that although there were no firm plansto buy further hotels, if the right opportunity came along the company would not hesitate."It is important for our operations to secure good-quality hotels. We have known andused the County Hotel for 15 years and ithas always been popular with our customers,"he added.