Caring and doing

NHS food parcels being assembled at Annabel's

With tongue half in cheek, Nick suggests how the UK hospitality industry might effect a change in government policy.

Richard Caring’s blistering attack on Boris Johnson in the Mail on Sunday last Sunday 14 June made for fascinating reading. And not just for the typos. Caring is the owner of a host of high-profile restaurants and clubs in London. He warns that Johnson’s ‘weakness’ on reopening restaurants, pubs and cafes will cost more than two million jobs in the UK hospitality industry. 

He is described correctly as a ‘restaurateur’ in the body of the article but incorrectly as a ‘restauranteur’ in the introductory standfirst, and the ‘interview’ (Caring is known to have close links with the Harmsworth family who own the Mail) gives ample space to Caring’s personal views.

These are likely to be extremely painful to any supporter of Boris Johnson and of the Conservative Party. Like every member of the hospitality industry, Caring has been thoroughly fed-up with the UK government’s obfuscation and in particular its reluctance to give any leeway on the two-metre social-distancing rule. Without this, Caring explains, he remains incapable of opening any of his hospitality outlets such as Annabel’s and Sexy Fish, which face each other across Berkeley Square, the Ivy clubs, Harry’s Bar, 34, the numerous branches of Soho House, and Bill’s, the humbler expression of what a neighbourhood restaurant should be. Caring announced the closure of Le Caprice the day after the article was published. He is seen below in one of his many clubs.

Richard Caring in one of his London clubs

Caring does not pull his punches. Unemployment is set to rocket throughout the UK, in his opinion, ‘like a volcano’ and could reach five million once the economy begins to reopen and the furlough scheme has been completely run down in September and October. He accuses Johnson – the man he paid £150,000 in July 2019 to have dinner with at Mark’s Club (which Caring owns) – of ‘indecision’, a charge that could be levelled against Johnson on too many counts at present.

I have known Caring since 2006 when I became one of the first journalists to interview him in his new post-rag-trade guise as restaurateur (see the interview here). I learnt two things about him then.

The first is that he has quite a developed sense of humour. Via a friend I managed to discover his home address (I knew that there was no point in going via his office for an interview) and wrote to him in late 2005. I received no reply. In the interim I read that two postmen had been successfully prosecuted by the Post Office for stealing bags of post and cheque books from the Golders Green area. I wrote again, this time beginning with this story and wondering whether this was the reason for his silence. This time, fortunately, he agreed and we had a very enjoyable lunch at The Ivy, which led to my article about him in the Financial Times.

The second thing I learnt is that Caring is a man who puts his money where his mouth is. I do not claim to know a great deal about the financing of his businesses, although I do know that in November 2019 Caring sold 25% of Caprice Holdings, the parent company of so many of his ventures, to Hamid bin Jassam bin Jaber Al Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar, for US$200 million (£162 million). Presumably this cash was initially earmarked for expansion but it now may have to be used for less adventurous purposes.

But the coronavirus setback has not stopped Caring from being magnanimous. He, or more likely his senior team, have marshalled chefs, waiters and many others from his group and together they have so far produced over 1,000,000 meals that have been distributed in The Caring Foundation’s name to those working in the National Health Service and, via The Felix Project, to the vulnerable and the isolated. Bravo! Our main picture shows such food parcels being prepared at Annabel’s.

But there is something wrong in Caring’s bombastic approach, which I am sure he spent a long time pondering over and is hoping will bear tangible results. I fear this sort of tirade is unlikely to have any effect and that he and other members of the hospitality industry may be deeply disappointed.

Caring’s first mistake is to believe that Johnson’s Cabinet cares about Britain’s hospitality business and fully realises its importance. I do not believe that there are many members of this Cabinet who either know or care about the difference between a good meal or glass of wine and a bad one. 

One factor that binds Johnson so closely to Trump is their joint dislike, perhaps born of ignorance, of spending time or money on eating well. Both of them, from their looks at least, could do with being put on a good diet. The last examples of leaders who really cared about the hospitality business were Prime Minister Tony Blair and Barack Obama in the USA.

The second mistake is to believe that Caring is typical of the industry. He himself has no personal restaurant experience and his first venture into the business was when, as owner of Wentworth Golf Club with its dining room run as a franchise by The Ivy, he thought it would be much improved if he were to own the restaurant himself. But, as he explained to me clearly over lunch in 2006, he was buying a name run by a tried, tested and established management. That is what has guided whatever he has bought ever since. He has never manned the door; he has never taken a menu to a table; he has never served a table with a bottle of wine. He has brought many years of experience of being a customer, but I wonder whether that is quite enough.

To this must be added that in terms not just of experience but of size, Caring is unrepresentative of the British hospitality business. Putting the chains and fast-food outlets to one side, Caring must employ far more people in London hospitality than anyone else. The vast majority of restaurateurs in this country, as in so many others, are small, however, perhaps family-owned ventures that are quite different from Caring’s palaces of pleasure. What they crave at the moment is only one thing from the government, apart from a relaxation of the two-metre social-distancing rule: the courage to name a definite date on which they can reopen. It is this certainty that they lack and are currently crying out for.

Perhaps Caring would be more effective if, together with the entire industry, he were to adopt the following, admittedly hypothetical, suggestion. The strategy I am about to outline is both costly and self-defeating but it contains within it a certain logic. In Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, the women of Athens are encouraged by the playwright in their pursuit of a peace treaty to stop the Peloponnesian War to withhold the one thing that they possess and their menfolk desired: they should withdraw any and all forms of sex. (It is a very funny play.)

This should be British hospitality’s approach to our current government. Caring should stand Johnson up at their dinner (if it hasn’t happened yet). Other restaurateurs, when faced with a Cabinet minister in the establishment, should instruct their staff to give them less-than-professional service. This, I fear, would be the only way they could be made to realise the importance of the British hospitality industry to this country, to the economy and to all those who work in it.