Jamie Oliver was filming an episode of his Channel 4 series Friday Night Feast with actress Liv Tyler when he received the call last year that his Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
Oliver has spoken little about the events that led to the restructuring of the business earlier this year, but in an in-depth interview with the Financial Times he revealed that the Hollywood star was showing him how she cooks her signature dish of prawn dumplings on Southend Pier when his mobile rang.
The voice on the other end of the phone told him that the chain, which had expanded from a single outlet in Oxford to 43 restaurants in less than a decade, was in serious trouble.
“We had simply run out of cash. 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,” said Mr Oliver.
The TV chef instructed his bankers to inject £7.5m from his own savings into the restaurants. A further £5.2m of his own money would follow over the next few months.
“I had two hours to put money in and save it or the whole thing would go to s*** that day or the next day. It was as bad as that and as dramatic as that,” he said.
The money that Oliver used from his own funds to save the chain was topped up by a total of £37m of loans from HSBC and subsidies from other companies within the Jamie Oliver Group.
The debts declared by the restaurant group last year amounted to more than £71m, with Mr Oliver and the board opting to apply for a CVA, which led to the closure of a number of sites and the loss of 600 jobs.
Asked by the FT what went so catastrophically wrong with the restaurants, he replied: “I honestly don’t know [what happened]/ 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 perfect storm — rents, rates, the high street declining, food costs, Brexit, increase in the minimum wage. There was a lot going on.”
When Mr Oliver started Jamie’s Italian in 2008, it had a distinctive feel and he and his chefs made a point of sourcing high-welfare ingredients and organic basics such as milk, butter and olive oil. It also led the way in introducing new on-trend ingredients that he had discovered on his journeys around Italy – at prices people could afford.
“We disrupted massively. We changed the whole mid-market landscape. Our story for the first six years was incredible. The culture that we built was phenomenal. We had it, and now it’s been taken away.”
Asked why he continues bothering trying to run a restaurant chain when his television, publishing and licensing projects are so lucrative, he said: “It’s what I grew up in. I really care about it. And it’s a cocktail you have to get right, and when you get it right, you can give the public such great value for money, and what I’ve tried to prove is that you can do decent ingredients, high-welfare ingredients, at mid-market prices. With Jamie’s Italian, we kind of got halfway there and then it all ran away. But now I am a bit more confident. We’re beginning to see a little bit of light out of a very dark year.”