Thousands of restaurant businesses in Britain could go bust because the fall in sterling since the Brexit vote has sharply raised the cost of imported food and wine, an accountancy firm has warned, the Guardian reports.
Moore Stephens says that 5,570 restaurant businesses have at least a 30 per cent chance of insolvency in the next three years, due to inflationary pressures and stagnating disposable incomes.
The UK imports 48 per cent of its food, according to government figures, and many restaurants rely heavily on imported food and wine. The cost of labour has also gone up, after the government raised the national minimum wage from £6.70 to £7.20 in April, with a further rise to £7.50 to take place next April.
The restaurant sector is fiercely competitive, with 200 new restaurants opening in London last year alone. This gives consumers a lot of choice and forces restaurants to cut prices or come up with special offers.
Many diners are also suffering from flatlining disposable incomes – the amount households have left to spend after tax and bills have been paid. The average gross disposable household income increased just 0.5 per cent over the last year, from £17,872 to £17,965, Moore Stephens said, quoting official data.
Even some of the biggest restaurant companies are struggling. For example, The Restaurant Group is closing 33 outlets across the UK, including 14 Frankie & Benny’s and 11 Chiquito branches. It also plans to close its flagship Garfunkels restaurant on the Strand in London.
The company, which also owns Coast to Coast, has blamed its poor performance on unpopular new menus, higher prices and poor customer service, and vowed to listen more to its customers.
The business’s new chair Debbie Hewitt, who took over in March as part of a boardroom shake-out, has said the drop in the value of the pound following the referendum would push up the price of imported food next year but added that the company cannot afford to pass this on to customers.
There have been a growing number of warnings over dearer food prices, from Britain’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, and others, and the impact on poor families. The Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and City economists all believe that inflation will rise to at least 3 per cent by the end of next year, from 0.9 per cent in October.
Mike Finch, restructuring partner at Moore Stephens, said: “It’s been a tough year for many restaurants in the face of rising costs and fierce competition. It is unrealistic to expect UK restaurant groups to avoid the impact of the fall in the pound by substituting for UK produce – they are going to face a big hit. Restaurants have to make tough decisions as to how much they try to pass on to consumers; too much and they risk losing business, too little and they lose margin.”
He said that sterling’s wild swings in the currency markets had hit small and medium-sized restaurant businesses particularly hard as they operate on tighter budgets and are less likely to negotiate long-term supply contracts. All this comes at a time when many consumers are likely to be very price conscious.
“The high number of potential insolvencies over the next year shows just how fragile finances can be in this sector and demonstrates the importance of careful financial management,” Finch added.
“There may be further challenges to come as the UK’s trading agreements with Europe remain uncertain. Many in the restaurant industry would consider the idea of additional import tariffs on foodstuffs with horror.”
A separate report showed the strain many UK consumers are under. The number of those who have taken on more debt over the last five years has risen to 37 per cent from 27 per cent a year ago. The findings come from a survey of 2,008 consumers with debt, including 804 defaulters who have fallen behind with payments, by FTSE 250-listed Arrow Global, which buys and manages debt portfolios.
The most common form of personal debt is credit cards that are not paid off in full every month. The fact that credit cards have overtaken mortgages as the most frequent form of debt, alongside an increase in overdraft borrowing, suggests that the nation’s habits have changed to favour short-term borrowing. More people than ever are renting as they cannot afford to buy a home.
Almost half of borrowers have a credit card which is not cleared in full each month, compared with 39 per cent a year ago. Almost a third have an overdraft, up from 23 per cent, while the number of those with a mortgage has fallen to 42 per cent from 46 per cent.
One in 10 debt defaulters who fall behind on repayments never catch up.
The latest Bank of England figures showed credit-card borrowing reached an all-time high of £66.2bn in October.
Arrow Global has arranged an industry roundtable this Friday to discuss what the industry can do to support debt defaulters. Tom Drury, the firm’s chief executive, said: “Consumer credit is vital for the smooth-functioning of the economy, but it is clear that British consumers are taking on a heavy debt burden at the moment that is not going to be sustainable for some.
“The low interest rate environment means that debt is cheap, but that doesn’t help consumers who have struggled with their monthly budgeting or suffered from a shock event like losing their job. When borrowers do fall behind on repayments, it is vital that they get all the support they need to rehabilitate their debt.”