Chain reaction

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The collapse of Pierre Victoire, whose over-rapid expansion sent it belly-up into the hands of the receiver last week, holds some lessons for the proliferating gang of mid-market chains.

Ten years ago, proprietor Pierre Levicky found a gap in the market - decent French food in unpretentious surroundings at unpretentious prices. The first decade was fruitful for punter and proprietor, but last year's expansion, opening new restaurants and franchises at a rate of one a fortnight, proved too much: the group is currently looking for a buyer for the 108 restaurants and 1,200 staff.

There are many reasons for this Speed of expansion, and franchising arrangements, made standards across the chain unpredictable: some Pierre Victoires continued to be excellent, some were distinctly dodgy. UK restaurants are currently experiencing a skills crisis, and if you can't get the staff, you can't guarantee the quality. Furthermore, when Levicky set up, food in Britain, particularly mid-market food, was still pretty much in the dark ages. The Conranification and Peytonisation of British food has revolutionised our expectations further down the food chain. It has also resulted in pubs offering abominations like "Thai vegetable schnitzel" on their blackboards, but that's another story.

But there's a more British factor at work: our growing dislike of big business. After decades of being ripped off by faceless salad bars, fry- by-numbers steaks and watery brewery-tied beers, we have developed a belief that the bigger the chain, the worse the experience. In the current climate, any chain which gets too big risks falling foul of British counter-suggestibility.

Meanwhile, younger chains flourish, many of them waging quiet war on behalf of the mega-breweries. All Bar One is an excellent case. Bass Taverns have done brilliantly, adopting a three-pronged approach that has been an instant hit - open, clean design, reasonably adventurous and dependable food and a habit of opening in places (Canary Wharf, Leicester Square, Oxford Circus) where very little civilised choice is available. There are now 32 branches countrywide, with more to follow.

But a word of warning: a successful formula always sprouts imitators. That refectory table, rocket salad ethos is springing up all over. And when it becomes familiar even in Bromwich, is there not a danger that we're looking at the Harvesters of the future?

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