Antonio Carluccio showed there's more money in chains than £150-a-head restaurants. Now his Michelin-starred colleagues are catching on. Susie Mesure reports

Forget fine dining. At least Alan Yau already has, and Gordon Ramsay is beginning to wish he could after last week's closure of his third Michelin-starred restaurant in six months. Britain's top chefs have decreed that the future of food lies not in £150-a-head dining rooms but in cheap and cheerful chains.

Yau, the mastermind behind the Wagamama Japanese food chain, is leading a clutch of restaurateurs who are swapping haute cuisine for heartier cooking to cash in on the trend for eating out on the cheap. Weeks after selling his top Chinese restaurants, Hakkasan and Yauatcha, Yau will give cheap Chinese food the Wagamama treatment with a new noodle chain called Cha Cha Moon. Meanwhile, Ramsay can console himself about the closure of La Noisette, in Knightsbridge, London, with the knowledge that Plane Food, his contribution to Heathrow's new Terminal Five, will accelerate the spread of his mid-market empire.

As the economic clouds darken, chefs are turning to chains to diversify their exposure to the top end of the market. They know that margins are fatter and overheads lower the fewer frills they dish up with their food.

Others jumping on the gastronomic budget bandwagon include the acclaimed Indian chef Vineet Bhatia; David Thompson, whose Nahm restaurant in the Halkin Hotel is Europe's only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant; and Jamie Oliver, who will go head to head with his former mentor Antonio Carluccio when his first branch of Jamie's Italian opens in Oxford in May. Bhatia is rolling out a group of eateries selling Indian street food called Urban Turban, which he said will "fill the gap between Michelin-starred restaurants and the so-called curry houses".

The rush into chain territory comes as more top restaurateurs move into gastropubs, from Ramsay to Nigel Haworth, the Michelin-starred chef of Northcote Manor in Blackburn, Lancashire, who will open his third pub later this year. Richard Harden, co-founder of Harden's Restaurant Guide, said moving downmarket made economic sense for most high-class chefs. "No one ever made money out of running a serious restaurant. It's almost impossible. The top ones are there these days as a marketing device for the [cheaper] ones that will make the money," he said.

Ben McCormack, editor of Square Meal, said: "It's hard to make money from a Michelin-starred restaurant because the fixtures and fittings need to be very high spec and you can't cram as many diners in as you'd like. But in a chain, you can use the same cutlery, crockery, furniture and branding in each branch. Plus, if you have the same food and drink, economies of scale kick in and it's easier to make a profit."

Antonio Carluccio gives a textbook example of what to do. His Italian café-style restaurant and deli chain makes sales of £54m from its 34 sites across London and the South-east and is days away from opening in Dublin. Carluccio exited the fine-dining game last year after failing to renew the lease on his Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden.

Paul Wootton, editor of Restaurant magazine, said many people preferred the "more informal, casual dining" style of chains. "They perceive them as offering value for money if they come with something like the Ramsay brand attached."

But chains come with a warning, too – for diners and restaurateurs. Mr Harden said: "Going to Gordon Ramsay on the high street is more akin to going to Disney than to going to Gordon Ramsay." Gary Rhodes, Marco Pierre White and Jean-Christophe Novelli are among the big names to have stumbled in the quest to go mass market.

Gordon Ramsay; Gastropubs

Three heaving gastropubs have given the celebrity chef a thirst for the life of the landlord. Two national chains of £30-a-head joints serving classic British grub will follow

Vineet Bhatia; Urban Turban

Now that he's cracked Indian fine dining, Bhatia is turning his flair to Indian street food. The first Urban Turban opened recently in Notting Hill, west London, and more will soon follow

David Thompson; Long Chim

Fans of the Australian chef's highly acclaimed if pricey take on ancient royal Thai cuisine at Nahm can look forward to his plans for a cheaper version at his Long Chim chain

Jamie Oliver; Jamie's Italian

The ubiquitous TV chef wants his Jamie's Italian chain to bring good food to the masses, but cynics ask why he's opening in Oxford and Bath rather than Swansea and Middlesbrough

Antonio Carluccio; Carluccio's

His Italian café-deli concept brings Tuscany on a budget to shoppers in need of some fuel, even if some diners find its 'faux-foodie' vibe a bit much to stomach

Alan Yau; Cha Cha Moon

He taught us to tell our ramen from our soba at Wagamama and exhibited the joys of posh dim sum at Yauatcha. With Cha Cha Moon, we'll get cheap Chinese fare with a dash of style

Comments