Signature suffers fall-off at mid-market restaurants

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Signature restaurants, the new name for Luke Johnson's Belgo group, warned London's lack of tourists would hit profits at its beer and mussels chain, sending its shares 11 per cent lower to 31p.

The news fuelled speculation yesterday the group, which has had a difficult year, could be taken over and possibly de-listed. Andy Bassadone, the chief executive, said trading had been toughest at its Belgian-inspired Belgo restaurants, which rely on overseas visitors. "A massive chunk of people are missing. If one or two restaurants are down it means a big profit swing for us because the top 10 per cent of sales creates masses of profits," he said.

Mr Bassadone said the company's new pizza chain, Strada, was proving resilient, vindicating the group's move in September to switch its focus from Belgo to Strada. He intends to take on Pizza Express's market hegemony ­ his pizzas are 30 per cent bigger ­ to capitalise on customers trading down from more expensive venues. Belgo said its upmarket restaurants, which include The Ivy and Le Caprice, had been largely unaffected. The West End-based venues are popular with celebrities such as Posh Spice and Madonna and have waiting lists stretching months in advance for a table.

Last month it emerged that Hugh Osmond, the chairman of Punch Taverns and Mr Johnson's former business partner at Pizza Express, had bought more than 2 per cent of Belgo.

Although the men are notorious rivals, following a public row over the sale of Whitbread's 3,000-strong retail pub estate in March, analysts said they were capable of teaming up again for the sake of a good deal. The pair kicked off their business relationship running nightclubs while at Oxford University 15 years ago. They bought Pizza Express in 1993 and made millions from its flotation.

One analyst said: "The bottom line is that both men want to make money out of it [Signature]. Profits will get smashed to pieces this year but if your time horizon is more than 18 months then the business is probably very cheap."

Signature is still waiting to hear from the Virgin Islands-registered Kintaro International, which recently increased its stake from 2 per cent to 14 per cent. Signature wants to know who is behind the company.