City Diary — 29 July

By Mark Stretton, M&C Report

- Last updated on GMT

Pizza for Luminar
Pizza for Luminar
All the latest rumour and gossip from the City.

Credit crunched and spat out

A book plops on City Diary's desk and immediately grabs the attention — How They Blew It: the CEOs and entrepreneurs behind some of the world's most catastrophic business failures. A quick flick through the index reveals chapters devoted to Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom, Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers and a familiar face to the pub trade, Robert Tchenguiz.

The book tells how he of R20 and Laurel fame was "credit crunched". At the height of his powers he and his brother had an empire worth £4.5bn, and he was personally worth about £1bn and a director of 300 companies. Tchenguiz apparently saw himself as a "master of the universe character" who didn't understand enough about the operations of what he was buying.

The tome is a little light on detail but does include some fascinating colour, such as a dispute with his cousin, Vivian Imerman, over the ownership of a bulletproof Rolls-Royce. Our Robbie is referred to as "a chancer, a number-crunching opportunist" and it is suggested he exhibited the same attitude to risk as Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who brought down Barings, the blue-blooded British Bank.

The book says he lost £1.5bn when main backer Kaupthing imploded, forcing him to sell various assets and stock positions. The good news is he still has a £30m house and a very nice boat.

Whitbread's feet on the ground

Whitbread is carrying out some R&D for an urban bar-restaurant offer for venues on the ground floor of some of its city-centre Premier Inns. Realising something different to its pub-restaurant brands is required in these locations, the group wants to develop an offer that suits both urban folk and lodge customers. It has opened a grill concept — the Colmore Bar & Grill — at a Premier Inn in Birmingham, serving food from 6am to 10pm. A similar effort has been launched in Belfast and more are planned.

No beef with steak results

The folk at Mitchells & Butlers are particularly pleased with steak and ale at the moment (could be a brand, couldn't it?). M&B's 17-strong Miller & Carter steakhouse brand is trading its socks off and the company expects to open up to 10 more by the end of 2011. And cask ale remains the star of the bar across the company, with M&B seeing high single-digit growth. "There's now a completely different level of interest, range and quality of beers versus 10 years ago, and we're doing our bit by making sure the really great brands get distribution," says boss Adam Fowle.

That VAT conundrum

Like most firms, M&B is going to pass on the January VAT increases to customers, but when and how? Its food prices are set to change in October when new menus come to market across M&B's range of pub brands. Drink will be more tactical, with the smart money on price rises going through at the start of December amid the Christmas frivolities. "It won't be a crude 2.5% across the board, but in the round we'll pass it through," says Fowle.

Don't miss the unmissable

Psssst. City Diary hears there's this brilliant pubs conference happening on 16 September. It's a must-attend gig apparently. It's gonna be all innovation, white-coated boffins and clever stuff. Find out more at

Tesco hits London tavern

Another Tesco convenience store moves into a pub this week. The Red Lion in Twickenham closed in January when the lessees upped sticks to the Twickenham Tup, a former Massive site on the other side of town. Tesco said its Red Lion development is about job creation and regeneration. The area is not escaping the pub cull in general — residential developments at two pubs nearby have been given the green light: the Railway, near Hampton Court, and the Three Pigeons in Richmond.

The healthy side of Taybarns

Taybarns — Whitbread's all-you-can-eat-fast-casual-restaurant-in-a-pub pub concept — is full of fatties. Isn't it? You know, people who need to eat less and move more? Well, no, says the company. The wok is the most popular food station and, while many customers enjoy three courses, few return for second or third mains.

And, despite each Taybarns now shifting four times as much food as it did in its previous incarnation (they were mostly Brewers Fayres), each site still orders the same amount of chips as before conversion. That said, dessert "penetration" in pub-restaurants is usually about one in three customers — at Taybarns it seems people have paid their money and they take their chance: it's more or less one in one.

Squaring up for a pizza the action

Steve Thomas, ebullient founder of Britain's biggest nightclub group, Luminar, is no stranger to the odd confrontation. Which is just as well as it seems Old Big Foot is set to go toe-to-toe over his latest venture — the resurrection of the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory (CPPF) restaurant concept.

Turns out that, while Big Steve owns the rights to CPPF, Jon Yantin, a former Novus executive, owns Pizza Pie Factory. Yantin has also snapped up all conceivable website configurations for "Chicago" and "pizza" and "pie". It seems both Thomas and Yantin have a real thing for Chicago: Steve pioneered the rollout of Chicago Rock Café in the 1990s while, a few years ago, Jon brought back Chicago Rib Shack to London's Knightsbridge.

Like the Rib Shack, CPPF is an old concept developed by Bob Peyton, the My Kinda Town entrepreneur, but Thomas has owned the rights for some time. Having stepped down from Luminar earlier this year, it's believed he's been looking at raising funds for the make-your-own affair through Hotbed, a Milton Keynes-based private investor network.

Interestingly, the name Chicago Pizza Kitchen Ltd has just been registered — based out of Milton Keynes. So that's three concepts in the same space, awaiting launch. Yantin tells diary: "If Steve wants to work with me or get in touch I'd welcome him." Over to you, Steve.

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