The culinary reign of Jamie Oliver spans decades. From his 1999 television debut as The Naked Chef and noughties-spanning advertising deal with Sainsbury's to more recent attempts at saving children from the evils of tooth decay and, erm, selfies, the celebrity chef has been in the public eye for almost 20 years. With 23 cookbooks, over six million followers on Instagram, and an estimated worth of £240 million, Oliver is more brand than human.
But perhaps even bigger than Oliver’s financial success is what he represents. As a grammar school kid from Essex who became a millionaire hawking recipes for 30-minute paella, he is the archetypal average bloke done good; a bish-bash-boshing realisation of British middle class aspiration.
And boy, did the Essex lad do well. Due to an uncanny knack for adjusting his messaging in line with the food zeitgeist (see: his 2016 war on sugar), Oliver has managed to remain popular. Walk into any kitchen in the UK, and you will likely see his face peering out from a well-worn cookbook, probably brandishing a pestle and mortar or one of those carrots you can buy that still have the stalks on. Both conceptually and commercially, Jamie Oliver is everywhere.
But one area of the Oliver empire is starting to show signs of weakness. As reported earlier this week by The Sun on Sunday, Oliver’s restaurant chain, Jamie’s Italian, will be closing locations across the UK after accruing debts of £71.5 million. According to the newspaper, the company owes over £30.2 million in overdrafts and loans, as well as £400,000 to suppliers. With 37 Jamie’s Italian locations in Britain and 28 globally, it alleges that the financial difficulties will result in 450 job losses across the company.
Jamie’s Italian creditors have agreed to a restructuring plan that would initiate the closure of at least 12 restaurants in the UK, including sites in Central and South London. A spokesperson for the company told MUNCHIES: “We are pleased to have received the overwhelming support from our creditors for our proposal to reshape Jamie’s Italian restaurants.”
They continued: “We are working hard to ensure that our estate is fit for the current trading environment and we feel confident that this newly shaped business will provide strong opportunities for growth and profitability.”
When asked about the debt, the spokesperson called the £71.5 million figure quoted in The Sun “misleading.” They stated that Jamie's Italian is currently £47 million in debt, but future tax, wage, and rent payments will result in an additional £27 million, which explains The Sun’s number. The spokesperson also provided a breakdown via email with details of where Jamie’s Italian owes money: £38 million is due to HSBC, while £9 million is “owed to Jamie companies.”
The facts, however, remain the same: Jamie’s Italian will be hit with job losses and may be forced to close restaurants. But where did it all go wrong for the dependable high street chain and its reasonably priced carbonara?
"One of the issues is the sheer amount of celebrity chefs out there with their own competing brands, and perhaps a bit of brand fatigue with Jamie's Italian.”
One answer might be Britain's current political shit-show, Brexit. Oliver blamed the financial uncertainty following the Referendum vote for the closure of Jamie's Italian locations in Cheltenham, Exeter, and Aberdeen last year, explaining in a statement: “As every restaurant owner knows, this is a tough market and, post-Brexit, the pressures and unknowns have made it even harder.”
Arguably, with or without Brexit, the UK restaurant industry has become a punishing environment. According to market research from PWC, although the regularity at which we eat out has increased, the rise in the cost of living and developments like delivery apps have made running a profitable restaurant increasingly difficult.
With Oliver’s spokesperson unable to provide further information about the cause of Jamie’s Italian’s difficulties, I spoke to Professor Michael Goodman, an academic from the University of Reading who specialises in food geography.
He said: “I think perhaps one of the issues [for Jamie’s Italian] is the sheer amount of celebrity chefs out there with their own competing brands, the number of famous chefs owning and running restaurants, and perhaps a bit of brand fatigue with Jamie's Italian.”
Goodman didn’t want to speculate about whether this could spell the end of Oliver’s reign. He added: “Given how much [Oliver] is worth, his wife's associated clothing brands, and his ability to reinvent himself, it seems much too early to set the vultures circling on his brand or his empire.”
Oliver seems like a Decent Bloke™ and, as someone who has strived tirelessly to give us grammatically dubious yet endearing Instagram content and very good recipes for vegetarian chili, his failure would be a loss to the British food scene. There may not be a clearcut reason for his restaurant chain’s difficulties, but with so many eateries forced to close every month across the country, perhaps they are an indictment of the current economic climate, rather than Oliver’s diminishing relevance.
One thing’s for sure, a world without Jamie Oliver—his shows, weird catchphrases, and the personal vendetta against Fanta—would be a significantly less pukka place.