Our young news apprentice 'Billy Get A Grip', so-named because his father is someone big in the carpet trade, was delayed getting into the NTI newsroom this morning with our lattes and (what he calls) choc-o-pains because he had to step over so many 'Closed For Business' and 'Changing Owners' signs outside cafes and restaurants on the high street. "It's a war-zone out there", he said as he changed into his formal work hoodie, and he should know because he has finally reached level 48 of War Zombie Revenge Freak on his Xbox One X after weeks of profanities and exclamations of frustration.
Billy's not wrong; over the next few weeks a huge number of restaurants could change ownership as multiple owners of casual dining chains look to both offload property stock and pick up a bargain in a good location. The Azzurri Group, Bistrot Pierre and The Casual Dining Group have all put up the 'For Sale' signs outside many of their outlets and now Prezzo (that huge 26 scorer in Scrabble) are looking at a sale to manage its mounting cashflow and longer term financial problems. FRP Advisory are understood to be running a sale after fielding unsolicited approaches and Prezzo, backed by TPG Capital the private equity firm, have form as they shed 114 loss-making sites two years ago via a Company Voluntary Arrangement. We counted this morning that they have 180 restaurants left around the country at which you can pick up a very fine vegan spaghetti bolognese to which Billy always adds pepperoni and chorizo to add, what he calls, "a more authentic flavour".
There appears to be no shortage of interest from private equity, many deals taking place via pre-packs. Azzurri (which owns Ask Italian and Zizzi) is believed to have attracted bids from Towerbrook Capital Partners and Epiris, while the Casual Dining Group could also be broken up, having gone into Administration only yesterday (2 July). If you know a hungry private equity investor other brands up for grabs include Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron and Busaba, although you may have to fight off Luke Johnson, the serial investor. Hony Capital, the Chinese owner of Pizza Express, is gasping for air at the top of a debt mountain, but Deloitte and Houlihan Lokey don't appear to be seeking buyers.This may be because potential purchasers are looking to exclude large numbers of restaurants from deals, putting them at risk of permanent closure.
We are finally allowed to sit in a restaurant again tomorrow, but we in the NTI newsroom suggest you call just before you set off to ensure your preferred venue is still open.