Why London’s Restaurants Are Failing

UK restaurant closures increased by 20 percent last year. We spoke to some of the owners forced to close their businesses.

The first thing Dominik Prosser tells me about his failed restaurant is that he and the other four partners are still on good terms. The second is that this is pretty unusual.

“We’re still all friends, which is nice and quite rare,” he says.

Bad Sports was a bar and taqueria on Hackney Road, a busy stretch of East London that’s home to a small but growing number of nicely upholstered pubs and restaurants serving interesting small plates. Conceived by Prosser and fellow partner David Herod over drinks one night, the aim was to open an easygoing bar that did Mexican food.

“We thought there was a spot for the kind of bar that we liked to go to, which was somewhere between a club and a bar that didn’t really exist, that had a late license and there wasn’t going to be any queues on the door or guest list,” explains William McBean, who came on board as another partner in the business after working in the Miami hotel industry.

“There weren’t any tacos in London at the time, so there was a nice little gap in the market,” adds Prosser.

When the team found the Hackney Road site, they were so pleased with the location that they agreed to a lease, despite the extensive repair work needed to the building’s floor and kitchen. They began a renovation project that ended up lasting for several months.

“The problem with building works is that they always cost money, and then it costs three times as much [as you think it will],” says Prosser, who had experience running clubs and bars in London before opening Bad Sports. “That really screws you over.”

“We were also just so excited about the potential of the spot that we were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll sort it out,’” remembers McBean. “We kind of got the site and we were finding lumps of money as we were going.”

In November 2016, after six months of building work, Bad Sports opened.

Bad Sports, a bar and taqueria in East London that opened in November 2016 and closed at the beginning of this year. Photo courtesy Bad Sports.

And everyone loved it. Time Out raved about the margaritas and semi-ironic American sports bar theme. The tacos were lauded as some of the best in London—at a time when London was in the grip of a Mexican food craze. All the right people Instagrammed its signature gingham-print serving trays, and chefs like Josh Katz and Andrew Clarke contributed guest tacos to the menu. The Bad Sports Buckfast negroni quickly became legendary.

But the business model had problems. Prosser, McBean, and the other partners had aimed to open a bar with a casual taco offering, but now found themselves running a Mexican restaurant with a bar that couldn’t quite offset the food costs. They made their tortillas from scratch and used quality ingredients but didn’t want to switch to cheaper alternatives and risk losing customers. At the same time, they felt uncomfortable charging more than nine quid for two tacos in an area of London that is notoriously divided by wealth. In short, Bad Sports wasn’t sustainable, and they didn’t have enough money left in the bank after the building work and initial opening costs to experiment until they got it right.

The stress of managing a struggling restaurant soon began to take its toll.

“I was working the entire time on loads of other stuff and it just required an incredible amount of physical and mental effort to get it open,” says Prosser. “We literally dragged it into existence.”

“It becomes like your living room, doesn’t it?” Will explains. “Because I would get texts when I wasn’t there from people, like, ‘I’m in your bar, why aren’t you here?’ Everyone expected to see us there all the time, which gets tiring.”

After a quiet January, not helped by the freezing temperatures that swept London and kept customers indoors, the partners gathered for their weekly meeting. The decision was made to close Bad Sports.

“It’s kind of like going through a break-up, but with five people with differing ideas of what went wrong in the relationship,” says McBean. “We successively had to come round to the idea that we weren’t going to make it, which is quite a difficult thing to do.”

“I was in Guatemala in a valley with my girlfriend with no phone access, just trying to get a break because it was such a heavy, hectic, painful, hardcore year,” remembers Prosser. “I got Wi-Fi signal somewhere and my phone went brrrp and unfortunately, I picked up and they just told me that it was done. It was a very weird feeling, being halfway across the world and not being able to do anything physically to help. Feeling bad for them, but feeling relief, in a way.”

Will notes, only half jokingly: “The fact it’s closed does mean that we’re both alive right now.”

Bad Sports customers enjoy beer and tacos during its heyday. Photo courtesy Bad Sports.

Bad Sports’ story is not unique. Running a successful eatery has always been hard—we’ve all heard the possibly exaggerated stat about 90 percent failing in their first year—but the British restaurant industry is particularly tough right now. Due to rising food costs and staff shortages, UK restaurant closures increased by 20 percent last year. In London, property consultants Cedar Dean Group found that 90 percent of restaurant owners feared that running costs would soon end their businesses. Eater London updates its weirdly gleeful “All of 2018’s London Restaurant Closures” article almost every week.

The strange thing is, most of the London restaurants I hear about failing aren’t ones I expected to go broke—I can’t ever remember seeing Bad Sports empty. Which is slightly worrying; if the places with good food and bustling dining rooms and Buckfast negronis can’t survive, what does this say about the future of the London food scene?

I spoke to a number of London restaurateurs forced to close businesses in the last two years. They all talk about their shuttered restaurants with the same mixture of sadness and hard-won acceptance. They detail everything they would do differently if they had another chance, but swear they don’t regret a thing. A restaurant is the ultimate dream-big, quit-your-job-to-pursue-it, throw-everything-at-it passion project, so when it fails, it’s hard not to want all the gory details. Case in point: that viral Toronto Life story about the “foodie with a boring day job who figured he could run a restaurant” and ends up bankrupting himself and almost destroying his marriage.

But tales of failed restaurants are more than just car crash entertainment. They’re people’s livelihoods and careers; they’re also huge blows to the cultural and economic life of a city when we lose them.

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