Will the Wolseley restaurant be turned into a bland global chain?

RUTH SUNDERLAND: Why I fear the glorious Wolseley restaurant will be turned into another bland global chain under new Thai owners

Everything about The Wolseley restaurant, from the ornate black and gold wrought-iron displays above the windows to its imposing facade on London’s Piccadilly, exudes grandeur and spectacle.

From the moment a diner steps through the heavy brass portal, often greeted by door-person Helen Scott, immaculate in her black coat and hat, they know they are about to experience something very special.

Customers are ushered across the black and white tiled floor to their table, accompanied by the sound of tinkling silver cutlery.

On any given day, the hubbub will include City panjandrums, celebrities and a sprinkling of awestruck tourists.

Idiosyncratic, theatrical, traditional with a twist of camp, the Wolseley is the quintessence of all that is glorious about London’s best restaurants.

Which is why so many habitues are horrified at the thought of it being snatched away from Jeremy King, the man behind one of the world’s most enticing eateries.

Everything about The Wolseley restaurant, from the ornate black and gold wrought-iron displays above the windows to its imposing facade on London’s Piccadilly, exudes grandeur and spectacle

King, 67, has not so much created a restaurant as a honeypot. But it has been thrown into administration by none other than its own major shareholder, a multi-billion pound Thai conglomerate that owns a string of fast food chains. 

Now he fears his beloved Wolseley will be swallowed up and turned into a global franchise operation.

It’s certainly hard to imagine how anyone could produce copycat franchises of the pillars and arches of 160 Piccadilly, built in the Roaring Twenties as a luxury car showroom. 

For years after the car business went bust, the building served as a rather rarified branch of Barclays Bank.

The restaurant opened in 2003, though it is a testament to its cachet that it seems to have been there forever.

Customers are ushered across the black and white tiled floor to their table, accompanied by the sound of tinkling silver cutlery. On any given day, the hubbub will include City panjandrums, celebrities and a sprinkling of awestruck tourists. (Above, actress Vanessa Kirby leaves the restaurant) 

Franchising certainly sounds like a heresy for a place where the tables throng with celebrities including Stephen Fry, Kate Moss, Nigella Lawson and actress Vanessa Kirby, along with grandees such as former Bank of England governor Mark Carney. The late artist Lucien Freud dined there most evenings.

At breakfast time, it’s a very posh canteen for captains of industry. Certainly, the row currently engulfing it is just as vicious as anything in a FTSE 100 boardroom.

King’s nemesis is an American-born Thai billionaire who built a large chunk of his fortune by bringing US-style fast food to Thailand. 

Hotelier Bill Heinecke’s Minor International group took a majority stake in the Wolseley’s parent company, Corbin & King, in 2017.

The plush Piccadilly premises are a far cry from some of Minor International’s other operations. These include Burger King outlets in Thailand. The company also runs Sizzlers, a steak and all-you-can-eat salad franchise, in that country.

Minor, whose venues also include Zuma and Benihana in London, last month pulled the plug on Corbin & King. 

It appointed administrators from FRP, claiming the business was ‘insolvent’ and that it had been in default on loans since May 2020.

King hit back, claiming there was ‘absolutely no need’ for the administration, which he described as a ‘power play’ to grapple control from him and his business partner Chris Corbin.

Idiosyncratic, theatrical, traditional with a twist of camp, the Wolseley is the quintessence of all that is glorious about London’s best restaurants. Which is why so many habitues are horrified at the thought of it being snatched away from Jeremy King, the man behind one of the world’s most enticing eateries. it has been thrown into administration by none other than its own major shareholder, a multi-billion pound Thai conglomerate that owns a string of fast food chains

At the heart of the dispute, according to King, is a scheme concocted by Minor International to cash in by franchising The Wolseley in Saudi Arabia and other locations overseas. 

That money-making wheeze, King says, played a major part in the breakdown of his relationship with his former backers.

He says he would like to expand and indeed there is already a branch of The Wolseley at the Bicester Village designer shopping outlet. But he wants to do it carefully, in a way that does not compromise The Wolseley brand.

Minor International, he argues, wants to franchise in a ‘scattergun way’. ‘The Minor approach seems to be that anybody who offers to buy a franchise… should be accepted and we should take the money and run,’ he says.

If that is indeed the case, it would be terrible to see The Wolseley, with all its quirky charm, reduced to just another bland global chain.

King claimed there was ‘absolutely no need’ for the administration, which he described as a ‘power play’ to grapple control from him and his business partner Chris Corbin. (Above, King, left, and Corbin in 2010)

It might well diminish the allure for the captains of industry who pack the place every day to meet at 8am – and the financial journalists who want to quiz them.

Perched at my favourite table on the balcony, it is the perfect vantage point to check out which tycoons are tucking into the speciality, fried haggis and duck eggs with whisky sauce (£17.25).

Everyone looks relaxed, but the antennae are twitching over what multi-billion pound deals might be cooked up over the crispy bacon.

Whatever the rights and wrongs in the meltdown between King and his Thai investor, it is clear there is a profound clash of cultures under way. King, with Chris Corbin, has spent the last 40 years creating some of London’s most distinctive restaurants. 

Their stable reads like a five star roll-call: they have previously owned Le Caprice in St James’s and The Ivy in Covent Garden, and they currently operate The Delaunay on Aldwych and Soutine in St John’s Wood.

The 72-year-old Heinecke has also been in the hospitality business for many years. But Minor International, valued at £3.5 billion on the Thai stock market, is a very different beast operating 520 hotels and resorts and more than 2,300 restaurants.

It is not yet clear what the next course to be served up for King will be. He has held talks with one potential white knight, US investor, Knighthead Capital Management. 

Rival restaurateur Richard Caring was reportedly eyeing Corbin & King, but this weekend appeared to back away. In the meantime, to the relief of staff and customers alike, The Wolseley continues to trade.

What cannot be disputed is Jeremy King has brought zest and pleasure to London life. 

When the Wolseley shut its doors in lockdown, the capital instantly seemed a greyer place. And it was a joyous moment when it reopened and the Art Deco chandeliers sparkled again.

For all its rich patrons, The Wolseley prides itself on being open to all. King insists staff treat a customer ordering a single cup of coffee with as much respect as a table full of champagne-quaffers.

What a pity it would be if this inimitable eaterie were to be turned into a faceless franchise.

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