All posts by T Farrell

A history of Donnay Sports

Donnay is best known today as a low-cost clothing brand available from Sports Direct stores.

Donnay_Logo_1

Donnay was established in Belgium in 1913. The business became involved in sporting goods when it began to manufacture wooden tennis rackets from 1934.

Donnay was the largest producer of tennis rackets in the world throughout the 1970s.

Donnay was buoyed by its sponsorship of Bjorn Borg, the superstar tennis player of the era, between 1979 and 1983. As the company did not have a marketing manager until 1987, the company image during that era was very closely tied to Borg.

Donnay first ran into trouble in 1973 when Wilson Sporting Goods dropped the company as its contract tennis racket manufacturer in favour of cheaper production in Taiwan. The Wilson contract had accounted for 1.3 million rackets out of an annual production figure of two million.

Donnay was also slow to make the switch from the increasingly obsolete wooden rackets to the lightweight graphite models. The company manufactured just 3,000 graphite rackets in 1980, against 1.8 million wooden rackets.

When Bjorn Borg retired from tennis in 1983, it was the final nail in the coffin for Donnay. The company had tied its fortunes too closely to a single figure, and had maintained production in Belgium whilst competitors moved production to the Far East. Its production line was ten times longer than rival manufacturers.

The company lost money every year after Borg’s retirement, until it declared bankruptcy, with $35 million of debt, in 1988. It was purchased by Bernard Tapie, a French singer turned businessman, who later acquired Adidas.

Donny finally ended wooden racket production towards the end of the 1980s.

Tapie had a major success when he signed an 18 year old Andre Agassi between 1989 and 1992. Despite this, the company struggled to maintain profitability. The local government in Belgium acquired it to save it from bankruptcy in 1993. The factory in Belgium was closed down, and a company that had employed 600 people now employed 25 at a distribution centre. Mike Ashley, the owner of Sports Direct, acquired the global rights to the brand for $3.9 million in 1996.

Ashley originally supported the brand as a leading tennis company. However in 2004, he acquired Dunlop Slazenger. Dunlop-Slazenger became the prestige tennis brand, and Donnay became the marque for cheap rackets and clothing.

A history of TGI Friday’s in the UK

TGI Friday’s was one of the first American casual dining chains to expand overseas.

Whitbread had established the Beefeater restaurant chain in Britain 1974. Eager to replicate its success, Whitbread experimented with a number of new restaurant concepts in the 1980s. A 50 percent stake in the British franchise for Pizza Hut was to prove highly successful from 1982. The franchise for Quick, a Belgian fast food chain, was acquired, but the concept soon failed.

Whitbread opened the first TGI Friday’s in Britain in Birmingham in 1986. A former Wendy’s in Covent Garden, London was converted in 1987. The site enjoyed a £1 million makeover, and was an exact replica of the American model. By the end of the 1980s further outlets had been established at Birmingham, Fareham, Reading and Cardiff.292px-TGI_Fridays_logo.svg

TGI Friday’s had been established as a singles bar on the east side of Manhattan by Alan Stillman, a perfume salesman, in 1965. At a time when New York pubs and bars were aimed at men, Stillman made his bar brighter, cleaner and more domestic in order to make it more attractive to women. Daniel R. Scoggin was a customer who recognised the franchising potential of the restaurant, and instigated the roll-out of the chain across the US.

TGI Friday’s was the first chain of themed casual dining restaurants. The flamboyant bartenders were the direct inspiration for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail (1988), which was filmed in the original Friday’s. The restaurant claims to have invented loaded potato skins in 1974, and helped to popularise nachos. After a few years, the chain began to attract families, particularly during the daytime.

The chain was an instant success in Britain. Whitbread had insight into the mindset of the British public, and knowledge of the property market. The Covent Garden site was the busiest TGI Friday’s in the world by 1992, and reputedly the busiest restaurant in Europe. In one week, its 260 seats yielded a turnover of £180,000.

There were 12 sites in Britain by 1993, and the average annual turnover was £2.5 million. According to Sally Dibb and Lyndon Simkin, Friday’s altered the UK dining scene “beyond recognition” due to its vitality, enthusiasm and tight quality control standards. The company hired staff with extrovert personalities, and the restaurants provided a theatrical experience. From the beginning, TGI Friday’s was an early example of a company that tried to be “nice”, to treat its employees fairly and to be a good corporate citizen.

The chain grew to 41 outlets by 2004. At this time, Whitbread indicated that it would divest the chain if profits failed to improve. Sales remained disappointing throughout 2005. Whitbread sold the chain to the American parent company, Carlson, for £70.4 million in 2007. Whitbread felt that it had grown the chain as much as it could.

Squaring off: Wendy’s Hamburgers in the UK

Wendy’s is the third largest hamburger chain in the world. It has tried to break the UK market twice, but now plans to return for a third attempt.

Wendy’s and Grand Metropolitan
The first Wendy’s outlet in Britain opened in London in 1980. For trademark reasons it was called Wendy, not Wendy’s. The operation was a joint venture between Wendy’s International and Grand Metropolitan, a large British hotels and brewing concern. Grand Met was an experienced local operator, having already enjoyed great success with the Berni Inn casual dining chain in Britain. A flagship Wendy outlet was opened on Oxford Street. The over-25s demographic was the target audience.

Grand Met exited the joint venture just one year after it entered it, and Wendy’s International assumed full control of the British operations.

Wendy expanded to 16 restaurants. However the high-cost of rents at its central London sites left the company struggling to make a profit. The sites, all of which were located in London and the South East, were sold to Whitbread for £6.8 million in 1986. The majority of the Wendy sites were converted to Quick, the Belgian fast food brand.

Wendy’s returns to the British market
Wendy’s returned for a second attempt at the UK market in 1992, with outlets at Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street. Outlets were now branded as “Wendy’s”, and featured salad bars. The company announced plans to expand to 70 sites across Britain. The initial expansion concentrated on London and West Yorkshire.

There were twelve restaurants by 1996, including eight company-owned and four franchise sites. Wendy’s retreated from the British market for the second time in 2000. Some of its most prominent sites were taken over by McDonald’s, including Oxford Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, York Way near King’s Cross and Briggate in Leeds. Wendy’s blamed high property and operating costs for its failure in the British market.

Wendy’s announces plans to return to Britain
Wendy’s plans to return to Britain from 2021, with an initial outlet in Reading, Berkshire.

A lot on their plate: Fatty Arbuckle’s

Fatty Arbuckle’s was one of the largest casual dining chains in Britain during the 1990s.

Pete Shotton (1941 – 2017) and Bill Turner (died 1993), two friends from Liverpool, opened the first Fatty Arbuckle’s outlet in Plymouth in 1983. Shotton had been a member of the Quarrymen alongside John Lennon, later of Beatles fame.

Fatty Arbuckle’s was modelled on American diners, and had a retro Hollywood theme. There was a focus on large portions served on 13-inch plates. The restaurant was named after Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the most successful silent film actors in the 1910s.

A second Fatty Arbuckle’s restaurant was opened in Bournemouth in 1985. Adrian Lee and his wife were appointed managers of the Bournemouth restaurant.

Adrian Lee was promoted to managing director of Fatty Arbuckle’s in 1988.

Bill Turner died in 1993, and Pete Shotton acquired his stake in the business.

Each new Arbuckle’s outlet was to prove an immediate success. Franchise outlets were opened from 1991, which allowed the chain to rapidly expand to 22 restaurants by 1995. Arbuckle’s was the largest American-style restaurant chain in Britain by 1997, with 42 outlets.

Arbuckle’s, with its focus on beef burgers and steaks, was hit hard when a BSE-epidemic struck Britain in 1996. 70 percent of its sales had been burgers. Pete Shotton sold his majority stake in the business to the turnaround experts, Alchemy Partners, for £5 million.

Alchemy was widely credited with reviving the fortunes of Arbuckle’s. More profitable leisure park sites were pursued over high street locations, and the chain peaked with 58 restaurants by 1999. “Fatty” was dropped from the name in order to appeal to health-conscious diners from 2000.

After making heavy losses, Arbuckle’s entered into receivership with debts of £6.8 million in July 2000. The loss-making majority of outlets were immediately closed down.

The brand and ten outlets were acquired by the Noble House Group, headed by investor Robert Breare (1953 – 2013), for a rumoured £1 million. Breare was charismatic; a hyperactive, shambolic and disorganised man, who enjoyed the good life. He was adept at acquiring companies, but lacked managerial skill.

The ten remaining outlets were closed down in 2006. Two former managers acquired the rights to the name and opened a revamped Arbuckle’s at Downham Market in Norfolk from 2008.

The American-style restaurant is still represented in Britain by TGI Friday’s, Frankie & Benny’s and Chiquito (Tex-Mex), but other American-style restaurant chains such as Henry J Bean’s and Old Orleans have since closed down.

Central London rentals

Okay, so visited London for about a week. One thing really jumped out at me. In the provinces, Costa Coffee is by far the largest coffee shop chain, especially outside of the large cities. In London, I was astounded by the number of Starbucks in prime real estate locations. Costa takes smaller premises than Starbucks, on less prime real estate. And with the recent tax avoidance scandal that Starbucks UK was involved in, I can really believe that they don’t make any profit in the UK. I predicted that this was due to the high rentals that they were paying in central London. Turns out, I was right. I later found this from their website:

during our rapid expansion phase we positioned a high proportion of our efforts on prime, high street locations, and in particular in Central London where the cost of leasing is the highest in the UK. The result has been a group of stores that do not make money.

Yes, Starbucks are often full, but many of its customers seem to buy a £1.55 filter coffee and linger there half the day using the free WiFi to work. Costa avoided paying silly money for these sites because they are owned by Whitbread, masters of the UK property market. Whitbread’s knowledge of the market stems from decades of owning pubs, hotels and restaurants in the UK.

Recently, Starbucks has been closing down some of these unprofitable London sites, including three on Oxford Street. A recent report stated that the company was looking to close down 16 central London sites.

A company that avoided paying silly prices for central London sites was bakery chain Greggs. They have a mere handful of sites in the area. And it’s not as if they’re under-represented in outer London. Upmarket Wimbledon high street has two Greggs for example.

I find the Starbucks unprofitability case interesting, because I think people assume that when a brand is brash, bold, highly visible and obviously splashing the cash around, that it is successful. Another instance of this is the many incarnations of the Virgin brand: yes, there are some successful Virgin brands, but look at the high profile failures like Virgin Cola, Brides and Vodka.

Pints of interest: the rise of J D Wetherspoon

J D Wetherspoon has been consistently innovative throughout its history. It has demonstrated a tendency to follow its own path, and has proved willing to take calculated risks.

Tim Martin (born 1955), was born in Norwich, the son of an executive for Guinness.

Martin qualified as a barrister, but had no desire to practice. He had wanted to be a squash professional but that didn’t work out.

Martin enjoyed a drink at Marler’s Bar in Muswell Hill, London. It was one of relatively few free houses (not tied to buy beer from a brewer) in London at the time.

The proprietor, Andrew Marler (born 1953), had acquired the lease when it was a betting shop, and converted it into a bar. Martin entered into the lease with Marler from 1979.

JD Wetherspoon logo

The pub was renamed Wetherspoon’s from 1980, after a teacher of Martin’s who struggled to control his class. Sales were brisk, largely due to the fact the the pub was free to sell beers of its own choosing. Martin realised there was untapped demand for free houses.

Martin reinvested his profits and acquired debt to expand the business. He opened his second pub in a converted car showroom at Crouch End in 1981.

J D Wetherspoon was incorporated in 1983. Martin was keen to expand the company, but was hampered by the lack of pubs on the property market at the time. As a result, he converted unconventional premises such as former banks, supermarkets, churches and cinemas. The company quickly gained expertise in securing drinks licenses for new premises and gaining planning permission.

The company grew with its standard offering of low prices, cask ale, and no music. Comparisons began to be made between the chain’s values and the ideal English pub as described by George Orwell. Whilst the similarities were initially coincidental, Martin consequently adopted Orwell’s template, and a number of outlets are named after Orwell’s essay title, The Moon Under Water.

Tim Martin sold a 25 percent stake in the company to Scottish & Newcastle, a large brewer, for £1.5 million in 1988. The chain began to sell Scottish & Newcastle beers such as Younger’s Scotch Bitter and Theakston’s Best.

J D Wetherspoon was floated on the stock exchange in 1992. By this time there were 44 pubs, all situated in London.

Wetherspoon introduced its all day food menu from 1993, and dedicated one third of its pubs as smoke-free areas. Its new pubs were double the normal pub size, and had almost double the average turnover, although margins were lower.

In 1994, the Financial Times reported that the chain was selling Guinness stout at lower prices than the two major supermarkets, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Wetherspoon had grown to 300 outlets by 1999. An advantage of converting former banks and supermarkets was that the company was able to significantly reduce its tax bill due to benefits from capital allowances. Its rate of corporation tax was three percent in 1998, and five percent in 1999. Wetherspoon therefore had a significant incentive to expand its number of outlets, and it helps explain how and why the company expanded so quickly. The legal loophole was closed in 2001.

Wetherspoon experienced its first major misstep when it entered Northern Ireland in 2000. As Wetherspoon sells its beer so cheaply, it normally requests a discount from breweries. However, Guinness refused to discount their beer in the country, claiming that the Northern Ireland market had increased marketing, staff training and quality control costs. Therefore Wetherspoon did not stock Guinness, and as a result, nobody came to their pubs. The company was forced to accept Guinness’ terms, or else risk failure in Northern Ireland.

Outlet sales were four times that of the average pub by 2001. That year, Wetherspoon began to wholeheartedly push its food offering, taking on the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s with its own range of coffees and burgers, and expanding into breakfasts. The company was highlighted for its notably clean toilets.

In 2002, the company rolled out a second brand that it had acquired from Wolverhampton & Dudley. Called Lloyds No 1, it functioned as a Wetherspoons by day, but as a nightclub in the evening.

In 2005, the company banned smoking in all of its pubs, ahead of the smoking ban. In 2006, 9am openings and TVs (on silent) were rolled out across the chain. The company claimed that its coffee sales matched those of Caffe Nero, the coffee shop chain. By 2007, 50 percent of all sales were food related, influenced in part by the smoking ban.

In January 2009 Wetherspoon introduced the recession-busting 99p pint. The beer offered was Greene King IPA. The brewer baulked at their main product being sold so cheaply, and the offer was switched to their lower profile Ruddles Best brand.

From April 2010, all pubs opened at 7am for the breakfast market. This was not altogether successful, and opening times have since largely been scaled back to 8am. Nevertheless, the company was second only to McDonald’s in the breakfast market.

Wetherspoon entered the Republic of Ireland market from 2013. Tim Martin remains keen to open outlets in France, having explored potential sites in Paris, Calais and Lille.

The rise of Jack Daniel’s

JackDanielsLogo

Jack Daniel’s was a small American regional brand through the 1950s and much of the 1960s. But it landed on the radar of Hollywood stars, including Humphrey Bogart’s Rat Pack. The famous, simple monochrome adverts were first introduced in 1954.

By 1980, 3 million cases were shipped. “Jack” has always been marketed as a premium product. Marketers remind us that the product is not bourbon, but “Tennessee whisky” that is filtered through maple charcoal.

Originally, there were two main Jack Daniel labels: black (the famous one) and green. Although both whiskies were aged for at least four years, Black Label had a higher ABV content of 45% versus Green Label’s 40%. Black Label was reduced to 43% in 1988. Green Label was later delisted, and Black Label was further reduced to 40% ABV. So Black Label essentially became Green Label, but with no corresponding price reduction!

The origins of the full English breakfast

The origins of the full English breakfast are more recent than you might expect.

Historically, the classic English breakfast pairing was bacon and eggs. Bacon was the staple meat for the agricultural class for hundreds of years, and eggs were available in most homes each morning. As late as the 1950s, an “English breakfast” was shorthand for bacon and eggs.

Seemingly beginning around 1915, as wartime economy and rationing began to bite, the cold remains of the previous evening meal began to be added to bacon and eggs. As bacon and eggs became scarcer (and more expensive), the additions of these items bulked out the meal and prevented waste. Fried bread and potatoes were popular starchy additions. Sausages were not subject to rationing, and began to be introduced as a bacon substitute.

The earliest reference I can find to the phrase “full English breakfast” is in a 1930 edition of the Daily Mail.

A 1978 edition of The Globe and Mail of Canada lists the meal as comprising “eggs and bacon, tomatoes, sausages, kippers and heaven knows what else”.

The phrase was first shortened to “full English” (minus breakfast) in the mid-1990s.

Today, a full English comprises of, more or less, sausage, bacon, eggs, some starch such as fried bread, toast, hash browns or sauté potatoes, and some vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans. Black pudding is popular. Regional variations include white pudding and oatcakes.

One the trail of the origins of the Slug and Lettuce

Slug and Lettuce is a British chain of bar restaurants with 70 outlets.

Slug and Lettuce was established as a pub chain by entrepreneur Hugh Corbett, who had a background in the hotel industry. Corbett brought a degree of trendiness and relative luxury to his pubs, with an increased focus on wine and food. His pubs were all given nonsensical names, which differentiated them from their competitors (eventually Slug and Lettuce became the standard name).

Corbett stripped out the carpets to leave stripped pine boards, removed the curtains and installed large glass windows. This meant that people could look into the pub from the street, and the new light and airy open plan design made the pubs more attractive to women.

Corbett cannily located the first Slug and Lettuce in Islington, which was beginning to undergo gentrification due to its proximity to the newly liberalised City of London.

There were nine outlets by 1989. The chain was considered by some commentators, such as Roger Protz, to draw much of its influence from the then-popular Firkin pub chain.

Slug and Lettuce was sold to David Bruce for £2.25 million in 1992. Bruce began to pursue the relatively untapped female market in earnest, imitating elements of the upmarket Pitcher & Piano chain and increasing the emphasis on food.

Slug and Lettuce underwent another rebranding, aimed at creating an English pub/Continental bar hybrid, in 1995.

The rise and fall of the Little Chef empire (1958 – 2018)

Little Chef was the largest restaurant chain in Britain. At its peak it boasted 433 outlets, but this has since been reduced to around 70.

The first Little Chef restaurant was opened in 1958. Sam Alper (1924 – 2002) and Peter Merchant had been inspired by diner caravans they had seen in America, and introduced the concept to Britain.

Alper had a background in caravan manufacturing, and the first outlets were portable prefabricated roadside snack bars. Outlets could be built, assembled and opened within a matter of hours.

Little Chef was acquired by Trust Houses, a hotel operator, in 1961.

By 1964 Shell-Mex and BP had discovered that opening Little Chef outlets next to its petrol forecourts helped to boost fuel sales.

Outlets began to be built from brick from 1965. The Little Chef brand guaranteed consistency for weary travellers in unfamiliar locations. There were twelve outlets in 1965, and 28 by the end of 1968.

In 1970 Trust Houses was acquired by Forte to form Trust House Forte, a large catering and hotels company. The new owner had the necessary funds necessary to roll out a rapid expansion of Little Chef.

As it was difficult to acquire roadside planning permission, Trust House Forte acquired a large number of existing transport cafes, and converted them to the Little Chef format.

A typical Little Chef meal cost 35p in 1972. It was around this time that the “Fat Charlie” logo was introduced.

Due to rapid expansion there were 174 outlets by 1976. Ten years later there were 250 outlets. Little Chef was the largest restaurant chain in Britain by 1986, with more outlets than Berni Inn.

In 1986 the Competition Commission found that a significant proportion of customers were locals, not commuting drivers. Little Chef was innovative and forward-thinking, providing high chairs and baby food when most British restaurateurs regarded children as irritants rather than potential customers. Meanwhile, strict roadside planning laws preventing new buildings effectively worked to maintain the company’s monopoly.

Trust House Forte acquired Happy Eater, Little Chef’s only major rival with 90 outlets, in 1986.

Little Chef was acquired by Granada, an operator of motorway service stations, in 1996. Granada hiked prices, charging £7.95 for a full English breakfast in 1996! The high prices did not guarantee quality: even the omelettes were frozen and then reheated.

Granada described Little Chef in 1996 as “tired and neglected”. Management Today described the chain in 1997 as “perhaps the most neglected part of the old Forte empire”.

Under Granada the total number of restaurants expanded to 433 (68 of which were Happy Eater outlets) by 1999.  Granada also began to franchise Burger King in some of their existing outlets. Upon conversion, Burger King outlets would see double the turnover of former Little Chefs.

In 2002 Little Chef was serving 30 million people a year.

Little Chef was the first branded roadside restaurant chain in Britain, and had few competitors until the motorway service stations began to improve exponentially in the mid 2000s. They now offer a range of desirable high street brands such as Burger King, W H Smith and M&S Simply Food. Meanwhile McDonald’s have vastly extended their drive-thru presence and offer faster service and lower prices.

In 2013, a Kuwaiti private equity conglomerate acquired the company. In 2014 there were only 72 outlets.

The remaining outlets were sold to Euro Garages in 2017. Euro Garages lost the rights to the Little Chef brand after one year, and all remaining outlets were converted to the EG Diner fascia.