RUTH SUNDERLAND: Why I fear Wolseley restaurant will become a bland global chain

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 restaurant steps through the heavy brass gate, often greeted by door-to-door Helen Scott, immaculate in her black coat and hat, they know they are about to experience something very special.

Customers are led across the black and white tiled floor to their table, accompanied by the clink of silver cutlery.

Each day the hubbub will include city panjandrums, celebrities and a sprinkling of amazed tourists.

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

That’s why so many regulars are horrified at the prospect of it being snatched away from Jeremy King, the man behind one of the world’s most appealing restaurants.

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, didn’t start a restaurant so much as a honeypot. But it was thrown into administration by none other than its own major shareholder, a multibillion-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 franchises mimicking the pillars and arches of 160 Piccadilly, built in the Roaring Twenties as a showroom for luxury cars.

For years after the car company went bankrupt, the building served as a rather rarefied branch of Barclays Bank.

The restaurant opened in 2003, but it’s a testament to its cachet that it seems to have been there forever.

Customers are led across the black and white tiled floor to their table, accompanied by the clink of silver cutlery.  Each day the hubbub will include city panjandrums, celebrities and a sprinkling of amazed tourists.  (Above, actress Vanessa Kirby leaves the restaurant)

Customers are led across the black and white tiled floor to their table, accompanied by the clink of silver cutlery. Each day the hubbub will include city panjandrums, celebrities and a sprinkling of amazed tourists. (Above, actress Vanessa Kirby leaves the restaurant)

The franchise certainly looks like heresy for a place where the tables fill with celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Kate Moss, Nigella Lawson and actress Vanessa Kirby, as well as greats like the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. The late artist Lucien Freud dined there almost every night.

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

King’s nemesis is an American-born Thai billionaire who built much of his fortune by introducing American-style fast food to Thailand.

Hotelier Bill Heinecke’s Minor International group took a majority stake in 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, an all-you-can-eat steak and salad franchise, in that country.

Minor, whose venues also include Zuma and Benihana in London, unplugged Corbin & King last month.

He named FRP directors, saying the company was “insolvent” and had been in default since May 2020.

King hit back, saying there was “absolutely no need” for the administration, which he described as a “power play” to seize control of him and his business partner Chris Corbin.

Idiosyncratic, theatrical, traditional with a touch of camp, the Wolseley is the epitome of all that is glorious about London's best restaurants.  That's why so many regulars are horrified at the prospect of it being snatched away from Jeremy King, the man behind one of the world's most appealing restaurants.  it was thrown into administration by none other than its own major shareholder, a multi-billion pound Thai conglomerate that owns a string of fast <a class=food chains” class=”blkBorder img-share” style=”max-width:100%” />

Idiosyncratic, theatrical, traditional with a touch of camp, the Wolseley is the epitome of all that is glorious about London’s best restaurants. That’s why so many regulars are horrified at the prospect of it being snatched away from Jeremy King, the man behind one of the world’s most appealing restaurants. it was 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 on The Wolseley franchise in Saudi Arabia and other locations overseas.

This lucrative wheeze, King says, played a major role in severing his relationship with his former backers.

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

Minor International, he says, wants to franchise in a “dispersed way”. “Minor’s approach seems to be that anyone who offers to buy a franchise…should be accepted and we should take the money and run away,” he says.

If so, 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 seize control of him and his business partner Chris Corbin.  (Above, King, left, and Corbin in 2010)

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

That may well diminish the appeal for the captains of industry who fill the venues every day to meet at 8 a.m. – and the financial journalists who want to interview them.

Perched at my favorite table on the balcony, it’s the perfect vantage point to find out which tycoons are feasting on the specialty, fried haggis and duck eggs in whiskey sauce (£17.25).

Everyone looks relaxed, but the antennae are quivering over the multi-billion pound deals that could be cooked up over the crispy bacon.

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

Their stable reads like a five star: they 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.

Heinecke, 72, has also worked in the hotel industry for many years. But Minor International, valued at £3.5bn on the Thai stock market, is a very different beast that operates 520 hotels and resorts and more than 2,300 restaurants.

It is not yet known what will be the next dish to be served to King. He had talks with a potential white knight, American investor, Knighthead Capital Management.

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

What cannot be disputed is that Jeremy King brought spice and fun to London life.

When the Wolseley closed in lockdown, the capital instantly seemed a grayer place. And it was a joyful moment when it reopened and the Art Deco chandeliers twinkled again.

For all its wealthy 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 glasses.

What a shame that this inimitable restaurant has become a faceless franchise.

About Robert Moody

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