One perhaps might have expected Sprezzatura to be mourning the loss of Patisserie Valerie – but I can’t. It occurred to me that the company’s recent difficulties are symptomatic of the bigger issues swilling around in British civil life at present.
What started out in 1926 as a single, much-loved cafe founded by the eponymous Belgian émigrée spawned several other branches in London without losing too much of its historic character. I only visited once, but it was like walking off a London street straight into a small corner of northern France. But then it was taken over by an ‘entrepreneur’. Eventually a large share was sold to venture capitalists, and it was rolled out as a chain of some 200 outlets. It became a shadow of what it had been, little more than a themed pastiche of the original. As David Mitchell wrote in The Observer, like all chains, the original cafe’s identity became little more than a watered-down ‘front’ for yet another cash-conveyer for big business.
As I have bemoaned before, the same fate befell Costa Coffee a couple of decades ago. What had been characterful, family-run Italian coffee bars beamed down in London was acquired by Whitbread, and turned into the clone empire that we see today. To be fair, in both cases the quality of the product has not suffered too much, though I have always bemoaned the lack of alcohol in some of Valerie’s offerings: Black Forest gateau is just not the same without (expensive) kirsch. Costa’s coffee remains markedly better than its competitors, despite its susceptibility for the usual marketing-led seasonal gimmicks. (Drive-through Costa, on the other hand, is just too far removed from the real culture of coffee not to be an abomination).
The intangible character of both institutions, which played an essential if indefinable part in making them what they were, has been utterly obliterated beneath the disposable stage-dressing of the corporate shop-fit. As Mitchell says, the identity of chain outlets is essentially interchangeable; in aesthetic terms, there is nothing to stop a Valerie becoming a Pizza Hut next week and a McDonald’s the week after. It is all just window-dressing; the honest, unique character has gone forever, as have the eccentricities that corporate-land just doesn’t understand and can’t tolerate. With what’s left, Established 1926 is now close to being just another corporate lie.
It is perhaps no surprise, too, that with the growth of the organisation far beyond the original family business, it took on corporate individuals who turned out to be fully prepared to bankrupt it in pursuit of their own wealth. Large conglomerates rarely command the loyalty that begets the integrity needed to cultivate such business in the long term.
But how is this representative of the nation’s wider woes? It seems pretty generally accepted that Brexit was motivated by the disaffection of the ‘left-behind’ classes in their hollowed-out out provincial towns. The spread of Patisserie Valerie may have brought a little panache to such places, a shallow semblance of national cohesion and democratisation – but its likely and equally summary departure will leave behind yet more empty premises.
The real problem runs deeper than that, though: by their presence in such places, chains contributed to the siphoning-off of local wealth and its transfer to large corporations. And as with Starbucks before them, they may well have killed off local businesses which, while possibly not as glossy, at least had local roots, and ploughed their income back into their communities. Being small, they also often had the character and quirkiness that no mass-produced chain can ever replicate. And by being so, they also contributed to a local sense of place. In their stead, one senses lost local autonomy – these ‘outlets’ are run by and for people a long way away, with no local knowledge or concern, each place they land on just another ‘retail opportunity’ to add to the corporate bottom line.
It has to be admitted that small businesses in France are also retreating – but the Italians seem largely to be holding out. One might also ponder the amount of employment that hundreds of small, local cafes and restaurants create – I suspect rather more, and for different people, than the chains that ousted them.
One might have welcomed the arrival of cafe culture in this country – and with it the glories of the traditional French patisserie. But in typical British style, what we actually got was large conglomerates selling watered-down facsimiles of the real thing on an industrial scale. Not at all the same thing as the multitude of such places that still give towns in France and Italy their appeal. How do they get away with it? Why will the British populace accept this, in a way which their peers in France or Italy just would not? (And come to think of it why, as Mitchell also observes, is the British mainstay not the millefeuille but the iced bun? Maybe that explains a lot…)
The emergence of these chains is explained solely by a political culture in this country that embraces big corporations with little thought for their impact on communities or local economies. That they suck wealth out of provincial centres and into metropolitan corporations is no problem for governments in thrall to The City. But it feels very different from the other end of the line: the turning of our regional centres into clone towns, dominated by large extractive businesses, feels wrong. And while even a Starbucks may be preferable to an empty building, the blighting effect of large chains on local businesses is not imaginary.
It has contributed to a very immediate, local sense that the whole country is being run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, big business – absorbing and bastardising any good concept from which it can make a buck, sweeping all before its own selfish interests, be that the quality of the Black Forest gateau or the proper employment and training of local staff. One only has to enter an independent cafe or restaurant to notice that the whole character and ethos of such places is different: somehow more authentic, more distinctive, closer to those on the continent.
To be fair, Luke Johnson (still the majority owner of Valerie) has tried to do the honourable thing, ploughing in his own wealth to save the company and its employees. But big business simply does not work in the same way as small – investors are anonymous and impersonal, and care about little other than their dividends. And with a staff of thousands, there is simply no way one can retain the personal touch.
I can’t help but feel that this corporatisation of Britain and the sterilisation of the social function of places like cafes, bars and restaurants, have contributed to the wider disaffection. Unlike the pride that a good, proprietor-owned cafe often takes in its products and its relationship with customers, chains are impersonal, transient and lacking in any real character. They could, by definition, be anywhere. People are served mass-produced, dumbed-down ‘product’ whose main purpose is to minimise corporate overheads, in bland surroundings whose main purpose is to be cheaply replicable anywhere – and easily disposable when the time comes for a corporate re-brand.
People have been given the choice between no services and corporate giants, and to anyone concerned about local distinctiveness – let alone the quality of the cake – it does all feel very wrong. It’s not surprising that people feel alienated. But we can’t absolve the wider population either: for all that the choices may have been limited, these chains have only flourished because of the indiscriminate willingness of the population to be served cheap, conveyor-belt food and drink in cardboard cut-out surroundings, when they could have been supporting authentic local alternatives.
To that extent, the nation has once again got what it deserves: a whole country that is little more than a dumbed-down clone of itself, largely run for the benefit of a few shareholders. A rootless Anywheresville of non-communities which makes life itself feel fake – and only now, when it may be too late, is it realising the cost of its obsession with cheapness, gimmickry and its acceptance of bland uniformity.
Like the Brexit decision which resulted, it could all have been so different.