Last Monday, Simon Rimmer was clearing out 41 to 43 Lapwing Lane in West Didsbury in a pair of trackies and an old sweatshirt. “I won’t shake your hand,” he says. They’re filthy, covered in black grease.
This place was Greens, the pioneering vegetarian restaurant that the chef and broadcaster started 33 years ago with his business partner and friend – generally known as ‘the other Simon’ – Simon Connolly.
To say there were not many dedicated vegetarian restaurants in Manchester in 1990 in something of an understatement. Opening Greens was a colossal risk. Not least because West Didsbury wasn’t quite the cute village it is now. “When we moved in, you’d still see drug deals going on in the carpark of the Met during the day,” he says.
The Metropolitan is now an imposing, upmarket gastropub, and West Didsbury an enviable enclave with a run of interiors shops (though the gorgeous homeware store Moth recently closed due to mounting costs to go solely online), restaurants, clothes shops and bars dominating Burton Road and Lapwing Lane.
“We knew we were making a difference when we started getting mentioned on estate agents paraphernalia,” Rimmer jokes.
Good restaurants can change the profile of a neighbourhood. In fact, they’re often the first thing to do it, dragging up house prices behind them. Simon and Simon’s risk paid off, and Greens has been busy most nights of those 33 years, thanks to a combination of dogged determination and great food.
It was in the AA Guide for 31 of the 33 years it’s been open, and was the first purely vegetarian restaurant to be listed in the Good Food Guide.
That was until their landlord decided to put the rent up by 35%. Rimmer says that when he told the landlord that the increase would force them to close, they simply thought he was calling their bluff. He was not.
He had to confront the reality that after 33 years, the restaurant was no longer viable. The sums simply didn’t add up anymore, thanks to ludicrous increases in energy costs – theirs went up over 400% – and the costs of everything else, from cooking oil to napkins to potatoes.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Rimmer says, sitting while the guts of his restaurant are pulled out all around him, a well-worn Kenwood Chef and a Kitchen Aid mixer on the floor by his chair.
Anyone with a passing interest in the industry – and even those who do not – will see restaurants closing and have a decent idea why. All they have to do is look at their own supermarket and utility bills, and then look at how much more it now costs to eat out.
Rocket science it is not.
The ‘final nail in our coffin’, Rimmer says, came when his lease came up for renewal and the possibility of maintaining a profit margin was long gone. “We negotiated for six months solid. We said ‘if you’re going to put the rent up that much, we will not survive’.
“Even though we were busy. Busy, busy, busy, all the time, that bottom line was squeezed to the point where there’s just no more room to tighten the belt, where just the cost of opening the doors makes it impossible. That’s where we are today.”
“I feel like I’m grieving, like I’m in mourning,” he goes on. “This was my first restaurant. I think we made a difference. I think we serviced the community.
“We’re still relevant, and to shut the doors feels like the end of an era. We’ve hit the point now where for Simon and I, today, we feel like ‘let’s get it done and walk away’.
“It’s been magnificent, the support that we’ve had. People walking in and saying ‘I had my first date here’, or ‘I’d never tried vegetarian food before’. The other side of today will be hard. It’ll hit us more in a week’s time.
“I think this is an emergency for hospitality. Brexit meant a lot of floating labour left the industry, heat, light and power, raw ingredients, cost of employing people, increase in rent and rates… in the 33 years that I’ve owned this restaurant, this is the biggest crisis I have ever seen.
“Without being arrogant about it, I’m on TV every week, we’ve owned the place for 33 years, we’re good operators. If we’re having to shut the doors then I think it shows the industry is in absolute crisis. Eight restaurants a day are closing.”
Where Simon Rimmer was heartbroken, Simon Wood is furious. Seething, tired and frustrated. Wood worked in Rimmer’s kitchen not long after he won the 2015 series of Masterchef, to get some much-needed experience before he started his own restaurant, the eponymous Wood just off Whitworth Street.
He’s been a vocal critic of the government’s lack of intervention since a combination of inflation rises, the war in Ukraine, Brexit and other factors entirely out of his control put his business – his dream, really – in jeopardy.
Wood has appeared on breakfast TV, regional and national news, radio and tweets venomously about the current administration to his more than 30,000 followers.
His invective picked up momentum during the chaos of lockdown, where the government flip-flopped, made up rules as they went along and expected business owners to somehow deal with it.
‘You are an utter shower of shithousery’, was one memorable missive sent to then-PM Boris Johnson and health minister Matt Hancock.
He wants the government to drop the rate of VAT, as it did for a scarce few months during the pandemic. Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak dropped the rate to 5%, before raising it back to 12.5%. Now it’s back to 20%, compared to a European average of between 8% and 9%.
Wood, along with a legion of chefs, operators, landlords, cafe owners and even the official body representing the industry, UK Hospitality, isn’t alone in this.
“We’re in a situation that the government could control quite easily,” he says. “We’re not in a pandemic anymore, we have the resources and capability to change the VAT, and they’re choosing to ignore that. They won’t even acknowledge us as operators.
“The pandemic was out of our control. This is far worse.”
He talks about Tony Rodd, the chef who he went head-to-head with in the final of Masterchef, who was forced to close his restaurant Copper & Ink in Blackheath just a few weeks ago. Rodd posted a heartbreaking video to social media announcing the closure.
“I’ve got 30 mortgages. I’m responsible for 30 people,” he says. “People who work in this level of the industry do it for a career. It’s not a stepping stone. They’re highly skilled people who deserve to be looked after. A VAT cut is in the government’s power. They’ve done it before.
“Look at comparable rates across Europe. We’re way above. Double. An obscene amount of money. It’s an industry that contributes so much. The government seems to prefer the idea of having 100% of nothing over 10% of something. It makes no sense.”
Janette Such owns Rustica, the roundly adored sandwich bar in the Northern Quarter. She has queues outside her tiny premises all day long, from when she opens for breakfast to the late lunchers. So she should be doing fine, right?
Well, throw this figure into the mix. Her energy bills at one point shot up from £398 per month to just shy of £1900 a month. Her tariff ran out just at the wrong time, meaning she had to sign up for a year paying extortionate rates. It was either that or close.
The cut in VAT during the pandemic was a lifeline, one that she remembers as taking off a huge amount of pressure.
“It was a really, really big help,” she says. “Nearly everything we sell is VAT-able. It would massively help us reducing it back to 10%. Why not help us out when we’re really struggling now? We’re not making a profit. Not a one penny.”
Sacha Lord has been lobbying parliament to reduce VAT since the rate returned to normal following the pandemic. The Night Time Economy Advisor to the mayor’s office, and co-founder of Parklife and the Warehouse Project, sees it as a no-brainer.
“We’ve seen it with Greens, 33 years of success, turned off like a tap,” he says. “It says everything. Unless something is done, this is the tip of the iceberg.
“Hospitality is the third biggest employer in the UK. In Manchester alone, hospitality employs just under half a million people. When you lose these places, the knock on effect is incredible, all the way through the supply chain.
“The window cleaners, the taxis that take you there, the local butchers that supply the meat. We need to protect these venues. I know people now who are staring at a cliff edge. It’s an untenable situation.
“It’s simple. Reducing VAT will undoubtedly save businesses and save jobs. We’ve already seen quite a few big closures at the start of this year. We’ll see a lot more in the coming weeks. That’s guaranteed, and something needs to be done.
“By stepping in and reducing VAT, that’s the single mechanism that can save the industry.”