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6 April 2022

How the Wolseley lost the battle for its soul

The beloved London restaurant empire has been bought out by Minor International – which has little understanding of its egalitarian spirit.

By Emma Haslett

In the mid-2010s, there was a rumour in journalism circles that one reporter had published so many news items based on conversations he had overheard at the Wolseley that he had been banned from the establishment altogether. Although the story was almost plausible – the restaurant is somewhere an unknown could easily find themselves seated next to a pair of gossiping celebrities and later emerge on to Piccadilly with a great story – it fell down at the journalist’s being banned. That was simply too crass to happen at the Wolseley.

The rumour captured the essence of a restaurant in which it has never mattered who you are. If you or I turned up we would be seated in the same sumptuous black and white, art-deco dining room, order the same food and drinks and – crucially – receive the same service as the beautiful, the rich and the famous.

The point of the Wolseley – and the Delaunay, and Brasserie Zédel, and all the restaurants run by Corbin & King, the restaurant group founded in 1981 by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King – is that they are frequented as much by celebrities as they are by people taking business meetings, celebrating birthdays, or treating hangovers with the group’s trademark smoked salmon and vivid yellow scrambled eggs.

The Thai hospitality group Minor International, which announced on 1 April that it had bought for £60m the 26 per cent of Corbin & King it didn’t already own, has missed this. The group’s founders – in particular King, who has taken the reins in recent years – enforced its egalitarianism. They are the business’s soul, and now they have been forced out.

The details of the ousting make for grim reading. In 2017 Corbin & King took a £58m investment from Minor International. In the years that followed, King reportedly fell out with his investors over their plans to franchise the Wolseley name. Earlier this year the company went into administration after Minor called in £34m of loans. On 31 March the administrators held an auction, and Minor won.

King sent an email to his staff and customers in the small hours of 1 April, saying he had taken part in the auction but that his attempt had failed. “As a result, I no longer have any equity interest in the business.”

Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, reported on 3 April that Minor International had banned King from entering the restaurants he had created. A staff meeting at Brasserie Zédel led by the Minor International chief executive Dillip Rajakarier ended in disarray: “He kept referring to us as a brand,” one baffled staff member told Rayner. “He told us that founders come and go,” another said. “That was when he completely lost us.”

King is not just a founder. The outpouring of grief that has followed his departure is testament to his very personal management style. The FT called him the “gentleman restaurateur”: he visited each of his restaurants often, on his bike or in his sleek 1973 Bristol. Even the morning after he lost the auction he was at his usual table at the Wolseley, to the right of the bar, impeccably dressed. He did the rounds in the dining room, greeting customers and shaking hands. His approach invited great loyalty from both staff and customers.

Of course, celebrities adore King’s restaurants: “Chuck a dart in a recent Who’s Who and they’ll have a favourite table inside the [Wolseley’s] ‘horseshoe’ – the most coveted set of banquettes at the centre of the dining room,” wrote Tatler. On the day Lucian Freud died his favourite table was covered in a black cloth, lit with a single candle and left empty. Critics adore them, too: the late AA Gill loved the Wolseley so much he wrote a book about it. Rayner’s jazz ensemble plays a monthly set at Zédel. Several journalists recalled receiving handwritten notes from King, thanking them for writing articles about his restaurants.

Chris Salt, the chief executive of the communications agency Headland, was so impressed by King’s attention to detail that he invited him to speak to his staff. “He talked about the importance of the small things,” Salt said. King’s advice was to listen. “To the common question ‘How are things?’, listen carefully for the reply – it might be a bad day, or a day to celebrate. All such times enable a moment of care, and acting on small moments of care brings a small delight and embeds loyalty.”

The best stories come from ordinary patrons. “I wanted my friend’s birthday to feel special after lockdown… so I took her to the Wolseley for oysters and cocktails,” the journalist Helena Horton told me. “She was utterly charmed and left feeling like a princess.” “I took my lovely mum there for her 70th. It was her last birthday, but we didn’t know that at the time… they made a real fuss of her,” read one tweet.

A customer recalled marvelling at the breadth of the offering at Zédel when he found himself seated at a table next to a newspaper editor browsing the menu with a colleague before a meeting. “If they’re paying, it’s a dozen oysters, fillet steak, cheese and Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” the editor said. “If I’m paying, it’s the two-course Prix Fixe and a glass of house plonk.”

Shortly before the auction, King insisted he was too young to retire, telling the FT that if he was ousted, he might “do another hotel”. His clientele – and competitors – will follow him wherever he goes. “They are the godfathers of our industry – they have hospitality in their blood,” Duncan Stirling, the co-founder of Inception Group, which owns restaurants such as Bunga Bunga and Maggie’s, told me. As for the Wolseley, the Delaunay, Brasserie Zédel and their sisters – the future is a lot less clear.

[See also: Bagels, Brexit and Bob De Niro: Jonathan Warburton on the business of bread]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special