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18th December 2023

Cameron Kerr on the restaurant chain that beat the Covid crisis

Cameron Kerr

When the world economy ground to a halt in 2020, the hospitality sector was amongst those by far the worst hit.

Restaurants, pubs and bars can’t operate through Zoom meetings, and unlike a supermarket we don’t go there to take our food home with us. So in March 2020, the only option for the hospitality sector was to go into hibernation.

Workers were furloughed, premises closed up and lights turned off, waiting for vaccines that at the time were estimated to be 18 months away… which experts thought was actually a worryingly fast rollout.

So when French dining chain Côte went into administration during 2020, the news may have seemed predictable.

What may have been more surprising to some, is that its’ financial savior, Partners Group, was able to save 94 out of 98 of the chain’s restaurants.

In 2023 that number had reduced to 82 restaurants, but for comparison, Byron Burgers, a restaurant chain founded in 2007 – the same year as Côte – had 70 restaurants across the UK at its’ peak.

Once considered ‘the darling of the better burger scene’ according to Restaurant Online, a series of setbacks including three insolvency procedures has left its total number of remaining restaurants in single figures.

So why has Côte – a chain focused on steak frites and beef bourguignon – stood the test of time, and not a brand specialising in crowd pleasing burgers?

“We’re quite generous in our interpretation of dining. We’ve got a big menu and intentionally so,” former Côte CEO Alex Scrimgeour told The Telegraph in 2015.

“We’re not setting the world on fire and trying to do anything too crazy in a culinary sense.

“We’re trying to deliver very simple, high quality food that you would expect to pay quite a lot more for if eating in an independent restaurant.”

Browsing the menu for my local Côte branch, I find a steak tartare starter priced at just £10.25, confit duck à l’orange for £18.50, and even that beef bourguignon comes in at under £20.

This is 2023, when a London pub can charge you £20 for fish and chips – a dish once considered a cheap and nourishing Friday night takeaway.

So to see dishes with the kinds of names you’d expect to hear when watching Masterchef: The Professionals, followed by the number £18.50, is a surprising sight.

Perhaps this best demonstrates the gap in the market that Côte has been able to fill.

Byron Burgers has plenty of competition that springs to mind: Honest Burgers, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Shake Shack, every major chain pub that offers a food menu (and a lot of pubs these days operate more as restaurants).

That’s before we get to the usually cheaper, fast-food alternatives.

Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, your local kebab shop.

If you want burgers, you are spoilt for choice – but french food?

Café Rouge, another French food competitor, had to publicly deny that it was in receivership earlier this year, after a columnist for the Sunday Times wrote that the chain was “struggling” and “the last few outlets are on the verge of closing forever”.

Gordon Ramsay’s French restaurant ‘Petrus’ in London offers an A La Carte menu at £120 per person.

But Ramsay’s expertise has found its way to Côte for a far cheaper price.

Last year as part of a brand refresh Steve Allen, the former head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s at Claridges, took over the role of head chef at Côte.

Allen rose from Junior Sous Chef, to Head Chef and then Executive Chef during his time at Claridge’s, and worked on Gordon Ramsay books including ‘Secrets’ and ‘World Kitchen’.

When Allen introduced a new spring menu for Côte this year, he told reporters: “I have been cooking French cuisine since the age of 13 and this menu is a reflection of everything I love about French food in the Spring. Our main focus is and always will be about the taste of our food at Cote. Simple, yet complex and delicious.”

More than three years on from the pandemic and lockdowns when Partners Group rescued Côte, the French restaurant chain has a new head chef and has carried out a refurbishment of its’ restaurants.

The refurb aimed to create ‘contemporary and elegant French-inspired’ interiors, accompanying a new in-house butchery and development kitchen.

The company reported a turnover of £144.9 million for the 2022 financial year, a flat turnover compared to 2019 – but money that was made amid the backdrop of the Omicron variant and the cost of living crisis.

Commenting on the figures, executive chair, Jane Holbrook, seemed optimistic about the future:

“We’ve built our foundations for growth and are very well supported by Partners Group.  We are excited about our recent progress and have embarked on a brand renaissance supported by a brilliant team.”


Cameron Kerr is a freelance journalist


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