Opinion

Is Jamie Oliver’s business empire tottering on the edge?

5 min read

09 December 2015

Former editor

News that celebrity chef-come-businessman Jamie Oliver is set close the last of his Recipease sites, alongside growing consternation among staff at his Jamie’s Italian chain, begs the question: is the sun beginning to set on his brand’s appeal?

Since his first appearance on TV back in 1999 when he was known as the “naked chef”, Oliver has become a household name through the plethora of further TV shows, cookbooks and other merchandise he’s put his name to.

He’s been relentless in the pursuit of brand growth, first through being the public face of Sainsbury’s and then through campaigns centring on topics such as healthy school dinners and training up the disadvantaged.

His business empire properly began taking shape when Jamie’s Italian opened its doors in 2008. The chain now has over 40 locations throughout the UK and most recently registered sales of £101.8m and profits of £5.6m.

However, a shadow was recently cast over it when findings revealed it had one of the lowest ratings on Google reviews, when compared to competitors. To compound that, staff have begun to speak out about bullying managers, not enough hours and general negativity.

Coming together on jobs board indeed.com, employees revealed that staff could expect to be sent home if it was quiet and had shifts cancelled at the last minute. Furthermore, wages have been docked if customers leave without paying.

The latest negative news to emerge out of the Oliver camp involves his shop and cookery school Recipease. Having been closed to the point where only one was remaining, in Notting Hill, that site will now be closed on 24 November and make 40 people redundant.

A statement at the time for Oliver said: “Over the last year, the Jamie Oliver Group has made the decision to focus on core businesses and this has meant streamlining the company in certain areas.

“As part of this effort, the group has decided to close the last Recipease store in Notting Hill. The store will remain open until the end of the year while we do our best to find opportunities elsewhere in the business for employees.”

Read more about Jamie Oliver:

There was a time when Oliver’s relentless rise to the top made other well-known chefs such as Gordon Ramsey, Delia Smith and Heston Blumenthal look inferior. His cookbooks have long been Christmas best-sellers, and he has proved pretty adept at launching branded ranges such as crockery, cookware and glasses.

So it was surprising when one of his most recent books, “Save with Jamie”, slumped when compared with other previous titles he’d released – including “30 Minute Meals” and “15 Minute Meals”.

It is too early to say that his empire is crumbling, but all is not as bright for Oliver as it once was. 

Like all great entrepreneurs and business builders he’s had his failures – just look at his US show Food Revolution and previous chain Union Jacks. In fact, in an interview dating back to July 2015, Oliver stated he’d “fucked up about 40 per cent” of his business ventures. But what is worrying now is the complaints that are coming from his most profitable arm, Jamie’s Italian. With consumers increasingly turning to online reviews to influence their eating habits, it could become damaging.

The move by Oliver to appoint Royal Bank of Canada to locate possible investors or acquirers could be coming at just the right moment. His collective offering is still highly attractive to private equity firms, and he may want to strike while the iron is hot.

However, whatever way you look at it, his rise from leaving school at 16 with two GCSEs to having a personal worth of £180m is pretty impressive.