OPINION - Celebrity chef with a London restaurant? Watch out, the squatters are coming for you

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Staffing woes. No-shows. Giles Coren. Thought restaurants had it hard already? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Chefs’ newest nemesis are squatters. From the middle of last week, Gordon Ramsay’s Camden pub, the York & Albany, was occupied by a group of them, who took to Instagram with plans to open a community café “for victims of gentrification”. A soup kitchen may have been in the works. Ramsay put paid to all that on Tuesday, obtaining a claim for possession from the courts.

With that drama deflated, a few hours later, Marco Pierre White’s deservedly short-lived Leicester Square restaurant Mr White’s (shut since February) had similar treatment. Padlocks were slung on the doors and a sign went up wittering about occupier’s rights, neither of which stopped the police securing the building yesterday afternoon. But you get the idea — if your heyday was the Nineties and you own a restaurant, these are harrowing times. Has anyone checked on Antony Worrall Thompson? Is Rick Stein watching his back?

If your heyday was the Nineties and you own a restaurant, these are harrowing times indeed

This sort of thing couldn’t happen at a private residence — squatting in somebody else’s home been a criminal offence since 2012 — but empty commercial properties are, legally speaking, more or less fair game. I can see why: in an over-crowded city, empty buildings feel a sin, and I’d rather someone slept in an abandoned boozer than on the pavement outside it.

But so too I can understand freeholders arguing that, economically insensible as it may be, leaving their property empty is a matter of prerogative. Silly, though. The process of obtaining court orders must be an irritation few surely welcome, and suffering squatters can’t be much cop for keeping on good terms with the neighbours, either. What if they act up? Besides, bluntly put, it simply looks bad — I’m bracing for a flood of PR nonsense detailing Gordon’s Good Deeds over the next few days; Ramsay’s team will be keen to change the optics.

With restaurant closures alarmingly high — more than 500 shut across the country during the last quarter of 2023 alone — more empty buildings are expected. And it’s not just restaurants; yesterday, the Standard broke news of the former headquarters of 20th Century Fox being taken over in Soho Square. The commercial leases available in London — and by turn, the number of untenanted commercial properties — runs into the thousands. At the start of this year, a report from CoStar suggested vacancy rates across the capital, already at a record high, may raise again: the forecast is 12.1 per cent in the City by the end of this year, up from 10.8 per cent in 2023, and a whopping 16.1 per cent in Canary Wharf. The West End is looking at 9.7 per cent. Many of these places sit empty for months on end. Is it a squatting epidemic waiting to happen?

The threat of it might give the capital’s landlords pause. According to Savills, London is the most expensive city in the world for commercial space, and has been since last summer when we pipped past Hong Kong. Perhaps the latest spate of squats might nudge a few freeholders into lowering the rent. Empty buildings would fill more quickly, and enterprising types would face fewer barriers to getting their dream going. This used to be a city of innovation, when people could afford to do it. Who wants the hassle of squatters when you could have paying customers instead? One of them might even open a decent pub.

Jam from Meghan Markle's new business (Instagram)
Jam from Meghan Markle's new business (Instagram)

Heaven preserve us, Meghan’s jam is nauseatingly twee

Rather fittingly for someone in a sticky situation, the Duchess of Sussex has revealed the first product from her new lifestyle collection American Riviera Orchard would be… strawberry jam. Fifty influencers were sent one as proof, including Tracy Robbins, who showed her 7,000 or so followers a jar with its label peeling off. Over here, given sales have been in decline for yonks, it might look like first Prince Harry, now jam — Meghan, left, sure knows how to back a loser. But perhaps it’s a cannier move than it appears, as some reports suggest the jam market is set to expand four per cent across North America between now and 2029.

It looks a rather desperate thing to have done from someone whose (mercifully never recommissioned) podcast vainly looked to position her as one of the most forward-thinking women in the world, challenging and collapsing archetypes and stereotypes surrounding the female experience. To move from that to jam? It feels nauseatingly twee. Talk about scraping the barrel.

David Ellis is the Evening Standard’s Going Out editor