Jeremy King on The Wolseley, Minor Hotels and those Richard Caring rumours: ‘It’s emotional... but I don’t want to retire. I can’t’

Defiant: Jeremy King, sat here in Zedel, is refusing to back down under pressure   (Adrian Lourie)
Defiant: Jeremy King, sat here in Zedel, is refusing to back down under pressure (Adrian Lourie)

The restaurateur Jeremy King is known for a few things. The celebrity catnip restaurants — The Wolseley, The Delauney, Zédel, Colbert, and co— come first. His silk-tied, three-piece-suited 6’5 frame is second, a familiar sight to those who eat at his places. Third, his charm is agreed upon. Still, he is not all manners and double cuffs: there is a hard-eyed toughness that has seen him through four decades of restaurants. Jeremy King is concrete wrapped in cotton wool.

It is this durability that King, 67, is relying on now as his restaurant empire with Chris Corbin, Corbin & King, faces ruin. The group is presently in administration, forced there by majority stakeholder Minor hotels, a Thai-born group who operate more than 500 hotels globally. Minor stress “that it is business as usual at the restaurants”, with no risk of them closing, and none of the 745 staff at risk — but, King says, it is all a play for power and should Minor win, he will go. Corbin & King would be a name, but the men behind it would be gone. And so would their way of doing things.

The fallout is a bitter one, with Minor and King accusing each other of being in grim financial straits. In person, King alternates between a stoic-tinged optimism (“It should all be fine”) and a jaw-set sufferance (“If we can’t come to an agreement, then there is always that risk [of collapse]”). The crux of the argument is this: Minor are calling in loans worth some £38 million, arguing Corbin & King is insolvent and has failed to meet its financial obligations. King says the opposite is true, putting the dispute down to a disagreement over how the group should be run.

The partnership began in 2017, when Minor took a 74 per cent stake in Corbin & King. It was the latest in a series of backers — the Pears family in 2003, Dawnay Day in 2006, Graphite Capital in 2012 — but on this occasion, Corbin & King relinquished their majority stake for the first time.

“When I was told they had 150 hotels [at the time] I said, ‘I’m sure what they want me to do is open restaurants in their hotels.’ So I said I wasn’t interested,” King recalls. “‘No, no, no’ they said. ‘We don’t want to do that.’ I got very good reassurances, and we negotiated that I would have extremely good control rights over the company — nothing could be opened and none of the names could be used without my consent.”

So far, so dreamy: Minor would provide the money and, as King tells it, he’d be left to his own devices. If it seems unrealistic that an investor with 74 per cent would leave someone else in full control, so it proved. He notes drily that: “One thing I was particularly keen on, which was a mistake, is that I thought as people in hospitality, they would understand how hospitality might work… but they have a very different approach to it.”

King says that as part of the £58 million deal struck for Minor to buy their 74 per cent share, £20 million was a loan note with a repayment date of 2024. He adds that Minor also took on an outstanding loan owed to HSBC, worth some £13.25 million “repayable, in theory, in May 2020.”

This did not worry him: “What they said was: ‘We’ll take over that loan on the same basis as HSBC and then when the dust is settled, we’ll either just let it run and then we’ll roll it over, or we’ll get it refinanced through a bank.’ I said fine — and that was my big mistake, because I trusted that. For two years, we were sending letters to the auditors from Minor saying: ‘we will not call this loan’ and so we had it in writing, we thought.”

Affordable luxury: Brasserie Zedel (Corbin & King Handout)
Affordable luxury: Brasserie Zedel (Corbin & King Handout)

“Pretty soon” after the contracts were signed — and perhaps inevitably, in hindsight — Minor, with their 74 per cent, began wanting their way. “Notwithstanding our discussions, quite soon they began asking me to open restaurants in their hotels, and to roll out Colberts across London,” says King. “And then I also wanted to open New York and they didn’t want to do that…”

King says the uneasy relationship “muddled along” going through “some goodish times and lots of bad times.” The two groups tussled over how to run the business.

The pandemic changed the discourse. While Minor do operate some 2,300 restaurants worldwide, many of these are for fast food, so Corbin & King are counted under Minor’s hotel division. When Covid came, King asserts this division was strained by a recent deal to acquire NH Hotels: “It was really extending them and come the pandemic, it slaughtered them.” The NH deal cost Minor €2.3 billion and the majority of the 380 hotels in the deal were on leaseholds, rather than freeholds. Minor lost, on average, €29m a month in the first quarter of 2021, according to the Financial Times.

Soon into lockdown and a partnership marked by peevishness soured further, says King. “In their own panic, they issued instructions around the world — including to us — and told us to sack all the staff, not pay the suppliers, not pay the landlords, not spend any money, and sit tight and sit it out which, of course, I said no to. And I could,” he remembers. “But that put us in enmity.”

“Twice during the pandemic, they asked the question: ‘can we can we sack the staff and hire them back cheaper?’ I mean..” he says, lowering his voice to a whisper, “they’re bastards.”

Asked directly about this, Minor said in an email: “We are grateful for the resilience our brilliant teams have shown during the pandemic and the outstanding hospitality that they continue to deliver.

“London management has made staffing decisions throughout the pandemic, with Minor’s guidance and input as appropriate.”

Chris Corbin, left, with business partner Jeremy King (Corbin & King handout)
Chris Corbin, left, with business partner Jeremy King (Corbin & King handout)

It was during these early months of lockdown that things began to deteriorate swiftly.

“It came to the point in about May of 2020, I told them ‘this isn’t going work’ and I said: ‘I’ll raise the money and I’ll buy you out.’” He didn’t — he and Minor disagreed about the price.

Later, “in June 2020, they told us we were in fault of the £13.25 million loan. And because we were defaulting on that, it put us in default of the other £20 million too. So they threatened to put us into administration back then.”

This was avoided “and we had this uneasy relationship for a while.” Things worsened as Corbin & King’s plans slowed to zero. Work on a kind of seafood Brasserie Zedel, Manzi’s, ground to a halt while “we had two other sites they wouldn’t give us money to build; they weren’t in a position to do so. It’s not Corbin & King who are in financial trouble, it’s Minor International.”

It is a characterisation Minor rejects. “Minor International’s principal objective has been, and will always be, the commercial success of its businesses,” they told the Standard. “We have repeatedly offered to recapitalise the company and continuously pushed the board for cash injection to support the long-term sustainability of the business. Unfortunately, the other shareholders have rejected our proposals.” And are they in financial trouble? “No — we continue to invest in our businesses… and continue to actively manage our portfolio across different geographies, as we have always done.”

King admits Minor’s push for them to accept cash injections, but denies it was needed. “Looking at our 2021 figures, we traded month-by-month better than we’ve ever done, for the months we were allowed to operate. We went through the whole of the pandemic without any extra support other than government furlough,” says King, who alleges Minor refused to sign off on him applying to the government to use the CBILS scheme.

Twice during the pandemic, they asked the question: ‘can we can we sack the staff and hire them back cheaper?’

Jeremy King on Minor Hotels

“Minor said: ‘Oh, you’re in terrible trouble financially’ — we said, ‘No, we’re not. We’re absolutely fine.’ And we’ve proven it. I was told a year ago that unless I conceded to their want to franchise, I would go bust within two weeks.” He indicates downstairs to the Wolseley dining room, which is heaving full on a lunchtime, and to his office dotted with staff, still working long after the fortnight passed.

The cash injection is characterised by King as another play for control, as Minor looked to franchise. The offer was for £4 million, on the condition he give up his control. “And then I’d be a puppet, and they could do whatever they wanted throughout the world. So I said absolutely not.”

King repeats his assertion that Minor “haven’t put a penny” into his group. Again, unsurprisingly, there is a difference of opinion. “As the largest lender to the business – having already provided £38 million worth of direct loans and loan guarantees – Minor International remains committed to supporting the Corbin & King Group through this period of uncertainty,” they say.

Business as usual, then? Not quite. Things came to a head after King unsuccessfully filed for a legal moratorium as a means of protecting his group. Then, he says, “last week, out of the blue, we got a notice that we had to repay the £33.25 million within a day, within 24 hours. It wasn’t going to happen…”

The administration move that hit the headlines followed swiftly afterwards, as did Minor’s press release that implied King was on his uppers. It is underway now: King estimates it will be resolved “within the month”.

One note for hope is US investment fund Knighthead Capital Management, which has noted administrators indicating that it would be willing to refinance all the outstanding loans. Knighthead and King have been in talks for “I’d guess, as long as nine months”, says King. Something of a dream solution, it would allow for the minimum of interruption, “but they will be more supportive of taking the company forward”.

This would be good news for King, as the long-awaited Manzi’s is, he says, “about 10-12 weeks” away from being completely ready, at a cost £2.5 million. He speaks about it fondly, and with palpable irritation at the delays his plans have been subject to. There are also sites in the city and in Notting Hill Gate waiting to be developed, though details remain scant. “I’m always a bit superstitious about naming them. I think it goes back to a site we were working on which Richard Caring took off us at the last minute…”

It’s quite emotional — and I’m very proud. I don’t think avarice and greed should trump the sort of things that we’re doing

Ah, yes. Caring is the restaurant giant who owns Caprice Holdings, which counts the Ivy chain as well as the likes of Sexy Fish and Scott’s among its assets. With Corbin & King in administration, a deal with Knighthead is anything but guaranteed. “It’s in the hands of the administrator, and who knows what offers they might have?” King says. And competition may be stiff: the Times reports that “restructuring firm FRP Advisory are said to have received 35 to 40 expressions of interest”.

One of these is thought to be Caring, whom Minor are said to have been in touch with ahead of time. Has King heard the rumours? He plays hard to get. “I’ve no idea whatsoever whether that’s true. I haven’t been approached by anybody who’s expressed interest and there have been rumours but I’ve no idea,” he says.

Minor, for their part, haven’t commented on the administration, other than to say: “We will not get drawn into a war of words. There is an administration process to follow that we respect. Minor International remains committed to preserving and protecting the long-term future of the company’s iconic brands and employees.”

Were Caring to take it over, it’s likely to rankle. In an unrelated interview with the Standard towards the tail end of last year, King mentioned he felt he and Corbin had been “somewhat written out” of the Ivy history by Caring. It is telling, too, that shortly after Caring’s name comes up, King speaks on the distinction between a restaurateur and a restaurant-owner (“it’s the difference of running a business from the boardroom, or from the floor. And I obviously I run mine from the floor”). It is hard to see it being a happy family.

The Times reports that “Caring is understood to think the restaurants could be run more ambitiously and could make more money.” It is perhaps so; it is also perhaps not quite in the spirit of the Corbin & King enterprise, which, to a certain extent, values its customers’ experience above pursuing the biggest profit it can. Whereas Caring keenly pursued the roll-out of the Ivy as a chain, it is King’s resistance to franchising that seems behind the bust-up with Minor. Likewise, Caring proudly (and profitably) runs the likes of Sexy Fish and Scott’s, known for their high prices and air of exclusivity. King’s approach is a different one: “We very, very, very strongly feel that a successful restaurant, the sort we like, the great restaurants and the fun restaurants, facilitate everyone.

“You have to have a balance of affluent and not so affluent customers, so you have to create a menu where nobody feels embarrassed to order, say, just a beer and eggs benedict while the person next to them is having Champagne, caviar and lobster. I like my restaurants to be egalitarian.”

The serving pass at the Wolseley (Corbin & King Handout)
The serving pass at the Wolseley (Corbin & King Handout)

It’s this egalitarianism that marks the changes Corbin & King led in London restaurants. They helped disintegrate the rigid class divide of the city’s restaurants that was characteristic of dining up until their quiet revolution of the Eighties, when they pioneered the idea that restaurants could be somewhere to spend either a little or a lot of money — and that the choice would be up to the customer.

No surprise, then, that diners have been “emailing in their hundreds”. A rare blush for the unflappable King. “A lot of customers who are in the right sort of financial fields, you know, they’ve been trying to help and give advice…” It must be overwhelming? “It is. It’s quite emotional — and I’m very proud. I don’t think avarice and greed should trump the sort of things that we're doing.”

King insists it would not be his place to ask anything more of his customers, though he acknowledges that the more fuss is made, the better. Has the industry been as forthcoming as the customers? Another blush. “It's really taken me back, you know, just how many people, you know... Even, well, I don’t like to think there are rivals, there’s space for us all but even... well... it’s really been something.” Uncharacteristically, his words tangle.

If it all goes wrong, I wonder, will King shoot those double cuffs, brush down his waistcoat and drive off in his vintage Bristol? Or will he come back, somehow? “Oh very much so. I don’t want to retire. No, I can’t retire, actually.

“I carry on. I always carry on. And that’s what we’ll do now.”