Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Angus Laundrettes

It was on one of my regular strolls through the West End of London that I yet again considered the conundrum that is the Aberdeen & Angus Steak House chain. It's a series of restaurants taking up prime real estate that is yet so bad that Jay Rayner, the restaurant critic of The Observer, has described it as having “the mass appeal of herpes but none of the laughs”.
Indeed, it is almost laughably bad, even looking in from the outside. Tacky, red, and empty.
If this doesn't say money-laundering, I don't know what does. I mean, the biggest lies are always dangled right in front of people noses. Even the KFC at Leicester Square has closed down. Yet the ASHes remain.
Did a little research on this, but didn't find much, just this:

The man behind the 23-strong chain, one Ali Shah, failed to respond to interview requests (he is notoriously media shy). One restaurant expert argued that the chain survived by catering for undiscriminating tourists (which didn't explain the apparent paucity of customers), while another suggested that it was all down to a cheap long-term deal on the premises (for which he had no proof).

In 2003 it was then reported that they had gone into administration. But then:

A Google search subsequently revealed that not only was the Aberdeen and Angus Steak House back - with fresh online reviews from customers complaining about everything from the use of tinned mushrooms to waiters clearing tables before meals had finished - but had been so for five years!

The startling development seems to have been covered by only two publications, one of which was The Estates Gazette, which explained in April 2003 that “a newly created private firm controlled by Noble Organisation, a Gateshead-based amusement arcade operator, had cherry-picked the most prominent Central London sites in the Aberdeen Steak House chain”.

Newly-created private firm? You don't say?

I hit the phones, although it quickly became evident that the Noble Organisation, a family firm best known for owning the Brighton Pier, would make Ali Shah seem as shy as Russell Brand. I rang one of the restaurants and was informed by an Eastern European voice that he was forbidden to give out the head office phone number. Another restaurant gave a contact number, but it was connected to a fax.

I left a message for David Biesterfield on his voicemail and he called back several hours later.

“Do you handle the Aberdeen and Angus Steak House?”


“How's business?”

“We are upgrading and refurbishing the restaurants.”

“Great. I'm interested in writing about the brand for The Times. Could you give me an idea how it manages to survive, given the - erm - obvious challenges?"

“We're not ready to talk just yet about that particular business.”

And that was the end of the conversation.

So let me get this straight. No attempt at publicising or marketing, no explanation, the most extraordinary secrecy. Does it sound like a free market operation? Or corporatocracy? I'd like to think that it's "honest" money laundering, ie a genuinely private company avoiding the government's theft. But it's too big, too blatant, and has all the usual signs of corporatism.
Naturally there's a deafening silence from the media, and even the reporter above ends with a glib, lame "joke", intended to undermine everything she just said:

But it was when I put the phone down and once again began to wonder whether I should extend my research into paying the firm a visit as a diner that I had a revelation. The Aberdeen and Angus Steak House's longevity is surely due to the low-level but perpetual trade of journalists, all trying to work out how on earth it survives. Think about it. It's the only possible explanation.

Of course, if she had said it's a fraud, an accounting shell, and come up with evidence, she may have ultimately lost her job.

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