There’s a standing joke in my household about the number of restaurants, cafes and pubs-that-do-food in Twickenham. My wife has always reckoned there must be at least 50, but I thought it might be as many as 70. So, a couple of days ago, I cycled round the area and counted them.
The actual figure is 128. Yep, that’s one establishment for every 153 of the town’s 19,555 residents – from the Beefeater at the top of Sixth Cross Road, to the little café next to Marble Hill House, to La Cena close to Richmond Bridge. I’m not even including anything that could be said to be Teddington, Old Isleworth or Whitton, or takeaways that don’t have proper seating.
With the new development at the station, which promises a new restaurant, and something needing to fill the somewhat needless retail space under the new block of flats on Heath Road, this enormous figure is only likely to rise. But why does it matter?
Because, in the six years I’ve lived here, I must have seen more than 30 places close, many of them just a few months after opening. Most of those that struggle on are empty or near empty all week, including the weekends.
The unchecked growth of eateries is causing once-popular establishments to fold – it doesn’t matter how good your food is if there just aren’t enough potential customers to go round – and leaving many residents reluctant to have a night out in the town. After all, sitting almost alone in a restaurant with no atmosphere isn’t a treat; it’s embarrassing. Failure thus breeds failure. And, if you think that rugby days are enough to keep business ticking over, how can two Six Nations matches and six other big days at the stadium in a year fill the hole? That’s no more than eight good days out of 365.
Of course, if an entrepreneur wants to open a business that most locals can see is doomed to fail, it’s their lookout for not doing their market research properly. One café owner told me that running your own place is something of a dream, and many people blunder naively into it, hoping for the best or thinking that they can succeed where others have failed. But it’s still a minor tragedy, both for the individual and the town, when yet another eatery is barely used or dies in less than a year.
So, short of hanging big banners from the top of the Travelodge warning potential restauranteurs that “Seriously, we don’t need any more cafes!”, what can anyone do?
The council’s options are limited, according to an LBRuT spokeswoman. It’s up to the landlord and potential new proprietor if a closed café is converted into yet another with little chance of success. But the council can have some influence where planning permission is needed for a change of use – i.e. if a furniture store is converted into a restaurant, say. Why, then, have at least nine establishments been allowed to open on the old sites of other types of business in the last two years? The yet to open JoJoLoo coffee shop on Heath Road used to be a clothes shop, for instance. The station café used to be, well, a store cupboard.
If Twickenham’s crazy food industry can’t regulate itself, then LBRuT needs to take the lead – perhaps giving developers incentives to convert retail units into residential properties (thus creating more custom for everyone else), where appropriate. Otherwise, failed business after failed business may result in the slow decline of the town.