CamdenNewJournal

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Bake off: original Patisserie Valerie closes its doors

As bakery goes into administration, union says regulators are not fit for purpose

30 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Patisserie Valerie fans Liwen Wang and Mohan Chi

THE last coffee has been brewed, the last cake baked and the last piece of idle gossip shared: it is truly the end of an era for Soho institution Patisserie Valerie as the original shop of the French bakery closed its doors this week.

The chain went into administration on Tuesday, prompting the closure of 71 outlets – and among those that have been shut is the Old Compton Street café.

Set up in Frith Street in 1926 by a Belgian emigré known in Soho circles as Madame Valerie, it was forced to move to Old Compton Street by the Luftwaffe who, during the Blitz, scored a direct hit on the Belgian baker’s premises – and had thrived there ever since.

In 2006, the concept went national – until money troubles hit the firm.

So far 122 other branches of the chain have been saved for trading – for now. Post-graduate computer science students Liwen Wang and Mohan Chi, who are studying at King’s College, have become big fans of Patisserie Valerie since moving from China to the UK. They made a beeline for the Leicester Square branch yesterday (Thursday) to snap up one of their favourite strawberry tarts.

“We really love the place, and we really love their strawberry cakes particularly,” said Liwen.

“We went down there in case it was the last branch still serving them – and we bought what was left, and took a photograph. We really hope it isn’t the last time we get to do this.”

The Old Compton Street branch pictured this week

The firm has been in limbo since November last year when a £40million shortfall in its finances was discovered. Accountants blamed it on what was described as “potentially fraudulent” trading activities.

More than 900 staff have already lost their jobs, with a cloud of doubt hanging over other branches until a new buyer is found.

Millionaire owner Luke Johnson, who took over the chain in 2006, was reported in the Guardian newspaper to have taken more than £40m out of the firm since it floated on the stock market five years ago. There is no suggestion that Mr Johnson has been involved in any criminal activity, and he has loaned the firm more than £13m in recent months to stem the problems, none of which is likely to be returned. However, former finance chief Chris Marsh was arrested by Hertfordshire police once the scale of the crisis became apparent, and bailed in October.

Trade unions representing staff have fired an angry broadside at the management for allowing a seemingly successful firm to collapse.

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said reform was needed to ensure such large firms were properly regulated.

She added: “This latest corporate collapse demonstrates why the financial regulators are not fit for purpose. They need to be able to take action before a company collapses, rather than after jobs are lost. Workers at Patisserie Valerie are the innocent victims of bandit capitalism and they have been failed by the government which has failed to take action to end these practices.”

David Costley-Wood, an administrator at KPMG, has said the remaining 122 cafés would still be in business while they look for a new buyer, and added they were “hopeful of a positive outcome”.

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