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Spotlight on 2020: Sonal Clare, Purnell’s

Published:  10 December, 2019

As we prepare for the new decade, Harpers will be taking the month of December to look back over 2019 and ahead to what the coming year will bring – hopefully full of revived optimism for both politics and the trade.

Here, we continue our winter series of reflections, predictions and views with Sonal Clare, restaurant manager and head sommelier, Purnell’s, Birmingham

1. What were the highs and lows for your business in 2019?

I think the mid-range casual dining and chain restaurants have played a significant role in the trade for the rest of the restaurant industry. Competition in the current climate is rife, and seeing lots of businesses go into administration or restructure has made it a very difficult market to be involved in. The talk of Brexit has also been a major factor for the industry, with many consumers and businesses unsure of what the future holds.

As a destination restaurant, we are still very successful in growing the business. Our chef patron Glynn Purnell has once again been a regular on people’s televisions this year, which certainly helps keep our profile out there.

2. What were the most significant trends that occurred in 2019?

The food scene in general has had many highs and lows this year. Seeing large organisations go into financial crisis illustrates the difficulty in being strategically successful in such an uncertain economic climate.

We, in Birmingham, noticed a very significant amount of chain restaurants entering, and exiting, the market. This has created a very competitive market in the dining sector.

Many restaurants, bars, etc, offer incentives such as special offers or deals which emphasises today’s climate; the consumer wants more for their money.

3. What Brexit outcome would you prefer to see from the perspective of business?

As a restaurant manager, I would personally like to see the end of it. I think the market has become stagnant, with the consumer questioning the feasibility of dining out with such economic restraints and unpredictability in the market. If the UK voted to leave, then let’s get out and see where we end up. This is not my personal opinion, but I just believe that from a business side of things we need to get on with life.

Many people have valid opinions on remaining in or out of the European Union and I sit on the fence. I do think it has affected the wine market, with certain areas of the market increasing prices heavily. I am sure the same has happened with food costs which have or will increase. However, there will be a greater emphasis on English produce and English wine. The restaurant will be able to get through the Brexit situation; however, it has played a significant role in business being slower than in the past.

4. What trends do you predict for 2020?

It will be like evolution; survival of the fittest. If you can produce a product and deliver a service that is consistent, then you should be able to sustain and hopefully grow in the industry.

I believe English wine will be in the forefront and leading the way, especially the sparkling wine, in the foreseeable future. It has been something that guests in the restaurant have been asking for and choosing over the traditional glass of Champagne or prosecco. With several great sparkling wine wineries in the UK, its great to see guests telling me that they have been to English vineyards in West Sussex or Cornwall!

5. What are likely to be the biggest opportunities for the trade in 2020?

The English wine scene will come on leaps and bounds, and we perhaps need to look at the New World countries to create better connections for trade. I think the special offers available to the consumer makes the market a very exciting place, and offering deals provides and helps sustainability for the restaurant market.

Restaurants and hotels will continue to open and close, and it will be interesting to see which will be able to sustain. Will it be the independents or the chain restaurants?

6. What are the biggest challenges facing the trade in 2020?

Brexit. Going into an unstable and unpredictable economic future is perhaps the most worrying time for both the trade and the consumer. Everyone is in limbo and maintaining sustainability and economic growth will be difficult. I believe when the dust has settled, we will all be able to move forward positively.

7. Who are the people, companies or retailers to watch in 2020?

In the fine dining scene, looking at the Michelin Guide and other key restaurant guides will continue to be the key to success. I believe the chain restaurants will continue to have a massive contribution with consumers being able to have so much choice.

I am a big fan of the Flint Vineyard Winery in Norfolk, as well as Wiston Estate in the South Downs, West Sussex. I hope producers like this continue to grow, but also maintain their key strategy of remaining pretty clever.

There seems to be a lot of cool places and bars opening around the UK, and hopefully consumer confidence will allow those companies to be successful.

8. What, for you, would make for a perfect Christmas?

Being surrounded by family and friends, lots of Champagne and wine. In fact, this Christmas we will be doing a ‘Curry Christmas’, so Mum will be organising lots of Asian cuisine for us. It is a great time to put your feet up after the busy Christmas restaurant rush, and obviously a necessity to recharge the batteries ready for the new year!

9. New Year's resolution?

My New Year’s resolution is to focus a bit more on my work-life balance. As much as I love my job and I am ever so passionate about it, I need to realise that it is not the be all and end all. Spending quality time with loved ones and enjoying life will need to take a bit more precedence. I would like to be involved in more trips associated with my job and continue to grow in the scene.