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Looking Back, Forging Ahead Q&A: Owen Morgan, 44 Group

Published:  08 December, 2023

Following another eventful year for the drinks trade, Owen Morgan, director of Spain-focused 44 Group, reflects on the highs and lows of 2023, plus hopes and plans for the year ahead, in our annual Q&A series.

How has business been for you across 2023 when compared with 2022 (and pre-pandemic)?
I hate saying it, but it feels tougher than at any time in our 21 years. The saving grace in my opinion, is that there is still appetite to go out and eat and drink well, as we have been busy, so we must be doing something right.

But being busy sadly doesn’t translate into making profit, the way things are against the whole industry right now, in every aspect.

What, for you, were the specific highs of 2023?
For us personally, we have had some great highs. Being featured on Channel 4’s Incredible Places to Eat series was huge and created lots of business for us. Our hotel, Parador 44, being named UK city hotel of the year was another highlight.

The one highlight experience that we will remember for many years though, is taking the team to Jerez for Sherry week, and cooking a 10-course sherry paired tasting menu in Restaurant La Carbona for one night only to a packed house. Cooking our style of Spanish food in the heart of Jerez for a Spanish audience was a dream come true.

And the lows?
The government’s refusal to hear or want to understand the real issues of running a business in this industry and to continue to penalise rather than help. Seeing so many businesses closing that are strong and viable would it not be for being crippled by the government decisions on energy, minimum wage, VAT, duty, Brexit and more.

More specifically, how has the cost-of-living crisis impacted and what have you done to help mitigate the effects for you and your customers?
Spending patterns and the amount people are going out have changed hugely. Spend per head on food and wine has reduced, understandably. It always does, as that’s exactly what happened in 2008 also.

From our side, we are always nimble and quick to react. New weekday set menus of great value, but also still incredible quality, have been very well received. People like to know ahead of time what they may be spending on a lunch or dinner out, when things are tight.

We have very good relationships with our wine and spirit suppliers too. So they have at certain points in the year provided stock to allow us to do incredible offers on wines of the week by glass or bottle, offering incredible value.

In January, we will work once again with our produce and drinks suppliers to provide our ‘21 years ago pricing’ for certain dishes and drinks. It’s fun, focused on quality, while offering low priced menu items for guests. I’d rather have bums on seats in January, as you need similar staffing levels whether you are quiet or busy. It also keeps our teams busy and motivated, and happy at work.

How much of a concern are the duty hikes? Will you have to alter the way you do business moving forward?
It’s a big concern. It also makes hospitality in the UK unnecessarily more expensive and hurts the customer. It also leads to that tipping point of people deciding on whether it’s too expensive to go out for a night or not. It’s crazy.

We won’t change our outlook on what we do and we won’t compromise on quality to offer something cheaper – that doesn’t represent value at all, it’s just short sighted. Our lists and stockholding may become shorter and more focused, first and foremost. Brewers are all looking to brew something at 3.4% abv to come in at a better duty level, so we may look at that potentially, but flavour and quality have to come first.

As a business, what goals have you set for 2024 and how do you expect to achieve them?
To still be here! I joke, but it’s a very real goal. We have been having to consolidate throughout Covid, Brexit and the energy crisis. We would like to be growing organically, but it seems the powers that be don’t want businesses to develop and grow, or they try their best to hamper that goal. We are always looking at new sites for our brands and new towns, so we will continue that no matter what.

More generally, how do you predict the drinks landscape will look this time next year?
I think it will be really tough for all parts of the drinks industry. But as ever, we’re seeing great companies and producers doing wonderful things. So creativity and quality, I’d like to think, will thrive.

Quick fire questions:

Go-to Christmas tipple?
Aged fino sherry.

And New Year?
An old school cask ale in a traditional pub, followed by some very special fizz at home.

Fire-side drinks or out on the town?
A bit of both.

Rioja or Mendoza?
Rioja, always!

Orange wine – yay or nay?
Yay, if you seek out the right ones, which are small in number, but can be done excellently.

Dry January or Try January?
Try January, surely dry January isn’t healthy, no extremes are!