A RECENT holiday offered the opportunity for a break from the world of business news. But one particular story was impossible to avoid.

The sale of the Ubiquitous Chip, the much-loved restaurant in Glasgow’s west end, would have generated copious headlines at the best of times. But the fact that the Chip, along with sister restaurants Stravaigin and Hanoi Bike Shop, was acquired by Greene King, one of the UK’s biggest pub and brewing corporates, added an undoubted piquancy to the tale.

For many who have admired the Chip’s resolutely independent style, and the unstinting support given by its owners to Scottish suppliers down the decades, this was not good news.

How could a corporate pub chain – a model of business seldom mentioned in the same breath as high-end cuisine – possibly maintain the culinary standards that won the Chip garlands and fans all over the world? How could a huge company focused by its nature on profits and economies of scale give the Chip team the freedom they need to maintain the flair that has been the restaurant’s calling card since it was founded by the late Ronnie Clydesdale in 1971?

It certainly does seem to be an odd marriage on the face of it.

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For the owners of Locavore, the organic produce retailer with five stores across Scotland, the decision by Chip owners Colin Clydesdale and wife Carol Wright to sell was “depressing”.

Reacting to the news on social media, the company suggested the new owner should update the Stravaigin ethos of “think global, eat local” to “eat local, fund multinational”.

Locavore said: “Such depressing news for food in Glasgow, Scotland, and the independent business world… The Ubiquitous Chip was a leading light for good food in Glasgow since the 1970s.”

The post from Locavore questioned the decision by Mr Clydesdale and Ms Wright to sell to Greene King, a formerly listed company that was acquired by Hong Kong conglomerate CK Asset Holdings in a deal valuing it at £2.7 billion in 2019. It described Greene King as a “most unusual choice of buyer” – and presumably not in a good way.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course.

Food lovers and people keen to support independent businesses and suppliers are understandably concerned about how the future of the restaurants will shape up under their new corporate owner.

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But the factors that drove the sale of the restaurants, which have joined Greene King’s Metropolitan Pub Company division, are complex and varied.

That the Chip and indeed Stravaigin and Hanoi Bike Shop have remained popular over many years bears vivid testimony to the hard work the Clydesdale family and staff have consistently put into the restaurants, and the expertise they have consistently exhibited.

They successfully maintained the restaurants’ reputations in the face of intense competition, and often against the backdrop of extremely challenging trading conditions.

They dealt with the smoking ban that was introduced in 2007, the credit crunch that followed the great financial crash of 2008 and 2009, and the consequences of Brexit.

More recently, the restrictions brought in to combat coronavirus presented a very real existential threat, not just to the Chip and its sister restaurants but businesses right across the hospitality sector.

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Now, following hard on the heels of pandemic restrictions, the industry faces a profound set of trading challenges that are testing the wit and resources of operators to the full. These challenges are different to the worries lockdown presented but are every bit as concerning.

The cost of labour, utilities, food and drink faced by the industry is increasing at a rate not seen for many years, with the inflation crisis putting household budgets under serious pressure.

With the surging cost of living meaning consumers have less cash to spend on eating out, it is extremely difficult for hospitality operators to pay off debts accumulated during lockdown, and to make up for all the trading time that has been lost since Covid took hold in March 2020.

In these circumstances, it is surely no surprise the hospitality industry is now seeing an exodus of experienced operators who have decided to call time on their careers.

Writing in The Herald on Monday, Colin Borland of the Federation of Small Businesses correctly stated that it is the right of any owner to make decisions that are right for them and the future of their business, though he expressed worry over the impact that the loss of independent businesses, “critical to the social, cultural and economic fabric of local places across Scotland”, could have.

“They can be one of the reasons that locals are proud of their community, and a key attraction for visitors,” Mr Borland added.

This viewpoint is perfectly understandable. It is certainly true that the Scottish hospitality trade boasts an independent streak that has traditionally been one of its big selling points, and for the sake of the economy it would be good if as much of that is retained as possible.

But when it comes to the choices of individuals, matters such as whether to sell a longstanding family firm stretch beyond a collective wish for Scotland to retain independent businesses.

It is certainly easy to imagine that the process of deciding to sell will have been agonising for Colin Clydesdale and Carol Wright. Equally, one can easily assume they will have thought long and hard about who to sell to.

As such, when Mr Clydesdale stated his view that the business and its people will be in “safe hands” with the new owner, it was a statement that should have been met with respect.

There is perhaps one more point worthy of consideration at this juncture.

In 2005, Greene King caused ripples across the Scottish licensed trade when it acquired Belhaven, the pub and brewing group, for £187m.

At the time, the combination was hailed by Belhaven’s chief executive, Stuart Ross, as a “hand in glove fit”, and in the years that followed that proved to be the case.

The Ubiquitous Chip is not Belhaven, of course. But Greene King’s successful integration of Belhaven, which continues to have a strong identity in the Scottish market, does offer some hope that the Chip can retain the hallmarks that have made it so popular over the years under its new owner.