Preston is still sizzling despite the shock closure of posh burger bar Solita.
That was the upbeat message today from civic and business leaders who reckon restaurant failures are still medium rare in a “booming” city centre.
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“The night-time offering we have is absolutely fantastic,” declared Coun Drew Gale, who represents the central area on the city council.
“Preston is on the up. And, while it is obviously sad that a great restaurant like Solita is closing down, there are many other eating places that are doing really well.”
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Fellow city centre councillor Salim Desai added: “Preston seems to be faring better than most.
“I have no worries about the future of our city centre. Absolutely not. We are going from strength to strength.”
Solita’s decision to close its restaurant on Winckley Square came this week after just 26 months of trading.
The Manchester-based chain admitted defeat after trying to flourish in an off-piste spot away from the hustle and bustle of Fishergate, Friargate and Church Street.
The owners have vowed to re-open in Preston if they can find a suitable replacement site in a more central position.
The restaurant posted on social media: “We’ve taken the regretful decision to close our Preston, Winckley Square site. We looked for an alternative site on Fishergate but unfortunately we were unsuccessful in finding a site that met our size and location requirements.
“We’re still actively looking for an alternative site and hopefully we will be back in Preston very soon.”
“It’s one of those location, location, location things,” said Coun Desai. “It was down in one corner of Winckley Square and therefore people had to walk a bit to get there.
“I suppose you have to be in the right place at the right time and, with it being in a part of the city centre which is moving from offices to flats, it maybe just wasn’t the right time.
“In 18 months to two years that area will be busy with more people living there when those apartment projects are up and running. Right now it is probably a bit early.
“But we believe in Preston city centre. That is why we are investing in demolishing the old market hall and market car park and searching for business partners to make that development go ahead.
“We are keen to see that come to fruition. It will bring more restaurants, more nightlife and more people into the city centre.”
Coun Gale said he was hoping Solita, which also has restaurants in Manchester, Prestwich and Didsbury, would find a new location on Fishergate and stay in the city.
“The city centre is doing really well, which is probably why they are finding it difficult to find alternative premises more centrally,” he said.
“They may not return. And I would be very upset if that was the case because I am a big fan of Solita. I had a meal there only last weekend.
“I’m really hoping they find somewhere because it has been a fantastic addition to the city centre over the last couple of years.”
Food for thought
The UK still has an appetite for eating out, despite so-called “brand fatigue” afflicting the likes of Jamie’s Italian, Carluccio’s and Prezzo.
More restaurants are opening in the UK than closing down, according to the latest data from the food and drink industry.
Last year 1,961 eateries started out - 38 a week - compared to 1,806 shutting up shop.
And that has been the case for all but one of the last six years - with just 2016 bucking the trend as almost 400 more closed compared to opened.
The figures show there were 27,312 restaurants in business in the UK last year, compared with 23,404 back in 2012.
Openings hit a peak of 2,979 during 2014 when only 947 shut down.
Experts say the difficulties being faced by eateries include a rise in the price of ingredients due to a fall in the pound since the Brexit vote and increases in the minimum wage.
Solita moved into Preston confident that their plans to launch in Winckley Square would act as a catalyst for extra investment in the area.
Sadly their location, just a short walk from Fishergate, did not work as well as they had hoped.
Co-owners Franco Sotgiu and Simon Pogson opened Solita on Turner Street, Manchester in 2012, aiming to deliver an American grill with a dash of Italian flair.
The firm, which already had branches in Manchester, Didsbury and Prestwich, arrived in Preston in 2016 only weeks after nearby tapas bar Duk- Pond’s closure.
The owner of Duk-Pond blamed traffic problems in Preston city centre for its shock closure.
Food lovers across Lancashire were left stunned as the popular Cross Street venue confirmed it had closed.
Andrea Mellon said at the time: “It was a difficult and distressing decision, but one I had to make.
“Footfall had been damaged due to the traffic issues and as a small independent it was too much for me.”
It came after more than a year of traffic chaos in the city centre after Fishergate was dug up to bring in a controversial new “shared space” scheme. It led to months of road closures and diversions on surrounding streets.
This summer, popular cafe Ham & Jam in Lancaster Road also closed - claiming a fall in takings and problems caused by major road improvement works nearby.
But Mark Whittle, manager of Preston Business Improvement District, said today he was optimistic Solita would stay.
Mark: “I’d hope that they would continue to trade in Preston and find a suitable site that meets their requirements, as quickly as possible.
“It’s a popular place. There’s no shortage of good places to eat in Preston with restaurants opening and investing regularly.
“Bistrot Pierre is a prime example. You’ve also got Fino Tapas which is relatively new too, and the resurgence of what was Tiggis, now A Manos.”
The latest available figures show the number of empty shops and business premises in Preston city centre is falling.
In 2017 the overall vacancy rate in Preston city centre was just under 18 per cent.
Preston’s vacancy rate has decreased from 19.4 per cent and 21 per cent.
The figures were compiled by Preston Business Improvement District.
The BID has taken into account all types of vacant commercial properties. This includes commercial, retail and hospitality - many areas only count vacant ground level premises’,
BID says Blackpool’s rate stands at around 15.7 per cent (ground floor retail only), and Blackburn around 18 per cent.
Online retailer OnBuy.com said the national vacancy rate for shops is 13.3 per cent.