Into the War and Beyond
For catering companies, the years between 1914 and the depressed 1920s fundamentally transformed assumptions governing their business in the late Victorian and Edwardian years. Lower-middle-class workers benefited from reduced hours, and had less reason to frequent nearby caterers when employers arranged for tea trolleys to take food and refreshments to their staff desks. Between 1895 and 1920, passengers on railways doubled, so workers could return home faster without stopping for dinners. Fewer customers and their lower expenditure hit particularly hard, given that profit on typical meals consisted of a farthing. High turnover had amplified miniscule profits, but this relationship no longer existed. Further squeezing profits, inflationary pressures drove up rents, wages and menu charges.
During World War I and into the 1920s, market changes forced caterers to adopt different retailing strategies. What created the most challenging context was the faltering patronage of pre-war working-class customers. Firms also began experimenting with hybrid diners/restaurants in which customers had diverse choices—alcohol, dancing, better food and wider offerings.
By the end of the 1920s, the late Victorian catering world had disappeared. Three stalwart companies—the BTT, JP Restaurants and Lockharts—had liquidated or been taken over. Lyons, in a distinct category, was flourishing, but soon would be moving into food processing as the main basis of business. Ye Mecca, smallest of catering companies, survived the decade, though the 1930s would force its departure from catering altogether.
On the verge of Lockharts’ takeover in 1922, the Financial Times remarked that John Pearce as chairman of JP Restaurants “saw how things were going and developed the business in those directions whose profit and prosperity were to be secured.” Again, Pearce grasped how market conditions changed in the 1920s; Lockharts had not. Of all the leading caterers, he alone understood how the present bore little resemblance to the past. But then it underlined his acumen and intuitive grasp of catering, a clear-sightedness that had guided him unfailingly for more than sixty years.