Forget Luke Johnson: the biggest loser in the Patisserie Valerie fallout is the brand itself

Since the revelation last week that Patisserie Valerie had uncovered a multimillion pound blackhole in its accounts, British entrepreneur Luke Johnson has been made to eat his extensive and well-documented words on the financial arrears of others.

It can’t have been an enjoyable experience, but it all makes for a great story. There are very few things the British press enjoys more than uncovering a hypocrite, and the news that one of Britain’s foremost ‘financial gurus’ is unable to account for some £40m, is a classic case of ‘do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do’.

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However, it is not Johnson who stands to lose the most from the Patisserie Valerie media fallout; he does not live or die by the headlines. He does so by profit margins and, currently valued at £260m, the man behind the success of Pizza Express will live to fight another day.

Sadly, the same might not be true for Patisserie Valerie. The cake shop has a monumental hole to climb out of and, with shareholders now threatening legal action against the chain, the crisis looks set to worsen in the coming weeks. Any damage to the reputation of the brand is going to be all the more painful given the current state of the casual-dining market: Patisserie Valerie must now fight hard to keep its head above water.

From a PR perspective, urgent work to repair its tarnished image is required. Pat Val, as it is affectionately known by its customers, does have the advantage of a rich history: the romantic story of a cafe that survived the Blitz, run by the eponymous Madame Valerie is a great sell.  With its French café atmosphere and 1950s inspired decor, Patisserie Valerie is about more than the cakes it serves: it’s about the warm, fuzzy feeling it gives its punters.

Stories currently circulating about how the crisis is being handled internally are not presenting the best image to the public and, in a crisis, time is of the essence. If it is true that staff have been kept in the dark about what will happen to their jobs, it won’t be long before they too turn against the once loved bakery. Drastic action needs to be taken before it is too late.

The company is still yet to address the issues on their website, and their latest blog post is on a completely unrelated issue. Arguably radio silence can infer business as usual, but with the press baying for their blood, a company that is as reliant on its image as Patisserie Valerie must now take back control of the news cycle. One mild message posted across its social media stating: “It certainly hasn’t been a piece of cake this past week at Patisserie Holdings Plc” is not enough.

To an extent, the media focus on Luke Johnson has taken the heat off Patisserie Valerie – but for how long? After all, it wasn’t Johnson himself who created the financial arrears, nor did he take out the ‘secret overdrafts’, which have left them with a £20m, blackhole. The blame here lies squarely with the Patisserie Valerie finance team, who remain oddly silent.

Johnson has previously stated that Patisserie Valerie is a cut above coffee shops like Starbucks, Costa, and Nero. If there’s any hope of the business retaining any shred of credibility, they must remind its customers, very clearly, that this remains the case, or they risk crumbling like a stale biscotti.

By Ethan Ennals, reputation consultant at hospitality PR specialists, Uprise

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