LONDON — If Oliver Twist were to sing a modernized version of “Food, Glorious Food,” it could be re-appropriated as, “Nando’s, glorious Nando’s!”
Since the Johannesburg-based restaurant chain opened it’s first store in London in 1992, its signature peri peri chicken, has enamored British consumer’s appetites.
Marinated with a variation of Afro-Portuguese spices, including lemon and herb for those with more sensitive palates, Nando’s hallowed flame-grilled chicken — which it declares proudly on its website, is neither American nor chlorinated — is a British culinary institution.
But in the latest series of food shortages that have hit British supermarkets and restaurants — exacerbated by a perfect storm from the fallout with Brexit, a declining number of truck drivers, and the coronavirus pandemic — Nando’s announced on Tuesday, that it had to temporarily close around 50 of its stores across England, Scotland, and Wales, because of a shortage of chicken.
Across the country, British customers were greeted this week by signs posted onto the windows of gloomily empty branches. The source of the poultry catastrophe? Issues with the supply chain, according to a spokeswoman.
“The U.K. food industry has been experiencing disruption across its supply chain in recent weeks, due to staff shortages and Covid isolations, and a number of our restaurants have been impacted,” said Nando’s, in a response to The Times.
Nazish Zeb, 38, who lives in Solihull, the West Midlands, was forlorn when her son arrived home on Wednesday, to break the news that their regular Nando’s branch in Birmingham — one of a handful in the city with halal chicken prepared according to Islamic guidelines — was temporarily closed. “I am a chicken lover,” she said in an interview. “It’s a shame, I can’t tell you how much we are missing out.”
Other disappointed customers took to Twitter to air their grievances, to which Nando’s responded apologetically, that their supply chain was experiencing “a bit of a ’mare,” as in nightmare.
Among the culprits responsible is the ‘pingdemic,’ which has seen hundreds of thousands of people ‘pinged’ by a government-sponsored phone app since July, asking them to self-isolate for 10 days because they were in contact with someone who had tested positive. British supermarkets and businesses have borne the brunt of its consequences, with staff shortages and vacant shelves reported across the country.
Last Wednesday, KFC released a statement on Twitter, warning customers that some items might not be available because of unspecified “disruptions.”
“I remember when my local KFC ran out of chicken” said Nando’s employee, Saffi, describing the great chicken shortage of 2018, that caused rival KFC, to close nearly two-thirds of its British branches because of similar issues with a new delivery contract. “I can understand people’s frustration.” Saffi asked to be identified by his first name only because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“Luckily, the branch I work at, we’ve been running as normal,” he said. “The suppliers have had problems delivering products to us. It’s not like Nando’s have done something wrong.”
In England, where a third of its restaurants are, Nando’s appeal transcends class, boasting devotees including the actor, Dev Patel, Bella Hadid, and even Prince William.
“One of the interesting things about Nando’s, is that it reaches the restaurant-going demographic that almost none of the other high-street chains do,” says British food critic, Jay Rayner. “It transcends race.”
“Cheeky Nando’s,” a popular phrase British consumers of Nando’s often use, is permanently embedded into British vernacular. The existence of a mythological Nando’s ‘black card’ — said to grant its possessors an unlimited Nando’s chicken supply — is gleefully speculated over by internet users. A Nando’s spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny its existence.
“The proposition, grilled chicken, salads, chips, places it as one of the healthiest on the high street, if they got rid of those bottomless soft drinks,” said Mr. Rayner. “It’s brilliantly priced. They do it very, very well.”
It should come as little surprise then, that numerous British publications have their own “homemade” recipes for peri peri chicken, though they are little consolation for those craving Nando’s.
The chicken shortage might not be just a temporary problem. Britain is struggling with a national shortage of truck drivers, and a shortage of workers in its meat industry. The coronavirus is part of the problem, but so are new immigration and paperwork rules that came into effect with Brexit. According to the Financial Times, around 60 percent of the U.K.’s poultry workers come from E.U. countries.
“The fact that it’s happened should take nobody by surprise,” says Mr. Rayner, who predicted a national food crisis in Britain’s supply-chain after Brexit, three years ago.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, which represents the majority of companies working in the red meat industry, said Brexit had left the country’s entire meat industry, vulnerable because it reduced immigration.
“When Brexit happened on Jan. 1, 2021, access to most E.U. workers was switched off, abruptly,” he said. “Since then, many of the E.U. workers who were in the U.K. could not travel during Covid. A lot of them are now going back to their home country, but they’re not returning.”
On Thursday, The Guardian reported that Richard Griffiths, the chief executive of the British Poultry Council, had written a letter this month to the home secretary, Priti Patel, asking for the government to relax immigration rules.
Christmas preparations should already be underway in meat factories, but Mr. Allen said shortages are inevitable. With vacancy rates in meat factories now rising to 15 percent, a Christmas poultry crisis could be looming. “Currently, there’s limited staff for that, so we’re about six weeks behind.”
At least for now, there is some respite on the horizon. All of Nando’s restaurants are expected to reopen on Saturday.
Perhaps then, Britain’s Nando’s devotees can resume their love affair with a restaurant where, as British food writer, Ruby Tandoh writes, one “could happily just order the same thing every time you come here until you die.”