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Restaurant veteran Johnson wants new Gaucho stake

By Mark Kleinman, City editor
The veteran restaurateur Luke Johnson has waded into the auction of Gaucho, the crisis-hit restaurant group which called in administrators last month.
Sky News has learnt that Mr Johnson, whose hospitality industry experience has included owning The Ivy restaurant in London's West End, Pizza Express, Feng Sushi and Giraffe, is one of a small number of bidders for Gaucho, the premium steak chain.
The entrepreneur joins Carlyle, the American buyout firm, among the prospective buyers of Gaucho from Deloitte, which is handling the administration.A third bidder is believed to be the UK team of special situations investor Aurelius Equity Opportunities.If successful, a deal would reunite Mr Johnson with Gaucho, where he sat on the board until last November.He is one of Britain's most successful restaurant investors, with a significant proportion of his wealth tied up in food-service businesses including Patisserie Holdings, the listed owner of the Patisserie Valerie chain, and Bread Holdings, which owns the Gail's chain of bakeries.Mr Johnson, who could not be reached for comment, is thought to be keen to retain the entire Gaucho chain, which has been hit by a decline in sales in a difficult casual dining market.The Gaucho group has already seen its entire CAU chain of restaurants closed after being saddled by painful rent liabilities and weak sales.Deloitte's efforts to find a buyer for the business potentially pits Mr Johnson against Hugh Osmond, his former business partner at Pizza Express, who had been attempting to acquire Gaucho prior to its slump into administration.
Mr Osmond is not thought to be an active bidder during the current phase of the auction by Deloitte, but may be tempted to make a further offer.If the Gaucho chain can be saved, it would secure hundreds of jobs among the company's total workforce of 1300 before the axeing of CAU.Equistone, the previous owner of the business, put several proposals to its lenders about a restructuring but is also not participating in the post-administration sale process.Gaucho had been racing to find new investment to pay a seven-figure tax bill, with Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) now facing the prospect of that demand being unmet.The crisis at Gaucho has made it just one of several prominent high street brands brought to the brink of collapse, with Toys R Us UK, Maplin and Poundworld all having called in administrators this year.House of Fraser, which employs a total of 17,500 people directly and through concessions, is attempting to secure emergency funding to prevent it following suit.
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Gaucho's rival casual dining chains including Byron, Carluccio's, Cote and Prezzo have all cut significant numbers of jobs this year.Mr Johnson declined to comment on Tuesday.
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