Home: Issue 1 2009 › Cover Story › A taste of Italy
A taste of Italy
10/03/2009 | Channel:
Catering, Hotels - Restaurants
Carluccio’s is the authentically Italian café, restaurant and food shop founded by Antonio and Priscilla Carluccio. MD Simon Kossoff tells Libbie Hammond about the company’s journey to success
It was in 1996 that Simon Kossoff met Priscilla and Antonio Carluccio, and this sparked the creation of what was to become one of the UK’s most successful casual dining High Street restaurant chains. Simon began the interview by explaining how the first restaurant was developed and why he was the right man to be MD: “Priscilla already had the idea for what became Carluccio’s, she had a clear view of the menu, how the store would work and even the design. But she felt she didn’t have the skills amongst her team to develop a business that was intended to roll-out across multiple locations, and she certainly didn’t have the funding to do that,” he said. At this time, Simon had accrued years of experience working at Pizza Express, as well as being involved in creating various themed restaurants at an organisation called My Kinda Town (MKT). He was also looking for a new challenge. “Over 12 years I had grown through the MKT business, going from restaurant manager to UK managing director. Eventually that business floated and became a public company, and was then sold - bizarrely it seems now - to Capital Radio. Themed restaurants were all the rage at the time, and we had already created a radio themed restaurant for them, and they decided to have a go at the restaurant business themselves.”
He continued: “I knew I was moving on from Capital Radio, but this was a bit of a mad time, where people were approaching me with all sorts of crazy ideas for themed restaurants, so when Priscilla came along with an idea for a fresh-product based, authentically Italian, casual high street restaurant with real food, it seemed super refreshing and really relevant and I was excited to be involved.”
Simon and some ex-colleagues from MKT set about raising the funding and turning Priscilla Carluccio’s ideas into something tangible. He explained: “We completed the funding in July 1999, where we raised £2 million from private individuals, and we opened the first store in November 1999 in Market Place near Oxford Circus.
“Priscilla had always visualised the business as an all day, very casual daytime place, similar to somewhere in Italy where you might stand at a bar, drinking espresso or having a slice of pizza. Although we never did the pizza, our first restaurant opened at 8am until 8pm, we were immediately busy at lunchtime but not really doing anything else. It became clear that to succeed we had to be an all-day, more restaurant-driven operation. I spent the time between Christmas and New Year of 1999 reinventing the menu and persuading myself we should open for dinner. Our first evening was Valentine’s 2000 and we were full, it took off like
In the early days Simon worked very closely with Priscilla Carluccio, as he explained: “Priscilla was really the driving force, although of course, Antonio was very much involved with the food and the food development. She and I ran the business together for the first six years.”
Simon went onto explain that although Priscilla didn’t like to talk about roll out or ‘chains’, it was always intended to open further Carluccio’s branches: “We went pretty slowly to start with, opening a second store a year after the first, and then we did a couple the year after that. We took it slowly because we were really developing the concept, and some of the philosophies we had adopted turned out to require an awful lot of management and systems. We felt if we rushed the expansion we would destroy it before we got started.
“But it was very well received almost immediately, and of course the Carluccio’s brand helped with that enormously. I think the format also touched a spot in the quality/value relationship on the High Street and we were different – no one else had done anything like this and we are still unusual today.”
The successful formula that created the restaurant hasn’t changed and Carluccio’s still opens new locations each year, with its stable now totalling 41. “We have not really departed from the idea of a steady sensible pace for development,” agreed Simon. “I know lots of my colleagues in the business would want to go faster but we think that its still right for our business to develop slowly for the same reasons as when we started – it’s complicated and we don’t want to mess it up.”
Simon explained that the deli side makes the business more complex: “Really we are two kinds of business: shop and restaurant, and they have different cultures and different skill sets and it’s fiddly to get right. We’ve spent ten years working on the teams and support to make it possible.”
Persevering with this struggle means that Carluccio’s is somewhat unique, as Simon told me: “There isn’t really anyone who does exactly what we do and I think that’s because it is difficult. If you were starting from scratch with a Carluccio’s type idea, it would be an enormous learning curve, and other than one or two independent operators, I think that puts people off. But if you base the comparison on £12, which is our average lunchtime spend per head, there are a lot of premium casual chains out there, so we’re competing with Pizza Express, Wagamama, Yo! Sushi, or even Gourmet Burger. Those are the places our customers are generally choosing between.”
This High Street competition means that Carluccio’s has to keep its offer fresh and find ways to ensure that customers choose to dine at its locations rather than others. “I think the big questions for our customers are: ‘is this carefully chosen, is it well sourced, is it a great product?’” Simon said. “I believe people want good quality, well selected products that are freshly prepared, rather than some wider obsession about low fat or healthy eating.”
Keeping customers interested means changing the menu with the seasons and listening to feedback. “Our menus are decided at a central level but we have a group of our best waiters and waitresses who let us know what the customers are saying,” explained Simon. “So, for example we just recently brought back a dish, gnocchi with spinach and gorgonzola, which we’d taken off as it didn’t appear to be selling very well. Our customers pointed out that it was a core dish for vegetarians and so we listened and put it back on.
“We also have some menu staples that never change, such as our Penne Giardiniera, which is a vegetarian pasta product, made with giant penne that we specifically import from Italy. This quickly became our best selling product after we introduced it and we’d never take it off now. We do change the menu very regularly, at least four times a year and try to bring some seasonality and variety to it and also reflect some of the promotions we’re doing in the delicatessen.”
The Penne Giardiniera dish is not only the most popular menu item, but is also linked to Simon and Priscilla’s dedication to find a way to use the restaurant to help others. He explained: “Priscilla and I always wanted to find a way for the team to do something that wasn’t directly related to the business but had some kind of benefit.
We tried working with a few different charities and we couldn’t get our team to engage, and it was only when we started working with Action for Hunger that we really found one that clicked. Action for Hunger helped us get our team excited and involved and I think that’s because they already work a lot with restaurants and they helped us direct our success to a very specific place and everyone can see that we are making a difference.
“It was going well but I felt we could use the volume of people coming through our business to do more, so we introduced a discretionary contribution of 50p to Action Against Hunger on every Penne Giardiniera sold, and suddenly we were raising substantial amounts of money. In just over a year we have raised nearly £250,000, and it has been a very positive experience and we’re planning on continuing.”
This project is something that Simon has personally driven and he has travelled to Africa to see firsthand the differences that the monies raised can make. “I’ve met the team we’re supporting, and met some of the children we’ve helped and seen the difficulties they face, and for me it was a very important experience and I have tried to bring that alive for the team by way of photos and videos.” However, Simon doesn’t think his personal drive is what has made this particular cause the one that Carluccio’s team really embraced. “I tried to push the other projects we supported previously but couldn’t get any buy in,” he admitted wryly. “I think that we have now found a way of raising a serious amount of money and it created excitement for everybody, plus I can hold up a picture and say: ‘this is Madison who I met when I was in Liberia, and our money saved his life’. That makes it real for people and that’s why it’s been successful.”
Going forward, Simon is keen to find more locations and continue Carluccio’s expansion, but he did note that the company has to acknowledge today’s economic situation. “We are in very difficult economic times, and to handle these we believe we have to continue to deliver the best quality and service we can, and to make sure that our offer remains good value. We are trying to keep it ‘business as usual’, and keep our expansion going as before. Maybe there will even be opportunities with property rents easing and so on and we’d like to take advantage of that if we can.
“My view is that you have to be very good in the current environment to make progress. That’s why we’re focusing on the front line really – the heart of this business has always been about customer experiences and we’re emphasising that as much as ever.”
Part of making sure the customer experience is as enjoyable as possible, is finding the right staff – something Simon describes as ‘a nightmare!’ “This is a people business and always has been, and so if you put the best people on the front line then you are going to get the best results. But if the people who are looking after the customers aren’t fundamentally nice, easygoing people, then it’s an uphill struggle.”
Despite these challenges, Simon’s evident enjoyment of the business came through, and he admitted he dines in the restaurants regularly, or as he put it: “Too much! All the restaurants generally know who I am and I would love to be
able to be in all the restaurants more, but there are too many locations for me to be closely involved in them all. All my team come from an operational background, including myself, and we have always and still do get our kicks by looking after our customers and putting on a really good show.”