Mr Casual Dining

Mr Casual Dining

When I sat down with James Spragg in the Covent Garden branch of Bella Italia last month, it didn’t take long for me to realise that he was very much an interviewee with an agenda. Bella Italia has evolved wonderfully over the past year or two and he wants people to know about it. Quite right too.

To be honest, I should have anticipated that a man who has headed up brands such PizzaExpress and Café Rouge would be media savvy, but the chief operating officer (COO) of Casual Dining Group (CDG) surprised me as he delivered measured and considered answers that weren’t always entirely related to the questions being asked.

Like I say, he had an agenda, and that was to talk about the success and strategy behind the Bella Italia brand, and that is absolutely fair enough – it’s an impressive operation. But what about business beyond Bella? What about Café Rouge? What about market trading? Marketing? What about all the CVAs taking place? Surely Mr Casual Dining has some thoughts on all of the above and more? Well, of course he does, and if you stick with me over the next few pages, you can find out what those thoughts are. But let’s start with Bella Italia, the primary reason for our pasta-filled rendezvous.

Bella the ball

For this interview, Spragg and I were lucky enough to be joined by Vittorio Lettieri, executive chef of Bella Italia, who was eager to chat through the recent menu revamp, which features on page eight of this magazine. The new menu has been inspired by ‘classic Italian favourites’ and the rise in popularity of vegetarianism and veganism – makes sense given the times. The duo tell me that over 40% of their customer base order pasta, so the menu launch revolved around making this humble dish central to the Bella experience. A little over a month in and they’re already seeing positive results – the newly introduced spaghetti pescatore has already muscled in on carbonara as the brand’s number one selling dish.

“Pasta is centre of the menu, and that’s where we can differentiate ourselves in this Italian market,” explains Spragg, who is no stranger to the strengths and weaknesses of other Italian casual dining brands. “The second element is around dietary needs. We’ve introduced a number of vegan and gluten-free dishes, so we have coverage in all the menu sections. Menu development has changed hugely – there are so many questions to ask. Everything has to be taken into account to make sure that there’s enough choice on the menu to cater for everyone. That’s quite a big change.”

Lettieri tells me that he regularly heads to Italy to research Bella Italia’s menu, and a number of the new dishes are inspired by Italian family favourites he has tried on his travels. So what do Italians make of all this dietary stuff then? Are they seeing similar surges in veganism and gluten-free diets?

“Vegan is coming up in Italy, yes. Gluten-free? Not so much,” he laughs.

“I was at PizzaExpress five or six years ago when we first introduced a gluten-free range,” adds Spragg. “One of the reasons I was so supportive is that I have a niece who is gluten intolerant. How many more were there? Millions. But actually, that means millions of families – you have to cater for everyone in that family.”

The new menu hasn’t been in the 107 Bella Italia sites for too long, but, as mentioned, the business is already starting to witness the uptake, with sales increasing on average by 5%. But this is more than a new menu launch – it’s clear there’s a big Bella push going on within CDG. It’s the main PR content we’re receiving and it’s what led to this interview taking place. While Bella Italia has its loyal customers, this push is also about reaching new ones.

Hand on heart, after sitting down with James and Vittorio to talk through the whole operation, I’m now a convert… and I’m a massive pasta snob. However, not every potential customer will be able to sit down with the COO and executive chef, watch a beautifully constructed promotional video and then sample five or six dishes over a long lunch, so what’s the plan for everyone else? How are they going to educate those consumers who don’t have Bella Italia on their radar?

“We’re now doing interesting things to get new consumers, and part of that is about having the confidence to share what we do,” says Spragg. “We’re now able to leverage our digital platforms and get our message out there a lot better. Everyone is on their phone these days, so we’re spending more on digital media. Some brands get hammered online – they probably shouldn’t be doing marketing until they’re ready. We were low-key on marketing because this brand expanded rapidly – we built 25 sites in a year. That expansion had an impact on the operations. Now, we’ve caught up on operational gaps and fixed everything.

“The brand building that we do is about running the restaurants properly – it can take one month to ruin a reputation, but it can take nine months to get it back, so I’m obsessed with the people. Who has been hired? Who has left? If you jump straight into marketing, throw in promotions and all sorts before you’ve got your offer right, it’s like pouring water into a leaky bucket.

“Bella Italia has always been a low-key brand, but I think we’ve found our confidence now – we make a lot of EBITDA and it’s a very profitable part of Casual Dining Group. Credit should be given to Nick White (former MD of Bella Italia, now CEO of Bistrot Pierre), who started the change. The change happened over three years – it’s accelerating now and is really starting to get stronger.”

The current trading economy

When I spoke with Spragg, Carluccio’s had just submitted a CVA proposal, adding to the list of casual dining brands reinforcing the high street struggles seen around the UK of late. I chat to him about my recent interview with Zoe Bowley, MD of PizzaExpress, and how refreshing it was to hear her talk of such proactivity in a restaurant business, rather than cost-cutting panic. Bowley was passionate, optimistic and inspiring, which CDG’s COO also conveys when it comes to discussing current operational restrictions. This is no coincidence, given the fact that the two used to work together.

“It seems difficult,” he says. “There’s a lot of noise. The cost headwinds have hit the business and we’d be doing miles better if they hadn’t gone up so much. But the ethos is about not upsetting the customer experience. For example, we’ve invested in a brand tracker that interviews 6,000 customers every quarter. It compares us against our competitors and allows us to have a yardstick on how we’re doing with our customers.

“The only way to trade out of a climate like this is to grow sales, not to decline efficiently. It’s the only way you can convert profitably. We’ve had to spend a lot of money developing systems – my primary role of productivity is checking if I have enough people on at peak to maximise sales. Are our employees doing what we want them to do? Are they selling up? We put in tech where I know what every single person’s participation is with starters, mains and desserts for each restaurant. Numbers of starters sold per main course is an example of what we’ll look at. It’s a guide for the managers and allows for a real focus around productivity charts – are we deploying labour in the right place?”

If Spragg and his head office team get that right and the people in place are the correct individuals to do the job, then CDG can be confident that Bella Italia in its current guise is sure to impress customers. As he says, this hasn’t happened over night – it has taken all of three years to get this particular restaurant brand to a level where the company can really start to show it off through marketing and ramped up communications. And, what do you know? It makes them good money. Is that what other casual dining businesses should be doing then? Could the recent run of CVAs allow these nationwide high street brands to reinvent themselves and get back on the front foot?

“We’re now in an environment of far less openings and far less competition,” he concludes. “There is definitely capacity coming out of the market place. If those people get it right and create a nice offer, and have money to invest, why not? Byron is a great brand. I think Carluccio’s is too. They have to rediscover an identity and relaunch. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of commitment to get everything right. Don’t think it’s just about a refurb – it’s about reenergising the people, find out what went wrong in the first place, and offer a change and motivate the troops that are left.

“Casual dining brands are made up of single sites with very different issues – you have to go site by site. You need to look at sites that are doing well and discover why that is. Go to those restaurants that have traded well for three years and talk to them about what they think is really good about the brand. The one thing people have to realise is that doing what you’ve always done doesn’t work – you have to do different things. Something has to stand out.”

What’s going on at Café Rouge?

“The brand continues to perform steadily,” says Spragg. “In the last four or five weeks, trade has really gone up, and we’ve brought in a few things to increase trade during the day. Afternoon tea is doing very well, for example.

“We did some quite significant brand DNA work that allowed us to understand it better and enabled us to be more ‘Rouge’. Our core market is people over 50, and we’re looking after those customers really well, but we’d lost our relevance to millennials. We needed to attract them. Brunch sales are now going up dramatically and we’ve done a lot with gin blooms, which is great when the terraces are open. Operations are improving and we’re finding our confidence again. Café Rouge is a business that allows you to trade every single day part, but we probably weren’t trading the day parts hard enough that we were known for.

“We’ve now launched Stack and Grill, which delivers burgers, croques, craft beer and ice cream. It is performing very strongly and has opened up a new market for us. We don’t mind if people know it’s from Café Rouge, but it’s marketed as Stack and Grill. It has been a nice little lift for sales and we hope that will keep going.”