A shore thing

A shore thing

Some of you may not have heard of Franco Manca. According to David Page, who bought the sourdough pizza restaurant brand for £27.5m in 2015: “Nobody knows about it – only 5% of the population.”

For someone living in London, where the Franco Manca reputation is flying, this is hard to believe. But apparently just 45% of residents in the capital have heard of the booming business that was born in Brixton Market, which, again, is quite unbelievable.

I decided to contact Page about an interview because it had been some years since Casual Dining Magazine caught up with the former PizzaExpress boss. After seeing him scrutinise hopeful start-up hospitality operators while sitting on the investor panel for the BBC’s Million Pound Menu series, I thought it would be a good time to chat to him about an industry that he still manages to thrive in, despite so many others seeming to struggle.

“I think we’re outperforming the market, but the market is so difficult,” he says. “We’re opening some more restaurants, but not as many as the market was expecting a few years ago, and that’s because we think the prices of restaurants are going to come down. They have come down a bit and they’re going to come down more. There is no appetite for new restaurants, so it’s about supply and demand. Excess of supply and no demand means falling rents – feast or famine, you know?”

PizzaExpress vs Franco Manca

Page is certainly no stranger to growing a casual dining brand. Under his stewardship, he grew the PizzaExpress business to 300 sites. He tells me with notable apathy that he no longer pays attention to his former company. I tell him how much I enjoyed interviewing Zoe Bowley for a recent issue: “Who is Zoe Bowley?” he asks. He’s not being rude; he genuinely doesn’t know who is in charge of most of his competitors. The main reason for this is that he has nothing to do with operations. Instead, he uses his expertise in property, finance and design (his focus for the past 32 years) to grow The Real Greek and Franco Manca businesses. And grow them he has. There are currently 43 Franco Mancas and 16 Real Greeks.  

“At the moment, if we don’t expand, then the people working for us don’t have a career path,” explains Page. “You have to keep expanding, otherwise they’re going to go and work for someone else. Not expanding is not a good idea. People want to move up within a company. Also, we’re a public company, so we want to make more money, so that means opening more stores. We went from 10 sites in London two-and-a-half years ago to 30 and that was great expansion. It eroded the sales of the first 10, but that has now stopped happening, because we’ve stopped opening stores in London. We’re now going to places like Bath, Cardiff, Exeter, Bournemouth and Brighton.”

It’s funny – throughout the interview, Page appears to show complete naivety when it comes to what else is happening in the casual dining sector. There is certainly a masqueraded touch to this carefree persona that’s underlined with a focused perception. For example, tens of thousands of Franco Manca customers will know that its most expensive pizza will never cost more than a PizzaExpress margherita – it’s part of the Manca mantra. I ask him if this is still the case, half expecting him to tell me he doesn’t know. “Absolutely,” he says. “We are currently at least £2 cheaper.” So he does pay close attention to some things…

During his incredibly successful time with PizzaExpress, you wonder whether he ever thought he would be rolling out another pizza restaurant brand years down the line. Yes, Franco Manca has grown rather rapidly since Page’s Fulham Shore bought the business, but I think it’s safe to say it will never get to the size and scale that PizzaExpress has reached. For one thing, Page doesn’t look back on his latter days at PizzaExpress with fond memories.

“I was involved when it was at eight stores, but by the time it got to 200, I had really lost the will to live,” he says. “Everything was done by committee. When you get to over 150 shops, you lose things like knowing the names of managers. Up to 150, you can just about keep that buzz going, but it’s very difficult to run a company of a bigger size. If you can do that, you’re more talented than I am, because I couldn’t do it. I found it a bit straining.”

Where to expand?

When Page talks about the out of London areas that he is looking to take Franco Manca, he comes back to the potential percentage of people that have (or rather haven’t) heard of the brand – just 7% of the people in Bournemouth, for example, are aware of the business. For him and his team, there’s a big education job to be done when moving the restaurant around the UK. For some reason, I assumed that he would be tempted by any one of the large-scale leisure developments happening around the country as a way of introducing Franco Manca to that area. Destinations such as Westgate Oxford, Trinity in Leeds and many others allow for a steady footfall and neighbours with mutual goals – they’re a common starting point for many brands moving out of their comfort zone. Not for Page.

“We try and stay clear of them – they’re artificially constructed and ‘leisure destination’ is an oxymoron,” he says. “Landlords don’t necessarily understand what restaurants want in terms of layout and size. Historically, they’ve pressurised people to go into 3,500 sq ft units, which is ridiculous these days, so now they’re cutting units in half, which is what they should have done five years ago. Then they have to deal with twice as many tenants for the same amount of money, which they don’t want to do.

“Really good leisure destinations happen organically, like Brixton Market. People opened there because it was cheap, so it became a destination for good food. Now, every mother’s son is in there and it has changed completely. The restaurants do well because at the moment the corporates and the corporate landlords haven’t taken over. But other places have been spoilt.”

So how does he decide where to take his restaurant brands then? We chat in the King’s Cross branch of Franco Manca, a few minutes walk from the mainline station. It’s really not that far from the hefty investment area that now holds Caravan, Dishoom et al, just round the back of King’s Cross St Pancras, which would contradict his ethos of not signing up for properties in crowded casual dining developments.

“The rents over there are four times as much and we’re not interested in that,” he says, waving in the direction of the casual dining cluster. “When Roger Myers had two Café Rouge sites, he would visit six PizzaExpress restaurants on a Thursday night, sit outside in a car and count the queues. If it didn’t have a queue, he wouldn’t open a Café Rouge there. The next night, he would go to another six PizzaExpresses, sit outside for half an hour, and if there was a queue, he’d look for a site there.

“We don’t care what brands are there already. I admire Pho, and Honest know what they’re doing. I admire anyone who knows what they’re doing, which is the minority, I’d say. They haven’t been conned by agents you see – they’ve gone into small stores. Even if they don’t do well, they’re not paying ridiculous rents. It’s a clever way of starting. We do the same.”

When he says, “conned by the agents”, he genuinely means it, slipping into a flattering performance of how a conversation might go between agent and restaurateur.

“Obviously not all agents are like this, but they will tell you that you’re the best looking guy they’ve ever seen, this is the best site in X, and what lovely clothes you wear… they’ll tell you anything. They will tell you any lie. They will lie to you. Then, when you sign a lease, they don’t even know who you are. You’ve signed up, they’ve got their fee.”

Ready to invest

Page doesn’t reveal all of the names of the other restaurant businesses he has shares in away from Fulham Shore, but there are certainly a few. Scott Collins, MD of MEATliquor, once told me he owed everything to Page when it came to transforming his burger business from a New Cross pop-up to a national brand. Page helped him raise some initial money and also found two of the first four sites. What’s more, Collins and Page ended up sharing the screen together in last month’s Million Pound Menu programme as potential investors.

“I’ve got a little private company with just cash in it and I went into Million Pound Menu thinking I might find something, as did Scott,” says Page. “But we didn’t find anything that we could invest in. Some of the things we would have invested in would have required five years of massive work to educate them on how to run a restaurant. What you need is someone with a great cooking talent and an original idea, but also some experience in front-of-house and the economics of running a restaurant. These guys didn’t have that.”

The truth is he really was ready to invest in something that had all of the right qualities – the qualities he mentions. Much like his relaxed assessment of what his peers are up to on the high street, he is blasé when he says that he “really doesn’t say no to anybody” when people come looking for investment. He cites Indian street food operator Bundobust as someone he would certainly back if they were keen, and I’m sure there are many others. Despite a number of businesses from across Europe getting in touch with Fulham Shore, who view London as having the most exciting restaurant scene, he is watching the rest of Europe carefully, in the belief that “really good small chains in France and Germany will take off in the next 20 years”.

“There are a lot of ideas and lots of enthusiasm out there, but there’s a reason why so many restaurants close soon after opening,” says Page. “They come along with a fanfare and PR and then it doesn’t work. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before one turns into a prince, so we are talking to people all the time.

“You don’t know what something is going to be. Some are whacky, some interesting, but nothing that gets you really excited. What happened with MEATliquor is they invited me to New Cross to see what they were doing and the building was actually moving – vibrating like a tuning fork. It was extraordinary. Then it happened when they opened in the West End. It’s very rare, but it can happen again. Famously, there isn’t an original idea on the planet, but you can always make something better – you can improve all the time.”