Exclusive: ASK Italian CEO credits kitchen review for brand’s revival

Stephen Holmes, ASK Casual Dining

Stephen Holmes, the CEO of ASK Italian, has revealed the integral part that the remodelling of its kitchens has played in reviving the brand and meeting customers’ expectations of order turnaround times.

Speaking to FEJ after his keynote speech at the Casual Dining Show yesterday afternoon, Holmes said that introducing a uniform kitchen design and equipment specification across its estate has been central to a wider transformation programme rolled out across its 110 UK stores.

It has now overhauled 89 of its restaurants and a schedule is in place to upgrade the remaining 21 stores that it operates over the next 12 months.

Describing the changes made to the kitchen environment, Holmes said: “Every single dish is made fresh and made to order so we have modified the cooking platform. We have got more gas burners, we have still got the electric oven that we use, and we have introduced some fryers and more refrigeration.

“We’ve really focused on upgrading the kit to enable us to produce fresh food to order more quickly. I think one of the things today is that you can’t get away with serving customers slowly, so if you want to invest in the quality of the food and ‘premiumise’ things, you also have to find ways to adapt your kitchen to be able to continue to produce things quickly.”

Holmes says one of the biggest changes to the back-of-house strategy has been the introduction of a standardised kitchen layout.

“The kitchen template is almost the same in every restaurant whereas it wasn’t before. We have had to invest quite a lot and we came up with what we called a ‘model kitchen’, which contains the right amount of kit, and then we have gone through all of the processes. As we refurbish, we are putting this kitchen model in place.”

The flow of the kitchen has been central to the new design, says Holmes. “We know exactly what size to build, what the optimum space is and we have also considered things like the optimum number of chefs needed to produce the menu and which dish goes in which section of the kitchen. We have three sections — the salad section, pizza section and a pasta section — and we make sure the menu is engineered so that there is an even workload across all three.

“In terms of the ergonomics we have also looked at how you produce a dish so that the guys don’t have to cross each other in the kitchen. They can now produce everything at their station and we have bought the kit that means they have got exactly the right number of gastronorms to store exactly the right ingredients. It is really just about operational efficiency so that you can continue to produce the food quicker.”

Holmes says that ASK Italian will continue to review its kitchens after the current refurbishment programme has concluded. “Once we have finished the last of the remaining 21 kitchens next year we will go back to store number one and we look for ways to improve the cooking platform, look at the design and look at the food, and continue with that journey of continuous development.”

The newest ASK Italians to open have been in Bluewater in Kent and New Street in Birmingham. Both are already among the top 10 grossing restaurants in the estate.

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