THE BIG INTERVIEW: Chopstix founders cook up a winning quick service kitchen recipe

Although Chopstix Noodle Bar was conceived over a decade ago, it has picked up pace and rapidly expanded in the last four years, taking its place in shopping centre food courts, motorway services and prominent high street locations. FEJ caught up with Menashe Sadik (left) and Sam Elia, co-founders of Chopstix Group, to find out how its kitchen operations are evolving with the business as it seeks to blend the best of authentic oriental fusion-inspired cuisine with casual, convenient dining at affordable prices.

Chopstix is renowned for offering fresh, healthier-tasting oriental cuisine. To what extent does this ethos influence the design of the kitchens?

When you’re producing food in an environment such as ours, efficiencies are a key ingredient of the kitchen set up. We pride ourselves in offering one of the quickest services in our sector, so the flow around our kitchen and serving space is critical.

What are the key pieces of equipment in a Chopstix kitchen? Are there any appliances that are mission-critical to the whole model?

As an accessible oriental brand specialising in chicken and vegetables served with rice and noodles, fryers, woks and rice cookers are key components of our offer. State-of-the-art extraction is also very important, particularly where we operate from smaller than usual units.

What are the key factors that influence the equipment and layout of your kitchens?

As a genuinely quick-serve restaurant, the speed at which we cook and subsequently serve is essential. As our store size and layout is not uniform across the estate, we creatively adapt our standard layout to suit the individual unit. As flow is crucial to our service speed, we optimise our layouts and staff positioning to ensure we are as efficient as possible.

Speed of cooking and service is critical to Chopstix’s business model.

Kitchen footprints in the quick-service market are generally small. What steps have you taken to ensure your kitchens can cope with spikes in orders at certain times of the day?

We adapt our staffing ratios to the busy footfall periods and ensure that preparation and cooking stations are synced to allow the efficiencies required. Our menu content allows us to cook little and regularly, so that our food is always fresh and optimised for the busy periods.

How does Chopstix develop its menu from year to year? Do you have a standalone test kitchen or do you use the kitchens within the branches to test new dishes?

New product development is very important, and we are constantly reviewing how we can bring new dishes to the customer without compromising on service speed or quality. To that end, we have recently engaged the services of a new logistics company, Bidfood, to assist us with this process.

Our two corporate partners, Welcome Break and Applegreen, use exactly the same kitchen equipment as own-company-managed stores”

Chopstix now operates 75 stores in the UK. What role does equipment have to play in achieving product consistency across so many sites?

Our kitchen equipment underpins our offer, so it is vitally important, and something that we emphasise with our franchise partners as well. Our two corporate partners, Welcome Break and Applegreen, use exactly the same equipment as own-company-managed stores.

You’ve expanded rapidly in the last four years in particular. Has this led to any significant changes in kitchen set-up?

We are always learning as we open new stores and although our kitchen model retains its core attributes we have refined and adapted it over the years. With technology becoming more prevalent we know the next four years will almost definitely lead to changes in the way we approach our kitchens.

How do you see your kitchens evolving in 2018? Are there any pieces of foodservice equipment you’re looking to introduce or enhance?

Menashe Sadik and Sam Elia have developed a menu that allows Chopstix to cook little and regularly.

We are looking at steam innovation and how this cooking method could be adapted in an NPD environment.

You are in a lot of different locations now, which must present certain operational challenges. How does designing and running a kitchen in a shopping centre compare to, say, designing and running a kitchen in a motorway services?

The basis is the same — efficient use of the space provided to allow our core principles of faster, fresher, high quality food to be served to our customer. It certainly helps to know we have the expertise of our in-house design and install team on every single project we undertake.

What is the most innovative thing about Chopstix’s kitchens?

We operate the Blanco self-extraction unit in a number of our stores, allowing us to extract the cooking smells without the need for a standard extraction and filter system.

Chopstix snaps up rival chain after waiting for the right deal to emerge

The Chopstix Group’s purchase of the Yangtze chain of restaurants from Wok Ltd for an undisclosed sum at the end of last year is the first acquisition it has ever made and is designed to give it extra leverage as it looks to expand in 2018.

Yangtze was formed in 2006 and employs 70 staff across nine premium, quick-service Chinese restaurants that it operates in the UK and Ireland. As a result of the acquisition, the Chopstix Group is now active within 35 shopping and retail hubs across the country. All nine Yangtze outlets are located within shopping centres, including Birmingham’s Merryhill Centre and the Meadowhall Centre in Sheffield. Chopstix acquisition

“We have been keen to extend our restaurant interests in the food-to-go sector for a number of years, however, were prepared to wait until the right proposition presented itself,” explains The Chopstix Group director, Sam Elia. “With this acquisition, we are pleased to add a second premium brand to our portfolio, and fully intend to maximise the potential of both Chopstix and Yangtze in the months and years ahead.”

Co-director, Menashe Sadik, added: “Now that our first acquisition has been concluded, there is a real appetite and desire to consider future activity. We are already assessing a number of potential deals, and whilst Chopstix and Yangtze share an obvious affinity, we are not inclined to limit ourselves exclusively to the oriental-influenced sector as we seek to achieve the group’s acquisition and growth ambitions.”

Senior management reshuffle signals start of ambitious market push into new territories

Chopstix has reshuffled the pack as it looks to execute an ambitious expansion plan in 2018. Max Hilton Jenvey, who joined as COO three years ago when the group was a third of the size it is now, has taken on the newly-created post of global head of franchise.

With UK expansion plans securely in place for the next 18 months, the brand is turning its attention overseas and has appointed Jenvey to oversee the development of an international franchise network. Chopstix

Director Sam Elia said: “Max has played a key role in establishing Chopstix across the UK, both in terms of company-owned sites, and also securing and supporting our increasing base of franchise partners. As we look to introduce the brand overseas, there is no one better qualified than Max to spearhead our ambitious strategy.”

Over the course of the past year the company has been actively working on setting out its international strategy and claims to have already generated an enormous amount of interest from international operators.

Jenvey added: “As a brand, Chopstix has come an immensely long way in a relatively short time, because it is a well-organised and managed business with a clearly defined long-term strategy.

“Developing the brand internationally has always been an objective, so now that Chopstix is thriving in the UK the time is right to embark upon the next phase of our growth. Given the undoubted global appeal of oriental food, we hope to be announcing new relationships with international partners for Chopstix in the near future.”

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