Carluccio’s chief taps into chain’s ‘great secrets’ to fuel growth

Neil Wickers, CEO

“Operationally we have a focus on speed — speed is critical,” responds Neil Wickers when asked about the kind of foodservice equipment needed to drive a new format that Carluccio’s has just begun rolling out in the UK.

The Italian casual dining chain’s CEO has just flown back into the country from the US when FEJ catches up with him, and while there is plenty happening stateside that is worthy of discussion it is matters closer to home that we are here to talk about. The new concept in question is ‘Via Carluccio’s’, a grab-and-go venture that is poised to expose the brand to a whole new customer demographic.

The first site, which deliberately contains minimal seating (just 18 covers: eight inside and 10 out), is based on London’s Tottenham Court Road, next door to a Greggs in an area populated by other high profile foodservice names, including Costa, Starbucks and EAT. Plans are already afoot to launch more sites in London over the next 12 months.

While the relative infancy of the Via concept means the brand is reluctant to discuss the finer details of the kitchen for the moment, Wickers admits the chain has been able to devise a set-up geared towards speed and efficiency.

Quickness of service is the key thing with Via, compared to a full-blown café and deli offering. We’re essentially talking about a site that operates from around 1,000 square feet”

Carluccio’s has a whole team to take care of kitchen design and procurement and they have been hard at work in the group’s development kitchen, which functions as a hub for chefs to experiment with dishes and equipment.

“Quickness of service is the key thing with Via, compared to a full-blown café and deli offering,” he explains. “We’re essentially talking about a site that operates from around 1,000 square feet. In terms of the equipment, we can call on the experience that we have from our existing [Carluccio’s] sites and we are using a variation of products from those. We know what the pitfalls of certain things are and we understand that the lay-out needs to be ergonomic.”

Carluccio’s, which made sales of £128m in its last published full-year period, is a company that has pedigree for taking foodservice procurement incredibly seriously, believing that there is no point in offering dishes based on the finest Italian ingredients available if the method of preparing them isn’t up to scratch.

Take the Somerset single pass roller that it uses specifically to produce fresh pasta and ravioli in-house, for instance. It carried out extensive research before settling on the right model for its estate, such is the importance of the menu items in question. Even areas such as warewashing are afforded added diligence. Carluccio’s has previously spoken of how it changed its specification for dishwashers to improve reliability and it now pays as much attention on the level of after-sales support as  it does the quality of the wash results.

Via 3

A wall covering outside the first Via during its fit-out tells the Carluccio’s story.

The creation of Via has been almost a year in the making, since Wickers arrived at the chain in fact. Having joined the company from Gondola Group, where he ran Pizza Express’ burgeoning international business and doubled the number of sites it owned during his time in charge, he was no stranger to Carluccio’s and its business model.

But there’s a difference between formulating an opinion of a company from the outside looking in and the real view that you get once you’re behind the gates, so when Wickers arrived for his first day of work he made it a priority to carry out a thorough review of the chain’s prospects as soon as possible.

In instances where a CEO takes over a business that is broken, it is usually obvious to spot what needs to be fixed, but with 115 sites to its name, a sound managerial team and a solid balance sheet, Carluccio’s was anything but. In some ways Wickers’ task was therefore arguably more difficult, but very quickly his analysis uncovered a new opportunity that was right under the company’s nose.

We can call on the experience that we have from our existing sites. We know what the pitfalls are”

“One of the first things I did was take a close look at the business and discovered that we had a number of great secrets, one of which is a fantastic lunchtime-focused operation that is particularly successful in worker locations, such as Canary Wharf and Spitalfields. But it was only really people who were working or commuting into those areas that were aware of what we were doing. At Canary Wharf, for example, we have queues outside of the door during breakfast and lunch. The customer feedback was that it is a brilliant offer and that has led us to explore the possibility of rolling it out further.”

The first thought, understandably, was to run a grab-and-go concept from the many dozens of restaurant locations that it operates. But that idea was quickly shelved. “It was discussed,” says Wickers, “but the feeling was that running it from an existing concept potentially caused a conflict and so we turned our attention to a completely new concept.”

Via effectively represents a quick service variation of the mother brand — and one that it deems “scalable” — with the assertion that it will offer “restaurant-quality food” for people on the move. It is a statement that Wickers himself reiterates, noting that the company is simply responding to what customers have told it.

Carluccio's sign

Carluccio’s believes the Via concept complements its core restaurant offering.

He is adamant that the chain can step up to the plate by offering better food than is typically associated with the takeaway sector, without compromising any of the principles that the brand stands for. Wickers confirms that Via will offer a combination of freshly-prepared and centrally-prepared food, and says that he “sees no problem” in actively adopting this blended model. The lay-out of the store is designed to help customers make choices easily and streamlined enough to match the demand, he adds.

“What we’ve worked to do with Via is leverage the strength of the Carluccio’s brand but differentiate it in its own right, which we’ve obviously done by making it neither a full deli or restaurant offer and calling it by its own name. But it completely follows the ethos created by our founder Antonio Carluccio. One of his phrases is ‘MOFMOF’. It means minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour. That’s what you will find with Via — high quality ingredients that follows his philosophy of food.”

Even the interior is designed to reflect the simplicity and quality that the Carluccio’s brand is known for. Customers will be greeted by a bold and minimal palette made up of concrete, leather and wood, while colour and heritage comes courtesy of tiles inspired by the late Italian designer and architect, Gió Ponti.

But perhaps the person who has had the most central role to play in the formation of Via is Mr Carluccio himself. Aside from collaborating on the menu, the brand is inspired by his experiences travelling as a young man. As a child in Italy, his father worked as a station master and together they often travelled across the country by train.

In those days there were no buffet cars, but on the platform passengers could buy ‘cestino di viaggio’, literally meaning ‘baskets for travelling’. They were packed with an array of fresh bread, hams, olives and cheeses that Carluccio has drawn upon when putting together the offering. The food menu, meanwhile, is complemented by two bespoke signature blends of rich and smooth coffee.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 20:  Antonio Carluccio attends the 2012 Orion Authors' Party at the Natural History Museum at the Natural History Museum on February 20, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images for Orion Books)

Company founder Antonio Carluccio has had a big influence on the Via concept.

Initial reaction to the Tottenham Court Road site will be viewed as a barometer for how much appetite there really is for the new model, although Wickers points to prevailing evidence that the move is the right one for the business in the form of its larger grab-and-go counters in Canary Wharf and Market Place. These are both hugely successful sites and therefore the concept is already “semi-proven”, he argues.

Carluccio’s is planning at least three or four more Via sites in the short term, but it isn’t making any bold statements about where and when they will be just yet. For the time being, the emphasis is on London although Wickers is not ruling out sites outside of the capital. Location is key for any operator, but this is a model that hinges purely on proximity to high numbers of time-strapped punters.

“It is a concept that we think is geared towards worker-driven locations and travel hubs, and that is what we are looking to roll it out to. We are looking at a number of sites although we haven’t signed anything yet. Location is important and in London that can be a challenge.”

Given the prize on offer, it is not one that the company has any intention of shirking.

Via: What does it offer

Trading from 7am through to early evening and leveraging the brand’s expertise in sourcing authentic Italian produce while showcasing founder Antonio Carluccio’s recipes, Carluccio’s Via will feature a selection of breakfast and all-day food items. Moving into lunchtime, it offers a range of hot-focused items, ‘create-your-own packages’ and salads for a fixed price. These will change daily to ensure variety.

Signature dishes on the breakfast menu include Borlotti bean pots topped with a poached egg; egg frittatine wrapped in pancetta; jumbo oats porridge with fig jam from Campania; and panettone with chocolate hazelnut filling.
All-day choices come in the form of mix-and-match pasta and salad boxes, all freshly prepared each day.

Sandwiches feature typically Italian ingredients and come in focaccia, made to founder Antonio Carluccio’s classic Ligurian recipe, while desserts and impulse items include bonet (smooth chocolate mousse with pasta di melega biscuits crumbled on top) and panna cotta pots, Italian cakes and biscuits.

CV: Neil Wickers

Neil Wickers joined Carluccio’s as CEO in February 2015 from the Gondola Group, where he served as international managing director for Pizza Express. During his time in the role, he achieved double-digit sales growth and expanded the number of non-UK sites from 36 to 75. He also re-launched the Pizza Express grocery business.

His arrival at Carluccio’s saw him step into the shoes of Simon Kossoff, who was appointed executive chairman. Kossoff said at the time: “[Wickers] brings a wealth of international and brand development experience and, as such, is ideally placed to lead the team as the brand continues to expand internationally and in the UK.”

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