With a portfolio of 500 stores, annual sales of nearly £700m and a new outlet opening almost every week,
The Restaurant Group — owner of Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquito and Coast to Coast — is one of the most formidable foodservice operators in the land. The man responsible for much of what happens in its kitchens is David Peevers, head of food development for TRG’s leisure brands. FEJ editor, Andrew Seymour, met him at the group’s development kitchen in Stevenage to talk menu changes, kitchen design and his catering equipment wish-list.
First of all, David, how long have you been with The Restaurant Group?
On and off about three and a half years. I did have a year’s sabbatical last year where I did some street food stuff, but I have been back in the company now for about 15 months. My job is head of food for leisure, so I look after food development as well as helping innovate on kitchen design and skills within the chef population. It is a national role, so I could be anywhere from Aberdeen to Newquay. We also do a lot of people stuff around reward and recognition, including cooking competitions and master chef competitions. This week I am taking a team of chefs to Italy to teach them about stone baked pizza and how to really get the best out of the ovens that we have got.
TRG operates a number of high-profile brands, including Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquito and Coast to Coast. How do you divide your time between them all?
It is a tricky one! Frankie & Benny’s is a very big brand, so I would say that it probably takes half of my time and the other half would be divided between the other brands. We are also building a new brand, which has got three or four sites at the moment, called Joe’s Kitchen. It was devised by the Concessions part of the business and they did such a great job of it that we felt it was something that we could roll out as a leisure brand — but more ‘high street’ leisure than ‘leisure park’ leisure. We are opening in Ludgate Hill in May. It is a whole new menu, so it is quite an exciting project to be involved in.
At Frankie & Benny’s we are looking at a new template where we have a pizza station somewhere separate from the kitchen”
Speaking of menus, Chiquito has just launched a new one, which you have been heavily involved in. Tell us about that.
We started what I call the rebirth of Chiquito about three-and-a-half years ago with the MD, Jason Green, and we were quite bold. We radically changed the offer of what the food was about and we defined it to be more grown up — not excluding families at all but not as heavily centred on families — selling more margaritas and fahitas, and being famous for TexMex food. I think the brand was a little bit confused before but now there is a really strong identity to Chiquito. People know what it is and they are happy, and the business shows that with its success. We did a huge menu change three years ago where we changed the whole menu in one go, and it was painful. The latest changes have gone really well, although there has still been challenges. We have introduced a street food section, more fish dishes and we have gone another level of freshness and home cooking in the kitchen.
Chiquito has probably taken us six months, which I would say is pretty standard. Joe Kitchen’s we probably did in two months but we are only opening on one site with that menu so it is not the same. From the start of working on it to launch, it is typically about six months, but in a way you are constantly working on it all the time. The biggest change in food direction has probably been with Coast to Coast, where we have gone fresher and more premium than previously. That was a big change to the menu and so in future it will be more about looking back and refining it. My job this year is to get ahead of the game so that I actually start producing dishes and menus, and we have a bank of work done before the operators come calling.
Do you generally look to deliver a new menu using existing kit or are you open to bringing in new equipment to support it?
It depends on what we are doing. If you were going to make fresh tortillas at Chiquito then we would search the world for a tortilla press and we would trial it, probably over six months, to make sure that it is fit for purpose because of it being a big investment. With the latest Chiquito menu changes we fixed that around our current template, although we have introduced a new fahita station at one of our new openings, in Walsall. We are trialling the station in the middle of the kitchen so you can see it being produced. In Frankie & Benny’s we have just put in a new stone oven from Mam in Italy and I am also looking at a rotating stone oven for the big sites, so I will go to Modena to meet the people at Mam to look at the oven, to see how they make it and really understand how they work because they are our partners really. We also do a lot of work with Angelo Po. In Coast to Coast we have put in blast chillers, we are putting in combi ovens and we are looking at smokers, so we are always looking at the new technology that we can enhance our menu and our capabilities with.
When we buy equipment it is about ensuring that whatever we have got adds value and isn’t just a vanity project”
Does each brand equip its kitchens on its own merits or do you standardise suppliers across the group?
No, we don’t [standardise]. Brands will use different kit depending on what heir necessity is. The majority of it right now is Angelo Po. I have used them before, but heavily with TRG. Different brands also use different installers and kitchen solutions. Chiquito and Joe’s Kitchen would use Airedale, and Frankie & Benny’s and Coast to Coast would use Advance Group. Both offer different skill-sets. Advance are very good because they offer great innovation around what’s new in the market place, while I think the strength of Airedale is that they are great kitchen builders. So between the two of them we have got great partners there.
Are you a big advocate of kitchen innovation?
Yes, I am. I think with something like Joe’s Kitchen, because it is small, it is simpler financially to be able to say ‘right, I want to have this combi oven, I want a smoker, I want an integrated blast chiller.’ With a big brand like Chiquito, or Frankie & Benny’s, where you have got 260 sites, you have got to keep moving, but the challenge is how do you roll that back and show return on investment. That is where the tough challenge is. When it comes to equipment, I was at the HOST expo in Milan in October, which was fantastic, so we are always looking out for new innovation. Often there are constraints for a big company like TRG, whereas if you are an entrepreneur you might put in a wood-fired frill and not worry about it. We have to take extra steps, but the innovation is definitely there and we are supported by our buying team that will go and get us the right oven or the right grill. I think our templates are quite good and what they are about now is refining them to make sure that they keep moving, because I think the brands’ food direction is fairly structured now, which is good. As I said, at Frankie & Benny’s we are looking at a new template where we have a pizza station somewhere separate from the kitchen.
You have got more than 500 sites in the UK, many of them serving breakfast through to dinner. Is the energy efficiency of catering equipment something you look at?
Yes, we have started putting induction into some sites already and at Chiquito we are using induction for a fahita station. If I could have my wish I would get rid of gas and just have induction, which is greener, cleaner and easier to work. I think it is something that TRG is very aware of. I would like to see a solid top induction with an oven underneath that works really well, almost replacing an old solid top and oven. I am sure they are around but you don’t see too much of it. For something like Joe’s Kitchen, where you are going to be doing more pan work, and stirring sauces, that would be really helpful.
Given the scale of the group, do you endeavour to consolidate the supply chain around as few suppliers as possible?
To be honest with you, the way it works is I would look for a piece of kit and then buying team would go and find the best price and the best manufacturer, and they will go internationally to find that. Airedale and Advance Group would assist as well — their job is to innovate and push us and give us ideas as well. It is not just about turning up and installing the kitchen, we need the added value.
I think potentially the new oven at Frankie & Benny’s because that can cook pizza in a minute and a half and do 200 an hour. I think that gives Frankie’s an amazing opportunity to grow, especially in big sites. At the moment, Frankie’s pizzas are tray baked, so by launching pure stone baked pizza there will be a cultural change in getting the guys to understand that putting the pizza straight on the stone is just as easy as putting it in a tray on the stone. That is a big innovation for us this year. Of course, if we’d started with Frankies now we would have put it straight on the stone, so it is just a historic thing. But it is a big challenge because it is 263 restaurants that we have to train. So when people say, ‘why aren’t you doing it now’, it’s because it takes time. In terms of other innovation, when you look at the induction fahita station in Chiquito, that looks really impressive. TRG is moving the dial when it comes to innovation and quality on leisure parks.
What is the biggest challenge as far as equipment goes?
I think the biggest challenge is how do we financially make a return on investment from the new kit that goes back across the estate. We need to prove best practice all the time and there is so much stuff out there that it can be a challenge understanding what is the right thing to take the business forward. It is about making sure that whatever we have got adds value to the business and to the guests and isn’t a vanity project.
CV: David Peevers
David Peevers returned to The Restaurant Group as head of food development for leisure in January 2015 building on strong foundations to bring innovation, creativity and ultimately menus that encourage sales growth. Prior to that he served as head of taste and execution at Bunnychow for one year, after joining the company from his post of executive chef at Chiquito, where he was involved in the transformation of the business and its food culture. He also has experience of the casual dining market from his year as a regional trainer with ASK Italian and before that spent a decade in the gastro pub market.
TRG in numbers
£685m: 2015 group revenues
8%: Year-on-year sales growth
£87m: 2015 pre-tax profits
44: New sites opened in 2015
16,000: Members of staff
1,500: New positions created in 2015
TRG targets 850 stores
The Restaurant Group opened 44 new restaurants and pubs last year, taking it past 500 sites for the first time. While the company called this an “important milestone” for the business, it believes it is still a long way off of reaching its full capacity. In its latest financial report, TRG said that all its core brands have “substantial roll-out scalability” in the UK. It added: “We are confident that we can expand the group to 850-plus restaurants, all financed out of internally generated cash flow. As we have clearly demonstrated in the past, the company has the financial and operational capability to deliver this scale of roll-out successfully while maintaining consistently high levels
“86% of the Chiquito menu is now made on-site”
More than 128,000 customers are now passing through Chiquito’s doors every week, with the recent launch of a new menu helping to boost its appeal. The 88-strong Tex-Mex grill and restaurant chain says it has witnessed a “large increase” in visitors since rolling out the new menu and is on course to open further branches this year.
One of the biggest changes to the menu has been the addition of a new ‘Street Food’ range, which takes its inspiration from the traditional and lively markets of Mexico to offer spicy chicken, crispy tacos, sweet chorizo croquettes with sweet jalapeño jelly and a five bean tortilla stack. A further highlight has been its Hero Burger, with its ultimate toppings of slow-cooked pulled pork, sliced chorizo, red jalapenos and Monterey Jack Cheese.
And in a bid to take the public’s love for burgers to the next level, Chiquito has introduced a ‘Build Your Own Burger’ option, offering guests the chance to choose from a dozen different toppings to create their own ultimate, personalised burger. Chiquito says the menu change has led it to raise the bar, with skilled chefs getting hands on in the kitchen with a huge focus on daily preparation using vibrant, authentic ingredients.
When it comes to creating an effective kitchen, David Peevers, head of food development for leisure, says it is all about the movement of the kitchen.
Where it used to be a smaller fridge and a big freezer, now it’s the other way around”
“One of the things we have been in the past is been too big. My background growing up was in small kitchens, in little gastro pubs, doing fancy pubs, so when I came to TRG and people were saying the kitchens were too small I was like ‘wow!’. Our kitchens are normally about seven metres, side to side. You have to really make sure that there is only one yard step each way for the chef. The most important section in Chiquito is the grill and the grill has got to be able to be of great quality, it has got to be able to turn the food out properly and give the taste you want. You need a charcoal grill, you wouldn’t want to go back to the old electric type grills where the food doesn’t grill properly in that way.”
Peevers says there are also other factors that it has to build into every kitchen development. “Having enough space to plate the food and enough space on the pass is important because when you are busy you are never going to get the food out in time if your pass isn’t big enough. We are also doing a lot more pan work now, so there is more prep space at the back because obviously we are not just buying everything in frozen. 86% of the menu is made on-site, so prep space is really important for our menu, as is the right storage. Where it used to be a smaller fridge and a big freezer, now it’s the other way around.”
The brand lowdown
Frankie & Benny’s (261 units)
Frankie & Benny’s delivered growth in turnover, margins and profits last year. A new menu launch included some rationalisation to reduce the total number of items, while at the same time introducing a greater element of freshness and strengthening its breakfast offering. During the year it opened 14 new restaurants and
a similar number are expected
to open in 2016.
Chiquito (86 units)
Chiquito had another good year with strong growth in turnover, margins and profits. During the year it opened nine Chiquito restaurants, which are trading extremely well. The group expects to open a similar number during 2016 and regards the brand as a key growth engine over the next few years. The core target market for this brand is young adults — a distinct market segment to both Frankie & Benny’s and Coast to Coast.
Coast to Coast (21 units)
Having opened the first Coast to Coast in Brighton at the end of 2011, this brand has carved out a distinctive market position for itself as an entity very much focused on the adult market looking for a more premium offering. During the year TRG opened eight Coast to Coast restaurants and expects to open between five and seven in 2016.
Pub restaurants (54 units)
There is a growing market for a traditional, quality, food-led pub offering. TRG’s pubs have broad appeal and, in particular, attract the affluent grey market. It is broadening the geography of this business, which has historically been focused on the north-west and south-east. In particular, it is now opening sites in the Midlands. Between five and seven new openings are planned in 2016, up from the three that it opened last year.