When Stephen Holmes was offered the opportunity to become ASK Italian’s CEO five years ago, he didn’t have to think twice.
He was a customer of the chain for a start, considered it to be a pretty good business and looked upon it as one of the more mature restaurant operators in the high street. All in all, he felt excited about taking over a brand that had everything going for it.
As he settled into the role and began attending various industry events and functions he soon began meeting plenty of other people with a similar outlook to him: they knew ASK, liked it, and agreed that the food was good — only it emerged that a lot of them hadn’t actually visited one of its restaurants for a while.
As this became a recurring theme, Holmes struggled to put his finger on why this was, until one particular discussion made everything clear.
“I met up with some people who said, ‘you know what, we love ASK, we go there all the time’,” he explains. “I said, ‘great, which one do you go to?’ and they said, ‘we use the one in Weybridge’. Weybridge? Weybridge closed in 2005! And I was thinking, ‘hang on a minute, this is a bit of an issue. Everybody I met knew ASK, liked ASK, considered themselves a regular user, but yet some of them hadn’t been for six or seven years. It wasn’t long before I realised we had a bit of a problem and we needed to do something about it. There is one thing that is certain about the casual dining industry as far as I am concerned: it continually evolves.
“What became apparent with ASK is we had a business which was 18-years-old at the time, but the design hadn’t really evolved, the food was good but it hadn’t really done anything interesting, it wasn’t really relevant anymore. It was a business that people associated themselves with and knew about, but they didn’t really go anymore because there were just lots and lots of other restaurant businesses out there doing stuff that was slightly more interesting, slightly more relevant and slightly more up to date. So we needed to do something drastic, and a transformation was required.”
Holmes’ approach was to adopt a “back to basics” strategy geared around the three things intrinsic to any restaurant chain transformation: the food, the design and the people. The interiors were completely refreshed, with ASK abandoning the usual Italian restaurant penchant for rustic, Tuscany-led designs in favour of a modern, minimalistic look inspired by Milan, while a new service culture was created and waiting staff hired for their communication skills and passion for working in hospitality. And on the food side it brought in acclaimed chef Theo Randall, once of The River Café, to completely reconfigure every aspect of the menu to make sure it was serving, in Holmes’ words, “the very best Italian food that we could possibly do”.
This was all underpinned by a radical new approach to kitchen specification, including the introduction of a uniform kitchen design and equipment specification across its 110-strong store estate. As things stand, some 89 kitchen refurbishments have been completed and a schedule is in place to upgrade its remaining 21 stores over the next 12 months.
Describing the changes made to the kitchen environment, Holmes says: “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 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 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.”
One of the things today is that you can’t get away with serving customers slowly. We’ve really focused on upgrading the kit to enable us to produce fresh food to order more quickly”
Figures recently published by private equity company Bridegpoint, which paid £250m to acquire ASK Italian and sister company Zizzi, reveal that combined sales for the six months to the start of January were up 10% to £119m, while EBITDA soared 21% to almost £18m.
Holmes, however, has his own metrics for evaluating just how successful ASK has been at engaging customers again. “We stared this journey in July 2012 with our first refurbishment in Lewes, so it is coming up for three years and we are seeing huge double-digit sales growth in every restaurant that we are transforming. Profitability has more than doubled in the last two years so as a business we feel very confident in what we are doing.
“We also did one very interesting piece of analysis recently. At the end of 2009 we did a TripAdvisor scrape of all the mainstream Italian restaurant businesses in the UK and ASK Italian had the lowest average star rating. We have just done that exact scrape for 2014 and ASK came out number one, not by much I admit, but it was still number one, and the fact is we have gone from bottom in 2009 to top in 2014. That wasn’t a quick journey — it has taken several years — but if our own customers think the experience in Ask is now better than any other mainstream Italian restaurant business then you know that you are doing something right.”
As ASK ploughs on with the final 20 or so kitchen refurbishments in its estate, it does so in the knowledge that it is one more step towards climbing back to where the brand believes it belongs.
Talking business: Stephen Holmes
On returning to store acquisition
“We are returning to acquisition. We have opened new restaurants in Birmingham and Bluewater and they have gone into the top five busiest and most popular restaurants in the estate. We opened a new restaurant in Swindon a few weeks ago and it is trading at nearly 100% more than we thought it would be. We’ve just opened in Manchester and then we have got restaurants coming in Maidstone and Taunton — we’ve actually got six before June.”
On likely locations for new sites
“What we saw through the recession is that the city centres, town centres and shopping centres were the businesses that held up the most, so our focus is really on doing more of those. ASK’s legacy was to do secondary and tertiary towns and if I am honest they struggled in recession, for a number of reasons. You tie-up for a 25-year lease, the pitch moves, there is a new cinema developed the other end of town, you’re left off pitch and it is a bit harder work. Funnily enough, ASK is massively under-represented in city centres. There is nothing in Edinburgh, nothing in Bristol, nothing in Leeds, which for a business that is 22-years-old feels a little strange. So our focus is to go after the big city centres, shopping centres and town centres where we know the footfall and profile is such that you are going to be able to trade well.”
On sister restaurant brand Zizzi
“Zizzi is a fantastic business and it trades incredibly well. Every single Zizzi restaurant has had some form of investment during the last five years, so when we talk about that design evolution, the design in Zizzi is also constantly evolving. We will continue to refurbish 20 to 25 restaurants a year in Zizzi as we continue to evolve the design and the food.”
On the impact of private equity firm Bridgepoint acquiring the business
They invested in our business because I think, like us, they believe that there is something quite special about ASK, it is only at the start of its journey, people have yet to really discover it but yet a lot of heavy investment has been done. I think they believe that we have got a very special asset there that is going to continue to grow over the next few years.
110: Number of restaurants in the UK
89: Number of refurbishments since 2012
£238m: Annualised sales of ASK and Zizzi
10%: Current rate of sales growth
£250m: Amount paid by Bridgepoint for ASK and Zizzi