The rice cooker tale that reveals how Itsu founder Julian Metcalfe built an empire

Julian Metcalfe, founder

Itsu owner and industry legend Julian Metcalfe has revealed he still likes nothing more than getting involved in the nuts and bolts of the business – including solving kitchen equipment problems that its restaurants face.  

Mr Metcalfe – who famously also co-founded Pret A Manger – was recently invited to speak at the Oxford Union, where he discussed his career in the restaurant industry and answered questions from students.

In a video of his address published this week, Mr Metcalfe discussed the qualities needed to develop and sustain a successful business, and used the example of a recent equipment dilemma to illustrate his point.

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He said: “People don’t often tell you this stuff, but the truth of the matter is, it is all in the detail. Yesterday, I was designing a lid for a rice cooker. Now, [there are] 140 or 60 people in my office…there are whole teams of people who are meant to take care of does the lid fit on the rice cooker properly. We must spend a £1m year on rice cookers. But the rice cooker lid doesn’t actually work, and all the people who are meant to take control of the rice cooker, they are all distracted, they are doing a wonderful job on many other things, so the bottom line is how do we reinvent the lid of the rice cooker?

“It was bizarre because I called the man – he is called Julian Webb [MD of Comet Catering Equipment] – who I called 30 years ago. Mr Webb made all our kitchen equipment 30 years ago. So yesterday, I called Julian Webb, and I know his phone number off by heart from 30 years ago.

“So here I find myself at 9 O’clock in the morning having the same day I had 30 years before, talking to the same man about doing a drawing about how we make the rice cooker lid work to stop the rice drying out. But that’s odd – you would have thought I [would be] negotiating big deals and doing this and that… no, it is the rice cooker lid, that’s the problem! You have to own the problems and the challenge.”

Mr Metcalfe said the rice cooker challenge also underscored the importance of man-management and treating people correctly in business.

“There is another problem there in that if you have got five or six people that are meant to be dealing with equipment and the rice cooker lid, it is incredibly important that you don’t upset them and infer that they are not doing their job properly, because they are doing their absolute best, but the fact is the rice cooker lid doesn’t work.

“So you mustn’t upset them – there is no point, they have done nothing wrong, but the vision is if we had a better rice cooker, one in 20 people wouldn’t get bad rice.”

Mr Metcalfe suggested that one of the mistakes that enterprises often make as they get larger is that management get so detached from the shop floor that “they don’t care about the rice cooker lid anymore”.

He added: “I go to a ‘How To’ meeting every Tuesday and every Thursday; I will never miss a ‘How To’ meeting, which is about equipment and food and stuff like that.”

Mr Metcalfe, who is reported to be worth more than £215m, sold his remaining stake in Pret last year, having seen the business grow into one of the largest food-to-go chains in the UK, with 500 stores.

Itsu currently has around 75 sites and also operates a successful grocery division that supplies Asian food to supermarkets.

But Mr Metcalfe, who has an OBE for his services to the industry, said he has never thought of himself as an entrepreneur.

“I don’t really know what an entrepreneur is,” he commented. “Usually people that say ‘I am an entrepreneur’, they are not. So be careful of that – my advice is never describe yourself as an entrepreneur. You can have a vision. Try and work with things you love – you will be far better at it if you really enjoy what it is you do. I work the same way today as I did 40 years ago – I really, honestly love going to work and I really enjoy what I do, thank God.”

You can view Mr Metcalfe’s full Q&A with the Oxford Union below.

Tags : ItsuJulian Metcalferice cookers
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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