Following the demise of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant empire, the Guardian has run a finance and food test on four Italian dining chains on the high street.
The success story – Franco Manca
How the business is doing
With annual sales of more than £40m and 46 restaurants, Franco Manca is on the march across the country as millennials dine out on sourdough pizzas washed down with green cola. It has been part of the listed restaurant group Fulham Shore since 2015 and its chairman, David Page – who in the 1990s oversaw the explosive growth of PizzaExpress – says there is scope to open as many as 120 Franco Mancas as it pushes beyond its London heartland.
Page says keen pizza prices are key to its successful formula and customers typically spending £10 a head: “We are 30% to 40% cheaper than other operators,” he says. “Our profit margins are lower but our [sales] volumes are higher because we have lots of customers.”
For 25 years “Francos” was a one-off pizzeria run by Franco Casale, plying his trade in London’s Brixton market before the hipsters arrived. In 2008 he sold to first-time restaurateurs Giuseppe Mascoli, an Italian chef, and Bridget Hugo, an artisan baker who overhauled the menu, introducing the “slow-rising” sourdough bases that are now its hallmark. They renamed it Franco Manca – which means “Franco is missing” – and soon had Londoners queueing out the door.
Between 2015 and 2017 Fulham Shore opened 20 sites, sometimes less than a quarter of a mile apart, as it satisfied Londoners’ hunger for gourmet toppings such as Cantabrian anchovies and wild fennel salami. Page says battle scars from previous downturns have helped management avoid the pitfalls that have snared rivals. “The time when you could open 300 restaurants in the UK is over, it is so much more competitive,” he says.
‘Quality sourdough bases, super-quick service, affordable’
The mini pizza chain, which opened in Brixton market in 2008, has built a cult following and guaranteed queues, thanks to the quality of its sourdough bases, well-sourced toppings, super-quick service and affordable prices (a pizza and a generous glass of wine comes in at around £12).
Its wood-fired, artisanal credentials have led to a staggering number of branches: 36 in London; nine around England, including Bristol, Brighton and Cambridge, with five more in the pipeline; and one in Italy. Despite this expansion, the slightly sour and salty bases still make an impression.
Being a pizza purist, it’s tomato, mozzarella and basil for me; heavy on the dough with thick crusts crisped on the edges and at the very bottom and pillowy soft in the middle. Toppings, from tomatoes sourced from Campania to organic mozzarella made in Somerset by Italian cheesemaker Albino Scalzitti, are on the sparse side but set off the pizza’s freshly baked charms.
Daily specials include seasonal veg and cured meat-laden options, which feel unnecessarily busy (mozzarella, spicy nduja, roasted aubergine and basil on a butternut squash base on my visit), while a charcuterie platter starter and a side of mixed leaves merely play a supporting role; you’re here for the chewy crust and big slices of mozzarella. With popularity can come mediocrity but these Neapolitan-style pizzas still do it for my money – although the Brixton branch remains the best.
The old favourite – PizzaExpress
How the business is doing
Mark Brumby, a leisure industry expert at City stockbrokers Langton Capital, says discounting has become endemic on the casual dining scene, and almost every customer at PizzaExpress these days seems to have discount voucher or be claiming a price reduction of some sort.
The chain, which has 490 restaurants in the UK, has been going since 1965, when Peter Boizot opened the first branch in Soho, London. Over the past 50 years it has been through several private equity owners and stock exchange flotations, with the company most recently changing hands in 2014 when it was bought by Chinese private equity firm Hony Capital for about £900m. It sells more than £500m of dough balls and American hots a year.
For the first 25 years PizzaExpress had the field to itself but since the millennium casual dining has become a £9bn a year blockbuster business, adding £2bn of sales over the past five years alone.
Restaurant industry consultant Peter Backman says PizzaExpress used to be a destination – but that its reliance on discounting means this is no longer the case.
“PizzaExpress is no longer aspirational,” says Backman. Now, he says, “it’s just something that is there and offers value for money. Pizza is a low-cost product. It’s flour and water with a lot of cheese on the top. You can discount it quite heavily and still make a profit on it.”
‘Consistent, cheap, tasty’
Within 20 seconds of sitting down at PizzaExpress, my daughter has a paper chef’s hat plonked on her head, multicoloured crayons pushed in front of her and an order for dough balls with garlic dip placed (kids’ three-course menu – £7.25). Forget your no-reservation hipster pizzerias based in disused bomb shelters – my child is silent and PizzaExpress is suddenly the greatest restaurant on earth.
Speed and family friendliness are crucial to the chain’s success – since opening in the 1960s it has built an empire. But there’s another factor that I’d forgotten since “outgrowing” the chain a decade or so ago: the pizzas are – whisper it – really quite nice. Sure, this might not be Italian food served just as mama intended but it’s tasty – the fiorentina with added brown anchovies on a romana base (£14.85) is crispy and garlicky with a suitably runny yolk rolling over it, while the classic American Hot (£12.30) packs enough of a chilli punch to keep my little girl’s greedy mitts away.
The key, I think, is that it has no pretensions to be a “proper” Italian restaurant – consistency is maintained because their product is easy to replicate. It’s also cheap (it doesn’t take much hunting around to find decent internet deals – we fed three with drinks and desserts for £45.98), and we somehow manage to order, eat and pay within 40 minutes. Even the wines are drinkable – their organic verdicchio (£6.25) hits the spot during a scorching lunchtime – and as I sip it, watching my daughter quietly sucking on her rainbow lollipop (with hidden vegetables – got you, sucker!), I wonder if there’s anywhere else I’d rather be.
The comeback bid – Carluccio’s
How the business is doing
Carluccio’s is attempting a comeback after a near death experience in 2018 forced a dramatic reappraisal of the business founded 20 years ago by the celebrated late chef Antonio Carluccio.
Last year the cash-strapped company had to use a company voluntary agreement (CVA), an insolvency procedure that is currently being used by restaurateurs and retailers to close down loss-making sites, and 30 outlets were shut.
“A CVA is genuinely an existential moment for a business as you go into it with the alternative of going into administration, says Mark Jones, Carluccio’s chief executive who joined last year to steer a turnaround of the business. The chain, he says, is now “out of crisis but still in a difficult trading environment”.
Jones is frank that the company, which had become a chain turning over £100m a year, had “lost its way” with its menu no longer “special enough” for a Friday or Saturday night out.
“One of the lessons we learned was that the dash for growth was ridiculous,” he says. Cash spent on new openings meant older restaurants started to look threadbare. “Some restaurants had not had any investment in a decade, yet we were building new ones.”
To right the ship it is trying to recapture what was special about its food when Carluccio opened the first restaurant in London’s Covent Garden 20 years ago and pulled in celebrity diners. Jones says the business has 50 years worth of the famous chef’s recipes to draw upon: “We often ask what would Antonio say about this dish?”
Carluccio’s is controlled by Landmark Group, a Dubai-based retail and hospitality conglomerate, which has stumped up £10m to fund a makeover of the chain, provide staff training and a handful of new-look sites. It has also pulled out of discounting.
“We charge the price that we think is the market price,” Jones says. “There are no vouchers in circulation so you are safe in the knowledge that you are not sitting next to someone with a 30% off voucher they got on the internet.”
‘A floppy mess, like a supermarket value meal, tastes of meh’
Last time I had a Carluccio’s, I posted a shot of my chicken milanese on Instagram and a friend messaged: “Always go for the pasta, you psychopath.” Which is why I’m now in the London St Pancras branch staring down at a slab of lasagne so flat, it may well have been run over by the Eurostar on its way from the kitchen; perched on top is a single forlorn parsley leaf, possibly wondering what it did to deserve being separated from the bunch.
The plate is cold, but the pasta itself is hotter than Vesuvius, so I’m forced to give it a five-minute cooling-off period before I dare risk a bite. I wish I hadn’t. Turns out you can get away with charging almost 12 quid (not including service) for a remarkable approximation of a £1 supermarket value meal: a pappy, cloying mess of floppy pasta swamped by vaguely cheesy béchamel and a tomato sauce with a worrying metallic aftertaste.
My friend’s orecchiette with lucanica ragù is better, but not by much. The pasta is a bizarre mix of overcooked, al dente and undercooked, which takes some doing, yet the sausagemeat sauce at least has a decently piggy kick. Shame about the watery, tomato-coloured pond that quickly collects at the bottom of the bowl.
Before the pasta, we’d shared scamorza arancini memorable only for being utterly devoid of flavour, which may be a first for anything that’s ever come into even remote contact with smoked cheese, and bruschetta featuring those multicoloured tomatoes that distract you from the fact that they taste of meh.
Throw in an afterthought of a green salad, a bland shared tiramisu, a couple of glasses of wine each (the second for medicinal purposes) and an OK espresso, the bill for this celebration of averageness is £90. You could eat at any number of genuinely brilliant independent restaurants for less than that – to put it into context, it’s more than the average weekly shop for a typical UK family – but then, what do I know? My mum swears by the place – mind you, she never has the pasta.
The casualty– Jamie’s Italian
How the business went wrong
His cookbooks storm the bestseller lists and his TV shows pull in millions of viewers so the failure of Jamie’s Italian, the high street flag carrier of Jamie Oliver, has rocked the restaurant world.
The closure this week of all but three of Jamie Oliver’s 25 UK restaurants, with the loss of 1,000 jobs, ends a sorry chapter for the entrepreneur. Only three outlets at Gatwick airport remain open for business as administrators search for a buyer.
When the first Jamie’s Italian opened in 2008 Oliver, with his strong stance on ethical issues like animal welfare, promised to “positively” disrupt mass market dining on UK high streets. But it ended up a victim of a saturated market.
Jamie’s Italian closed a dozen restaurants in a bid to keep going. But it wasn’t enough and earlier this year Oliver, who had continued to pump money into the business, decided to sell. There were, however, no buyers.
Thomasina Miers, the former MasterChef winner who founded the Wahaca chain of Mexican restaurants, said rocketing rents and business rates were crippling the restaurant trade.
“If someone as well known and successful as Jamie’s is being hit how many others are in the pipeline?” said Miers, who pointed to the near doubling of rents in central London and business rates hikes of 30%-40%. “It suddenly makes running these businesses much harder and, in some cases, not viable. We can’t just keep putting prices up to match our rise in costs.”
‘Tough, insipid, like a drunk fridge raid’
Nobody saves their best game for an airport. Jamie’s Italian in Gatwick has all the pantomime of the Oxford original, but it’s a cacophony of pantos, all telling differently incomprehensible stories. The main restaurant is still “Italian”, mediated through a raw, noughties New York aesthetic, tiles, chandeliers, exposed wood. It’s a familiar look, now – Godfather Part 1 meets Fight Club – but I still don’t really get it. The bar, meanwhile, is full 1950s diner Americana, with letters the size of the man himself announcing “JAMIE” to airport punters. When I reviewed the first Jamie’s Italian, in 2008, I concluded that the vibe was aspiration through the looking glass: Jamie Oliver was trying to create the sensation of being Jamie Oliver, for people who really, really wanted to be Jamie Oliver. Now, he’s a man boldly stamping his personality on things, but that personality is all over the place; retro but can’t decide which decade; fusion but can’t decide which countries it’s fusing.
The food is in crisis: the antipasti plank (£16 for two to share) suffers from the same needless condiment vandalism as beset it 11 years ago: the stracciatella completely obliterated by a harsh dressing that claimed to be black olive tapenade, but was in fact made of insipid yet dominating sun-dried tomatoes; chilli jam on the pecorino, the kind of thing a drunk person would fetch up from a fridge raid.
Having been savaged by critics a number of times, the truffle ravioli is still on the menu, but has been quietly disappeared (you can see it, but you can never order it). The rabbit, chicken and turkey tortelloni (£15) was ill conceived; all you could taste of the meat was that it derived from more than one creature. The pasta was tough and chalky at the joins, and lacked entirely the silky mouthfeel for which fresh pasta is prized. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t fresh – these are the technicalities that restaurant empires will go to the wall over, has this touched a freezer, did that travel in a ziplock bag? But it had been cooked by someone who didn’t understand the principle of pasta – on the evidence of one scorching mouthful from the tortelloni at the dead centre of the plate, I would hazard a microwave was involved.
The Calabrian chicken (£16) was fine in its essentials: that dry chicken of 20th-century catering has been vanquished more or less; almost everyone brines it now. But the tomato and nduja sauce had a lipsmacking, Marmite-y quality, over-reduced, over-seasoned, over-zinged, with the thin, papery, homogenous taste of dried “Italian seasoning” floating over the olives and capers, like shopping mall muzak piped on to a street brawl. Some broccoli was yellow at the edges, not in a fancy, heritage way, but as if it was well past its best. Seriously, I wouldn’t have fed it to my children.
Oliver has been the victim of economic circumstance, sure; many chain restaurants are floundering, no longer cheap enough to justify their clackity, canteen atmospheres. But I find it hard to imagine the boom conditions that would sustain this tired concept.