As the Jamie Oliver Group makes its return to the UK, global group restaurant director Ed Loftus talks about the new London opening
In November, the Jamie Oliver Group opened its first London restaurant, Jamie Oliver Catherine Street, since the chef's UK business fell into administration in 2019. In the intervening years the group has continued to expand globally, but has since turned its attention back to its home turf.
Ed Loftus began working with Oliver as head pastry chef at the launch of Fifteen Watergate Bay in 2006. Now, as global restaurant group director, he talks about Oliver's return to the London restaurant scene and growing the business overseas.
How did you first get involved with the Jamie Oliver Group?
The first job I ever had was in a little hotel in a village called Orford in Suffolk. I was doing my apprenticeship and two of the first cohort from Fifteen London, who were on the TV show, did their work experience with us. A few years later, I was part of the opening team for Fifteen Watergate Bay as head pastry chef.
I was later head pastry chef at Fifteen London and worked at Barbecoa. I got out of the kitchens and moved into management, so I was there through the good times and the not so good. I think Jamie always wanted someone with a chef background to head up the restaurants because that's his experience.
Jeremy King, who joined our board last year, has a good saying that you can't manage restaurants from a board room, you have to manage from the floor. That's how I approach things. It's a team sport and you have to be in among it.
Jamie Oliver Catherine Street opened in Covent Garden on 28 November, why was now the time for the group to return to London?
We weren't specifically looking to do a restaurant – the site was just a remarkable opportunity. We loved that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the landlord and it was in a unique position next to the theatre. It's a difficult time out there and Jamie's so passionate about hospitality that it just felt right. We have restaurants around the world but it's important to us to contribute to the UK hospitality scene in a positive way.
Tell us about the site
It's a 138-cover restaurant with a small terrace, which we'll open in the spring and summer, and which can serve about 20 people. The space is quite intimate with lots of comfortable seating. When you go in, we want it to feel like you've got your own safe space and can have your own experience and talk to somebody. We've looked at the acoustics and the set-up as we don't want people to feel like they've been shoehorned in like sardines.
We hear a few familiar faces are returning to run the restaurant…
Our general manager Caesar Cruz worked for Jamie for about 16 years. He started as a junior waiter at Fifteen – and might even have been there on the opening day – and he was general manager of Fifteen and Barbecoa. With this restaurant there wasn't even a second thought about who was going to be the general manager, he's the king of culture.
Head chef is Chris Shail, who was head chef at Barbecoa for many years. He's not a chef that will scream and shout, he's very much in control and low-key. Kitchens are very hard places to work in and you need the right leadership. We've got a team of 65 people. Throughout the management and chef team there are many familiar faces that have come back to join us. Jamie references getting the band back together and it feels like that. Some of them are his friends as well as great professionals.
What can you tell us about the menu?
It's rooted in Jamie's early years growing up in a pub. He'll often talk about working with his dad, Trevor, who's referenced in the menu. We've got Trevor's chicken, which was a runaway success in the soft launches, and there are also influences from Jamie's time at River Café and sprinkles of Fifteen and Barbecoa. It's a real celebration of the last 30 years of Jamie's career, but refocused.
We didn't want to do anything that was super trendy or trying to be too cool. The idea is when you read the menu it feels familiar and comforting, but there's also something for everybody. It's a broad demographic in Covent Garden, with theatre-goers, tourists and shoppers, so it's a real mixed bag.
What about the pricing?
We're not playing in the mid-market space, but we're still going to be democratic and accessible. You can have a starter from £7-£8 up to maybe £16-£17. Main courses start around £16. We'll also be introducing our pre-theatre and lunch menu in January that will be keenly priced around the £20 mark for two courses.
Fifteen had a big focus on training, will that carry over to Catherine Street?
We want to capture the essence and sentiment of Fifteen. We're going to work with [homeless charity] Only a Pavement Away in the New Year. They do such a good job of getting people into hospitality. We're working on some [of our own] initiatives that we'll be talking about soon. We want to be a force for good for attracting people into the industry.
There are maybe 800 people who went through Fifteen London, and it produced some amazing talent, like Tim [Siadatan] who owns [pasta restaurant group] Padella and [food writer] Anna Jones. We recently did an event at the restaurant with a load of Fifteen alumni and surprised Jamie with a few people, it was a really emotional moment for him.
What has happened with Jamie's Italian since the closure of the UK restaurants?
It continues to thrive. Internationally we're at about 28 restaurants and we opened two new Jamie's Italians last week in Kuwait and Riyadh. We've got lots of plans to open further sites internationally, including in Belgrade, Montenegro and the Middle East. It continues to be super-successful and we're really proud of it actually.
What plans are there for the wider business overseas?
We've got nearly 80 restaurants around the world in 24 markets and we're edging towards to £100m annual turnover on the international estate. Next year, we've got plans to open around 25 restaurants. We've got 16 franchise partners and it's going from strength to strength. We've got 18 restaurants in travel hubs and have plans to expand further in airports as well and have won some recent tenders, which is exciting.
We operate everything from grab-and-go to one-off projects. Jamie's got global appeal – he's sold over 50 million books and more than half of those have been sold outside the UK. It's a hugely powerful brand and works very well.
We're focused on new markets and are in the process of building a flagship site in Berlin and working on market entry in the US, which we hope would happen towards the back of next year. We've got a big drive to develop the European market to build up some density, with the likes of Poland, Spain and Sweden very much on the cards.
Would you want to open more restaurants in the UK?
We have a small cookery school at head office [in London] and we're looking to open a central London location at some point next year. It would be a real flagship Jamie Oliver cookery school. Experiential concepts are doing really well. Our school doesn't feel like a typical school, there's lots of prosecco flying around and it's a real social event. We do lots of corporate trade and date nights and it's a lovely experience.
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