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Caterersearch.com 100: Julian Metcalfe

01 July 2010
Caterersearch.com 100: Julian Metcalfe

Overall ranking: 32

Restaurateur ranking: 10

Julian Metcalfe - Snapshot

Julian Metcalfe is the co-founder and creative director of Pret A Manger, the ground-breaking sandwich chain that ushered in a new era of freshly made high-quality food to take away. The group, which has an annual turnover of £200m, has 225 outlets in the UK, along with 25 branches in the USA (this will be 27 by August 2010) and eight in Hong Kong. The company, which is owned by private equity firm Bridgepoint, employs about 4,000 staff. Metcalfe also co-founded Itsu, the London chain of conveyor-belt sushi restaurants and take-away shops, with Pret director Clive Schlee in 1997. It has grown to 12 sites across the capital.

Julian Metcalfe - Career guide

Metcalfe, who is 49, opened the first Pret A Manger in London's Victoria in 1986 with co-founder and friend Sinclair Beecham, after the pair realised there was a gap in the market for a high-quality sandwich shop.

Within a decade Pret had grown to 45 stores, but its most rapid growth has been in the current century. It opened its first overseas store in New York in 2000 and its international expansion accelerated after McDonald's bought a 33% stake in early 2001. In 2002 it moved into Hong Kong and, in a joint venture with McDonald's Company Japan, into Tokyo.

Some shareholders objected to this rapid growth and its contribution to pre-tax losses of £6.7m in 2001 and £20m in 2002. This disagreement led to the departure of chairman Andrew Rolfe and deputy chief executive Harvey Smyth and the return of Metcalfe as creative director in March 2003.

The Hong Kong stores became profitable in 2005 and the New York branches were forecast to break even in 2006. Japan, however, proved a harder nut to crack, and the group exited the market in March 2004 after setting up 14 branches over an 18-month period.

Sunday Times Rich List.

Metcalfe opened his first Itsu in August 1997. There are now four Itsu restaurants in London. Since 2005 the restaurants have been joined by a chain of 22 Itsu shops selling freshly made sushi boxes, hot noodles and soups for take-away. The larger branches can also seat up to 120 customers.

In 2006 Itsu was caught up in the Alexander Litvinenko affair when the Russian citizen was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 and infected a number of hotels and restaurants in London.

Julian Metcalfe - What we think

A self-described perfectionist with a vision for "what is right and what is wrong", Metcalfe has undoubtedly revolutionised the British lunch hour. Fed up with limp sandwiches and greasy-spoon cafés, Metcalfe, with Sinclair Beecham, created a brand new market for nutritious food-to-go and helped to inspire the likes of Leon and Tossed.

Pret focuses on high-quality ingredients and rejects obscure chemicals and genetically modified substances. Food is freshly made each day and packaged in recycled cardboard rather than plastic to highlight its freshness. Any unsold produce is donated to the homeless at the end of each day.

Pret's success has seen both Metcalfe and Beecham appointed MBE, and the chain regularly gets the consumers' vote for food quality and cleanliness in Allegra's annual reports on the coffee bar market.

The decision to sell a third of the company to McDonald's in 2001 raised eyebrows in some quarters - and senior executives privately admit it did damage the brand a little - but the move highlighted the ambition and drive of Metcalfe and Beecham and helped to expand Pret into new markets.

The McDonald's deal also reflected the strength of the Pret brand, something that was reinforced by the £345m sale to private equity firm Bridgepoint in 2008.

Although fears have been raised that Pret profits are now being swallowed by interest payments owed by Bridgepoint, Pret insists that it is in a healthy position because the equity lenders were not actually taking out their interest payments.

Itsu, founded by Metcalfe in 1997, has always been perceived as a "cool" brand, but the entire existence of the company was thrown into doubt when its Piccadilly branch was pinpointed as the destination where Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006.

In an interview with the Times, Metcalfe admitted that he thought it was the end of Itsu. "Something covered in that much publicity? Instructing customers to call the NHS? Forget it. I was convinced, convinced, that it was the end of the company," he said.

His staff suffered a "terrifying" week waiting for the results of their urine tests, he said, but the main thing was that they got the all-clear and no customers were harmed either.

"Do I really think this has been good for the brand? I suppose in some sick way it has. Does it make us more famous? Yes. Do I wish it had never happened? Yes," Metcalfe added.

But the brand survived and continues to grow. It seems Metcalfe will continue to be a significant presence on the high street for years to come.

Tony Hughes, formerly managing director of Mitchells & Butlers Restaurants, summed it up when presenting Metcalfe with consultancy Peach Factory's Icon award in 2008. "This year's recipient is a man of true vision and true values," Hughes said. "His dedication to food product quality and service is a beacon and a lesson to every operator in the industry."

Julian Metcalfe - Further information

Crisis management procedure: Coping with a crisis >>

Pret A Manger sold for £345m to private equity firm >>

Pret a Manger makes first significant profit since 2000 >>

Read more about the Caterersearch.com 100, the list of the most influential people, here >>

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