Gondola-owned restaurant brand Ask Italian may not have the same high profile as its stable-mate, PizzaExpress, but with nearly 120 sites it is still a major force in casual dining. Managing director Steve Holmes and Ask Italian's "expert friend" Theo Randall talk to Neil Gerrard about how they are bringing the brand right up to date
You have both been putting a lot of work into transforming Ask Italian. How did that come about?
Steve Holmes About three-and-a-half years ago we tried to decide what we wanted to do with Ask and we set out to completely reinvent the business. We changed the name from Ask to Ask Italian to add some clarity to who we are as a business.
Theo Randall Back in 2008 I did some pizzas for PizzaExpress so I got to meet Harvey Smyth, the CEO at Gondola. Harvey asked me to look at Ask. Even though it was ticking along quite nicely, a lot of the restaurants were very tired and it needed a completely new look. He asked me to look at the food so I went to eat at one of the restaurants. There was nothing wrong with the food but it was a bit old and needed to have a new vision.
How have you approached refreshing the menu?
SH Theo is our inspiration and works very closely with the team. "Expert friend" is a nice way to describe what he does because Theo is in the office all the time, knows all the team, knows nearly all the head chefs, and when we get the managers together he comes along so they all know him, too. Theo was out in Puglia at the end of November meeting the Esposito brothers to talk about our new-season olive oil. So it is a real working friendship which I think is pretty unique.
It is easier to start five or six restaurants and build them than it is to turn around more than 100. When you are writing these recipes and menus you think, "Well, they might be able to do it here perfectly, but in this other place will it work?" You have to think about consistency and quality.
The past three years can't have been particularly easy. How is business looking?
SH It has definitely been tough. The UK has been through one of the biggest recessions the country has ever seen. On top of that we have a business that is 20 years old this year, and there are loads of fantastic operators doing really great stuff on the high street. It is probably one of the hardest backdrops against which to try and redevelop the business.
In the restaurants that we have managed to refurbish and work on all the touch points - the food, the service, the teams - they are doing phenomenally well. These restaurants are seeing huge growth. The problem is we have done only 19.
The other restaurants are doing quite well and the past 12 months has been significantly better but the real difference comes when we are able to refurbish the restaurant and get the complete package.
What have you changed as part of the refurbishments?
SH We added lots of Italian touches, to make the restaurants warm and inspiring and more foody. With the design, I think we are trying to do something that no one else has done before. When you think of a traditional Italian restaurant, especially in this country, you think of Tuscany, truffles, Chianti, autumn, woody - that sort of environment. But our design inspiration comes from Milan, so we are looking for a lot brighter, more modern, contemporary touches.
Take our wine glasses, for example. No one else in the high street has the type of wine glass we use and people really like them. We rolled these out a couple of years ago and customers told us they wanted to buy them, even though they weren't for sale. So we set up a button on the till for the staff to sell the wine glasses (pictured, page 25) and in the past 12 months we have sold 30,000.
How long will the refurbishments take?
SH I think it will take a couple of years. We want to do it properly. There is no point rushing it and doing it badly, but there is no reason why we can't do 20-30 refurbishments a year. Within the next two to three years we should have done the majority of the business and I think there is a real opportunity to create this beautiful, quite large Italian restaurant business that is very different from everyone else. That is our major focus.
You have closed a few sites recently. What are your plans for the size of the estate?
SH We still want to grow and we still think there is scope in the UK for 150-plus or perhaps even 200 Ask Italians. But when you have got a business that is nearly 20 years old, the high street changes massively. Particularly in the past five years, the way that people eat out, how and where they are going to eat out has changed so much that there are inevitably a number of restaurants in high streets across the country that are no longer in the best place. It is just good business practice to close the ones that aren't profitable.
We are looking to open new restaurants, in big, exciting high-profile city-centre locations. We opened a fantastic restaurant in Bluewater last year, which is now one of the busiest restaurants in the company. We have got a really exciting opening in Birmingham in New Street coming up in the first week of July, which we think is going to be fantastic - it's a big 180-cover restaurant. And in the past 12 months we have opened another six.
Theo, sourcing is very important for you - how much influence have you been able to bring to bear on that front with Ask Italian?
TR Working with Jeena, the head of food, has been really inspiring because she has all the contacts. So if I think we have to find a better ingredient for a certain dish, she is very good at getting things. Obviously there are restrictions and costs. This is a high-street restaurant, you have to be realistic. I would love to put on black truffles, but you have to ask yourself if it is going to sell.
We look at the menus and what the sales figures are, so when we try something it has to work in the kitchen. You can make the most amazing, elaborate menus but you have got to think that some days in a restaurant there might be two chefs on instead of three. It is a balance, but for me, this is trattoria. This is what Italian food is all about. You can do little things, such as using Calabrian oregano or making sure the tomato base is seasoned. A little bit of seasoning can make a big difference.
SH A good example of that is a dish that we have put on our menu which is our fettuccine Bolognese. We don't have spaghetti Bolognese on our menu any more. I am not sure but I reckon that is an industry first - for a mainstream Italian business to not have spaghetti Bolognese. And why do we do that? Because Italians don't eat spaghetti Bolognese, it is a British invention. If they eat Bolognese sauce in Italy it is eaten with fettuccine, so we wanted to do things in an as authentic way as possible.
But does the scale that you are working to, and the fact that you are within a budget, affect the authenticity of the dishes?
TR Yes, of course it will. There is going to be - compromise is probably the wrong word - but there are going to be times when you have to look at the product you are serving. But everything is made to order, so it is proper cooking.
SH But it doesn't mean that we can't try and get the best as well, whether it be cooking fettuccine to order, or our Calabrian oregano, or our new-season olive oil.
We have a real relationship with the Esposito brothers who make the olive oil for us. It has our own label on it and you won't find it anywhere else.
TR It is the simplicity of the dishes as well: keeping them simple makes the most of the ingredients. A simple thing such as the mozzarella salad with two different types of tomato and some fresh basil, drizzled with some lovely olive oil and some grated ricotta salata is simple stuff but it tastes great. That suits the look of the restaurant. It is all about fresh flavours and a fresh look.
You have an offer running at the moment - 25% off the food bill until mid-April. Do you think you might get to a stage where it gets difficult to wean your customers off that sort of thing?
SH I think customers like the fact that we are making our restaurants more accessible at a time when people are feeling the squeeze. It is a positive thing for our customers.
We don't compromise our food quality or give smaller portions, contrary to what some people think. We allow customers to come to a business where we are working hard to design classic Italian dishes, with great staff, in a way that makes it more affordable.
And you are still making a decent margin that way?
SH We'd make more money if we weren't discounting! But if we can have full, buzzy restaurants, with people having a great time, enjoying themselves, escaping the horrible weather for an hour and have a beautiful meal that is more accessible, then it is a win-win for everyone isn't it?
There has been talk about Gondola selling Byron. Might a sale of Ask Italian be on the cards eventually, and is this part of the reason for refreshing the brand?
SH We want to run restaurants that look great and are doing well. Theo's motivation and inspiration is to turn Ask Italian into the market-leading Italian restaurant in the high street. We want to do things that no one else is doing and we want to be very proud of every single dish that comes out of the kitchen. My motivation, certainly, is to try and create that.
So you're not selling it then?
SHNo, we are not selling it now. For us it is about creating this wonderful business and if someone wants to buy it then that's great. â¨But it's not even on the cards. I will let other people worry about what will happen to the business.