Jamie's Italian – what it's like to work for a celebrity chef

22 July 2010 by
Jamie's Italian – what it's like to work for a celebrity chef

Working with Jamie Oliver clearly has its moments. Simon Blagden, managing director of Jamie's Italian, sighs good naturedly as Caterer reminds him how Oliver claimed that banks were "crap", after the chef restaurateur was forced to turn to friends and family for help when he couldn't obtain finance on the Italian restaurant business.

Sitting in the Canary Wharf branch of Jamie's Italian, Blagden insists that the company has a "great relationship" with its bank, Barclays, which is probably just as well given the restaurant's location - just a few hundred metres from the banking giant's huge head office operation.

"Barclays continues to fund us," he says. "As we get more restaurants it becomes easier to self-fund, but it is still there. We brought some funds in from friends and family about six months ago just to help things along."

Then there was Oliver's claim, prior to the launch of Jamie's Italian in 2007, that the business would not be the "British equivalent of the Wolfgang Puck operation in the USA", promising not to open "a Jamie's Italian on every high street in the country", with a London launch "unlikely".

With the Canary Wharf site opening last autumn, the doors just opened on a restaurant in Covent Garden and another new site opening at the Westfield shopping centre this month, "likely" would have probably been a better phrase when asked about London, as Blagden is happy to acknowledge.

"I was there when he said it," he says, with a smile. "What we actually meant was we wouldn't look at London to start with. We thought we would go to places where people were happy to have us, to test it out. But if you are going for a national collection of restaurants, you are going to end up in London."

But while Blagden probably didn't have to worry about media coverage in his previous role as operations director at PizzaExpress, it is clear that he would never expect Oliver to hold his tongue.

"Jamie keeps pushing the boundaries; he doesn't make life easy," he explains. "He says we must always over-deliver. It's all about detail - everything has been sourced in a certain way. If you get all the little things right and put it all together, it becomes really special."

In many ways, Jamie's Italian has the perfect mix of creativity and operational experience, with Blagden operating alongside Oliver, executive chef Jules Hunt and Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo, who acts as consultant.

"We have a good mix of skills and experience," says Blagden. "Jamie is off the wall - he has a lively mind. He might have 20 ideas and five of them will be do-able. But he has enjoyed the fact that we have enabled things to happen."

day-to-day operations

While Oliver is not involved on a day-to-day basis, Blagden stresses that he brings a lot more to the table at Jamie's Italian than simple profile - as is often the criticism with celebrity chef-led operations.

"He calls on the phone a lot, texting and e-mailing," he says. "He gets to visit the restaurants as much as he can. The menu is all signed off through him, we run through design stuff with him.

"Jamie always gives a bit of a twist; he will always have a view which is different to anybody else's."

One high-profile difference with Jamie's Italian is that it does not take bookings for groups of fewer than eight people. The move raised some eyebrows at the beginning; however, Blagden insists it suits both customers and the business.

"We took the decision early - because of the price point, we knew we would have heavy traffic and we serve more people by not booking," he explains. "We are going to open up bookings at Canary Wharf a little bit - people want to bring clients, so we are going to address that."

This emphasis on being different runs right through the Jamie's Italian chain - or, as Blagden would have it, "collection".

"The first difference between us and a chain is that we treat every site as unique - no two will look the same," he says. "The other difference to a chain is the whole ethos - it doesn't feel like a bigger business to when we had one [restaurant]."

As with any hospitality business, attracting the right people has been vital to the success of Jamie's Italian - which now employs around 1,000 staff. However, Blagden admits that recruitment is not an easy process, "no matter what name you have on the door".

"Management and head chef roles are difficult," he says. "We are very particular. It's about an appropriate fit for the business - we go through a lot of people. Attitude is key - you might not have been the best in your previous life, but you can grow with us."

Sitting in a busy Jamie's Italian on a Monday afternoon, while scores of Canary Wharf workers eat their sandwiches outside, it is easy to forget that the UK is only just emerging from the worst recession in 60 years. But Blagden is sanguine about the effects of the economic slowdown - and Government cuts - on the eating out sector.

"People are now so ingrained with going out - and that's not going to change," he says. "Places that have not increased prices without increasing quality are doing really well. Those who increased prices during boom times to make up for internal weaknesses are the ones who struggled."

But surely Blagden must have had night-mares opening a restaurant in Canary Wharf just after failed investment bank Lehman Brothers - with its 5,000 employees - departed the area?

"Even if 10% of the current population had moved out of the area, it would have been compensated for by new businesses coming in," he responds. "Canary Wharf is still an incredibly stable environment, with a number of different strands other than finance."

It seems safe to say that the recession has not put the brakes on Jamie's Italian's expansion plans, despite a little local difficulty with "crap" banks.

The Covent Garden site is the 13th Jamie's Italian and Blagden remains open minded about future locations. "Any decent city, decent suburb, great out-of-town scheme," he says. "Anywhere we can improve the offer for the public."

Foreign expansion is also on the horizon. Hong Kong-based Tranic Franchising has partnered with Jamie's Italian to roll the concept out across the continent, with as many as 30 restaurants planned.

While the likes of Gordon Ramsay have had some well publicised difficulties with foreign expansion, Blagden says franchising works "if run and controlled in the right way".

"I think if you get it right it can be fantastic - you can go to places you would never have dreamed of going to yourself, using local knowledge," he says.

"We have got a business here that we can model off. It has a strong concept and culture, and training set-up. We can pick it up and transport it across the world."

cynical of celebrities

Richard Harden, co-author of Harden's Restaurant Guide - a trenchant critic of the cult of the celebrity chef - has been fulsome in his praise of Jamie's Italian, claiming that it is "the first time in living memory a multiple venture branded with the name of a celebrity chef has made a really positive contribution to the world of dining out".

"The secret would appear to be that the group has set itself realistic aims, and offers a good-value package which fills a real gap in the market," Harden says. "Indeed, it's rather sobering the way the group's immediate success tends to emphasise how little good mid-price eating there still is in some cities."

Stephen Broome, hospitality director at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, is less surprised by the success of Jamie's Italian. "It's got the right pitch, and of course has the positive spin provided by association with Jamie Oliver," he says. "If they get the right locations at the right prices and stick to the criteria, success will continue to come."

The only potential stumbling block, according to Broome, is if the company moves away from its tried and tested development criteria. "The danger is that you start to blur at the edges, which happened to others - ending up in out-of-town developments and shopping centres," he says. "You need to grow your profile, but you can go too far."

However, Broome stresses that, while there will be a top limit for Jamie's Italian, it is "nowhere near that" at the moment, adding that Westfield is a different proposition to most shopping centres.

So Blagden has plenty of work left to do, and he has no inclination to move on. "It's a fabulous business to be part of," he says. "I don't know what else I'd rather do."

Simon Blagden's CV

Hotel management degree,

â- 1988-91 - Sweeney Todd's
Various management positions

â- 1992-94 - Brown's Restaurants
General manager, Bristol

â- 1994-2000 - Brown's Restaurants
Head of operations

â- 2000-02 - Vintage Inns
Operations manager

â- 2002-06 - PizzaExpress
Operations director

â- 2006-present - Jamie's Italian
Managing director

What can other operators learn from the success of Jamie's Italian?

â- Ensure product has mass popularity and premium pricing to maximise returns
â- Use PR/promotion to assist with market positioning
â- Make sure you are properly financed (to allow for initial trading losses)
â- Keep strict adherence to development criteria
â- Take advantage of current availability of good sites
â- A successful rollout needs a strong development team
â- Hard work, discipline and a sprinkling of good luck
Source: Stephen Broome, hospitality director, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Jamie's Italian siteS

â- Bath
â- Brighton
â- Cambridge
â- Cardiff
â- Glasgow
â- Guildford
â- Kingston upon Thames
â- Leeds
â- Liverpool
â- Oxford
â- Reading
â- Canary Wharf, London
â- Covent Garden, London
â- Westfield, London (opening July)

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