The chief financial officer of Italian restaurant chain Gusto tells Jennie Milsom about changing the face of all-day dining at Carluccio's, dealing with no-shows and what's so very special about Italian food
You joined Gusto from Carluccio's earlier this year – what attracted you to the brand?
I love working in the restaurant sector. I love the food and the lifestyle – there's just something about it.
What did you make of the VAT cut and £10 vouchers recently announced by the chancellor?
The VAT cut will make a huge difference, as will the £1,000 for retaining people who have been furloughed and the dine-out vouchers. What's really impressive is that this is a specific package of measures that's aimed at the hospitality industry. None of this could have been achieved without the work of UKHospitality and lots of other people who have been fighting our corner. There have been lots of heroes quietly saying we need more help.
Gusto made headlines when guests failed to show up for bookings [270 guests failed to show up at nine of its restaurants on opening weekend] – that must be a financial nightmare.
It's a real problem in the sector and unfortunately we're now having to consider how we can stop it. Since we've moved online, it's so easy to book and then not bother to go out, or to decide to eat elsewhere. But some customers don't think of the impact on the restaurant. As for demanding deposits, Gusto is all about friendly, open hospitality and what we don't want to do is put barriers in the way of guests having a great time.
What can operators do to recover financially as fast as possible?
Make sure you know exactly what reliefs, grants and benefits you can claim from the government – that's key. Second, you've got to be prepared for the long haul before the sector gets back to any sort of normality. Planning and watching your cashflow – there's never been a better time to think about that than now. Finally, stick to what you're good at and maintain your brand integrity. People will come back.
You've been called a tough but fair negotiator. Do you think these are key qualities for a chief financial operator?
Yes, I do. It's about communication. There comes a point when you're required to focus on what's best for the company. If you're more tenacious and you've got that focus in your mind and your company's best interests at heart, I think that means you'll become tough but also you're going to be fair.
What achievement are you most proud of in your career?
I was at Carluccio's for 17 years and while I was there we achieved some pretty tremendous things. As part of a group of restaurants, we helped to change the face of dining out in the UK – how people ate out and how frequently they ate out. We did all-day dining – back then there weren't really restaurants where you could have breakfast, lunch and dinner and take something away.
The UK dining scene was quite polarised when we started – there was a gap in the market between the top and the lower end and Carluccio's helped to fill that through offering quality, value and authenticity.
How involved in the food side of things do you get?
I have to leave it to the chefs. When you're a numbers guy it's important to have an understanding of the final product, so I'll get involved as much as they'll let me, but I don't want to give the impression that I'm in there creating food – there are people much better qualified to do that!
What's your favourite Italian dish?
There's nothing better than a good quality lasagne or a tagliata [thinly sliced steak with rocket and Parmesan]. That's the thing about Italian food – it's very simple but it focuses on the quality of the ingredients. The underlying philosophy is that you don't need to mess around with the food so much.
There's nothing better than a good quality lasagne or a tagliata
What are your plans for Gusto for the next 12 months?
My hopes are to see the business through this very, very difficult time. Restaurant businesses are not meant to be closed for four months. My real desire is to get the business through the reopening phase and leave it in a really strong position, serving customers and really getting back what it was great at. It's a great brand that's well known, well respected and delivers true hospitality. It's the whole Italian experience.
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