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Business Profile: Pho

By Joe Lutrario , 15-Jun-2011

Related topics: Business Profile, Business

Stephen and Juliette Wall’s Vietnamese restaurant concept Pho is on the expansion trail.

Stephen and Juliette Wall, founders of Vietnamese restaurant chain, Pho

Stephen and Juliette Wall, founders of Vietnamese restaurant chain, Pho

In the borrowed words of Will Ferrell’s legendary Lothario Ron Burgundy, Stephen and Juliette Wall are about to become 'kind of a big deal'. Their five-strong Vietnamese restaurant group is in rude health, they’re in legals for a plum site in Westfield Stratford City overlooking the Olympic Stadium and the overall pace of expansion is about to step up several notches.

Pho – founded back in 2005 – has now found its feet and is looking for another round of investment. Up until now, expansion has been fairly slow, maybe even conservative. The first unit opened on St John Street, Clerkenwell, following a business loan of £45,000 from the bank, with the rest of the capital coming from Stephen and Juliette, who remortgaged, and a few loans from friends and family. Total set-up costs for the restaurant were a modest £100,000.

Business was solid from day one, but perhaps the most notable thing about this East London one-off was that it already looked like an eminently scalable restaurant concept. The branding – as befitted the pair’s professional background in marketing – was solid, as was the tightly written menu of authentic Vietnamese food.

The 30-cover unit could not generate enough money to open a second site, so the pair sought investment early on, recognising the brand’s potential to expand even though they themselves did not have the capital in hand. After hearing about the pair’s success in this very magazine, then customers Tom and Ed Martin, founders of pub group ETM, became 50 per cent partners in the business, a percentage they still retain.

Husband-and-wife team

Sitting at their most recent site on Soho’s Wardour Street discussing their plans, the husband-and-wife team is refreshingly open, modest and down-to-earth, but never anything less than enthusiastic about the potential of their brand. “Soon after we opened the first Pho in Clerkenwell we realised that the concept would be suited to the mass market,” Stephen recalls. “But I suppose this was confirmed when we opened our Westfield London site. We’re among the most popular operators there.”

This is something of an understatement. At full tilt, the Westfield branch serves 900 people a day, confirming that Pho’s appeal is not limited to architects in Clerkenwell. To some observers, the success of Pho will have come as a shock. The pair have no managerial experience in the industry, although they both worked front of house in bars and restaurants as young adults. “I was a pretty good waiter in my day but that doesn’t prepare you for running a restaurant, and especially not a whole group of them,” says Stephen.

“We both worked front of house in the US as well,” adds Juliette. “We knew what we liked and what we didn’t and that had a big influence on Pho, the service in particular. We know what it takes to provide great stateside service. You don’t see that enough over here.”

Expansion outside London

The pair have also taken the concept outside London, with a large site in central Brighton next door to Jamie’s Italian. It has been a culture shock – weekdays are quiet and the business is often at the mercy of the weather – but they view these first steps beyond the capital as a success.

“Brighton happened a bit quicker than we intended, but it’s so difficult to get good sites in Brighton, and indeed most other major UK cities,” says Juliette. “It was too good to miss.” “It’s a big unit,” adds Stephen. “We’ve had to look closely at staffing numbers but we’re pleased we did it.”

The opening in Brighton has thrown up issues that Pho has not yet encountered, but the pair are still keen to expand across the UK. Stephen and Juliette would both like to bring Pho back to their respective home cities (Manchester and Newcastle), but due to logistical considerations this won’t happen for a while.

“We’re laying the foundations for expansion at the moment,” says Stephen. “On top of Westfield Stratford, we want to open two more London sites this year. It makes sense to establish a hub here before moving anywhere else. In fact, one of the main reasons we choose Brighton is that it was in striking distance of London. We brought in an ops director last year (Tim Mills, the erstwhile Paul UK executive). Once we’ve got the London base established the pace will greatly increase: we want to open 15 sites in the next four years.”

Private equity

But perhaps the clearest sign that Pho is intent on expanding across the UK is the appointment of Zoe Tindall, a former FD at YO! Sushi, as financial director. With experience of rolling out casual-dining concepts at pace, her key task will be to build on Pho’s relationship with the bank, assess and – likely – secure a private-equity deal that will see the brand expand across the UK.

Pho won’t be short of private-equity suitors. The Walls have created a coherent and focused modern restaurant group that references Vietnamese culture and design aesthetics without going over the top. The pair’s background in marketing shows through: the distinctive Pho logo, the look of the sites, the website and the restaurant group’s presence on social media is carefully considered and consistent, creating powerful brand identity.

“When we were designing it, we couldn’t help thinking about it in brand terms,” says Juliette, who worked on food and drink brands including McVitie’s and Foster’s prior to opening Pho. “Some of it happened naturally, but we certainly brought our marketing experience to bear.”

The duo have undeniably bold plans, but – with the Asian branded restaurant scene expanding at an astonishing rate – Pho looks well-placed to make the transition from a small south-based restaurant group to major national player.

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