John Derkach, the chief executive of Tragus, has revealed he hopes to have completed an ambitious project to refurbish the ‘vast bulk’ of the Café Rouge estate within three years in order to make the brand more contemporary.
In an exclusive interview with BigHospitality’s sister publication M&C Report, Derkach said the group had so far refurbished four of the 125 sites inverting the group’s classic red and white colouring, de-cluttering the trading areas and making the menus smaller and tighter.
The chief executive also revealed his plans for the recently-acquired Strada brand and explained why he thought ‘every mid-market town in the country’ should have a Bella Italia.
However the focus for the company, acquired by financial backer Blackstone in 2006, will be Café Rouge. “We have got brands that need to be made more relevant to their customer base,” said Derkach.
“It is a business with fantastic potential, great brands and people, great locations,” he argued. “The strength of its density, proposition, current customer base is both an incredible asset and a great issue, because you have to give new customers something new to allow them to evaluate the brand."
Of the four refurbs made so far, two are already trading above expectations. The brand is also picking up more evening trade than it has done historically.
“Fundamentally Café Rouge needed to be made more contemporary and cleaner in terms of design lines but also keep the charm and idiosyncrasies. For example, the stuff that was on the wall, is still there, but it is not everywhere, it is grouped together,” the former Costa Coffee managing director added.
“One of things that hindered the brand in the past, was that each one looked the same,” Derkach suggested.
“We will refurbish the entire estate broadly in line with this design, but I want the last one we do to look recognisably different to the first one. If we can do that, then we avoid the risk that at some stage they will all look or get tired at the same time."
The former managing director of Beefeater Grill and chief executive of Pizza Hut UK expects to invest no more than £250k or less than £100k in any of the sites. Development will focus on shopping centres, while the Café Rouge Express brand will open in more transport hubs.
“I think we will be done with the vast bulk of the estate in three years, but it may be faster than that. Our owners would like us to go faster, so there is no problem with capital available, but I want to make sure we take this at a measured pace. People love this brand and we have to be careful not to alienate them,” he added.
Elsewhere, Derkach revealed the focus for the company as a whole was ‘unlocking the potential’ of Bella Italia and possibly growing the Strada portfolio of restaurants which financial backer Blackstone purchased in 2008 for £140m.
“The pipeline is not as strong as last year maybe we missed a beat with the change of management but we will look to open around 10 new sites this year and more in the years to come,” he said. “The food platform in Strada is the best of the three brands.
“We need to find the right places to exploit that strength. If we are just competing on pizza and pasta then Bella can probably do that more effectively and economically. Strada is much more about a quality meal experience and we have to be quite careful with where that goes."
Tragus launched a Bella Italia with an updated design in Uxbridge last September and Derkach was bullish about his plans for the brand.
“By May we will do a few Bella refurbishments and then as part of our planning for next year we will make a call on whether we should do the whole of the estate in the sense of using the Uxbridge format and driving that into new sites,” he said.
“There is a real opportunity to significantly increase the size of its estate. Every mid-market town in the country should have a Bella, while there are also more opportunities on retail/leisure parks for the brand.”
In a wide-ranging interview, the chief executive also revealed he saw growth potential in the Belgo and Huxleys Bar & Kitchen concepts.
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Tragus' Bella Italia restaurants are currently recruiting for chefs and managers across their sites. For more information or to apply, click here .