Five years ago, you wouldn’t have found any quirky design elements in a branded Italian restaurant chain, but now increasing competition in the sector is making a constant stream of new ideas essential. And Helen Jones’ casual dining brand is in the throes of a major makeover.
Pitched alongside a host of fresh new retail and restaurant players, the 114-strong group’s latest restaurant in London’s Central St Giles development is set to be a buzzing location. Most of the office, retail and restaurant spaces have yet to open – resulting in a ghostly space that presents a sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the established Covent Garden restaurant district a few hundred yards away. The restaurant is ticking over nonetheless, and the early signs are positive. Jones’ mission to modernise Zizzi in order to compete in this ever-more crowded sector could prove successful.
Trouble at the top
It’s certainly tough being a big restaurant group at times. Trends and customer expectations are in flux and, as the economy gradually improves, smaller, nimbler operators are coming up with innovative concepts. Nowhere is change happening faster than in the Italian space. Jamie’s Italian – alongside several other upstarts, including Jamie Barber’s Kitchen Italia and Neapolitan-import Rossopomodoro – is causing the big boys to stand in front of the mirror, pinching the flabby bits and plucking out grey hairs.
Whatever’s happened in the past, Zizzi is now embracing modernisation with zeal. “Zizzi was performing reasonably well as a high-street operation,” says the business-like Jones “But roughly two-and-a-half years ago the senior team recognised the sector was becoming increasingly competitive and moved to refresh.”
Thirty-three sites have been rebranded and 10 sites will follow suit each year, representing a huge investment from its parent group, Gondola.
One key rebranding objective is to reposition Zizzi to cater for its younger customer-base. Research revealed Zizzi’s core diner as aged 20 to 30, a significantly more youthful demographic than expected.
“We’d convinced ourselves our typical customer was older and that we needed to remain relevant to them. But with any restaurant business your appeal has to be broad, although we do have a resonance with younger people,” says Jones.
Some of the old-style Zizzi restaurants are, according to head of design Pia Fairhurst, “excessively orange”. The floor, furniture and walls are finished in monochrome earthy tones, making them feel darker and a little out-dated. “Hence the need to refurbish our restaurants with contemporary colours to give a fresh modern look more in line with current trends,” explains Fairhurst.
Zizzi is one of the three Italian chains operated by the 600-site giant Gondola Holdings. Its older and significantly larger figurative big brother is Pizza Express and its literal twin sister is ASK (both brands were founded by brothers Adam and Sam Kaye).
Zizzi was established in 1999 by the Kayes, and sold to Gondola in late 2006.
Prior to joining Zizzi in 2009, Jones worked for Ben & Jerry’s for 15 years, launching the US ice-cream brand into the UK market. Now reporting to Gondola COO Harvey Smyth, she arrived with no restaurant experience, aside from opening Ben & Jerry’s “scoop shops”. “For Harvey to hire me was a very brave move,” she recalls. “But it’s all about brand-building – you’ve got to be obsessive about what you want from it.”
Jones is big on food quality. While Zizzi does sell a lot of pizza, it offers a broad range of Italian food – from pasta and risotto to meat and fish dishes. As befits her background, Jones was intent on getting the ice cream right and is now employing the considerable talents of Kitty Travers, once of the St John pastry kitchen and now an artisan ice-cream maker in her own right. Zizzi has recently introduced a range of six classic Italian flavours made with organic milk from Wales.
Gondola’s three Italian concepts are encouraged to function independently. “There’s a healthy rivalry – we sit down and compare like-for-likes. I’m encouraged to be creative and do what’s right for the Zizzi brand.” It’s no coincidence that all three Italian groups serve many of the same branded products. As the largest casual-dining group in the UK, Zizzi’s parent company has huge buying power. Pizza Express has a deal with Peroni to sell its beer alone, but – while Peroni is the best-selling beer at Zizzi – a selection of Italian guest beers is also available.
“Customers like to have a choice of beers, and we introduced a cider last year,” says Jones. Zizzi’s wine list is more varied than at Pizza Express, drawing on more suppliers (but still emphasising Italian offerings). “Gondola does have significant buying power, but I’m willing to sacrifice some of that. I want Zizzi’s offer to be distinctive.”
Zizzi may have a distinct offer, but it certainly has the same approach as its Gondola stablemates when it comes to promotions. Gondola is the undisputed king of two-for-one discounting. According to a survey last year by Crunchlunch.co.uk, half of the UK’s restaurant vouchers are redeemed in Gondola sites. This is partly down to sheer number of sites, but also due to the fact that pizza and pasta-focused operators are well placed to benefit from two-for-ones.
The combination of a high-volume, low-ticket business model and extremely high GP, particularly on pizza and pasta, means Gondola can afford to give away a high percentage of its main courses or offer deals that significantly lower the price of its food, such as two courses for £12.
“In this competitive market, we have to select different approaches to encourage people to come and try our restaurant,” says Jones. “Our strategy to give customers great value has worked well. But promotions are just part of the mix. Awareness of Zizzi is growing and so is the business. Discounting is just one of many strings to our bow.”
Despite regular deep discounting, spend per head across the group is an impressive £18. An industry insider tells Restaurant that the major pizza and pasta chains are offering discounts [almost] constantly because over the past few years like-for-like sales at non-peak times have actually increased significantly: customers tend to order extra starters, desserts and drinks when they know they’re getting a main for free, and this extra revenue largely offsets margin erosion. Discounting is driving business for the big chains in an increasingly challenging and crowded market – and it looks like it’s here to stay.
She is not worried about the coalition Government’s immigration caps which look set to limit severely the number of non-EU chefs entering the UK. “There’s enough talent here. It’s vital to develop it from within, retain bright young staff and boost the industry’s profile.”
Jones is a big fan of Michel Roux Junior’s work to bolster the front-of-house image, and indeed the restaurant business as a whole. Zizzi was featured in Roux’s recently broadcast Service on BBC2. “I’m keen to encourage young people to enter the hospitality business – it should be seen as a career rather than a stepping-stone to other things. People should be proud to work in restaurants.”