Beneath the branding on the menu of Ponti’s Italian Kitchen (PIK) sit the proud words ‘since 1963’, a quick calculation revealing the restaurant chain has been operating for nearly half a century. Back then it would be another two years before a certain Peter Boizot opened the first Pizza Express, and decades before it would be joined by any other major Italian chain contender, so you’d expect the head start Ponti’s had over its rivals to be somewhat lucrative, with a site now on every major high street.
Fast forward 40 or so years and history has played a different hand. While Pizza Express is in some 400 locations across the UK and Ask, Zizzi, Prezzo and Strada also flex their muscles in the now saturated Italian mid-market category, Ponti’s expansion has been more muted – if not practically inaudible by comparison. It operates only 16 sites, primarily across the south-east, comprising two stand-alone PIKs in central London and 14 restaurant-cum-cafés in London, Milton Keynes, Reading, Watford and Kent.
“Italian restaurants went from zero to saturation and we weren’t there during the renaissance,” admits chief executive Stefano Ispani, who took the helm in 2007. “In 2001, we were at a crossroads. My father [the owner] died, people had been opening and building Italian restaurant groups and we got left behind. We failed to face the reality of what was happening. I thought, ‘Fuck me, how are we going to be different from all the other operators now?’ It took a lot of soul searching.”
With Italian restaurant and coffee-bar brands jostling for position up and down the country it is a dubious time to attempt to carve out a new niche in the market. But that’s exactly what he is gearing up to do with his Ponti’s business by tapping into the growth of regionality in the restaurant trade and the rise of the even faster casual-food concept.
The first prong of this approach concerns what Ispani terms the “new generation” PIK brand. The flagship restaurant, just off London’s Oxford Street, was the site of the original Ponti’s of 1963 and today is the epicentre of his attempt to create what he’s billing as the first major chain of Italian restaurants with a regional focus.
The site was initially given a major overhaul in 2009, transforming it from a tired canteen-style café to a sit-down restaurant. “It was very ‘olde worlde’,” recalls the 38-year-old chief, who has worked for his father’s business from the age of 10.
“It served its purpose, but it was time to introduce a major overhaul.” Following the conversion of a second, smaller Ponti’s site just down the road also to the PIK format, and a further refit at the start of this year at the first restaurant, Ispani finally believes the concept is ready to roll out properly.
So far the signs are encouraging. The traditional Ponti’s was taking £16,000 a week, but the figure has jumped to some £35,000 following the switch.
What makes PIK not just another Pizza Express ‘me-too’, is its regional bent, the region in question being Emilia-Romagna in the north of the country. It’s a sensible choice considering the majority of recognisable Italian foods that hail from the region, including Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano, ‘real’ balsamic vinegar from Modena and pasta dishes such as tortellini and lasagne.
“We feel that we are more regional than the other guys. Our wine, pasta and antipasti all come from the same region, as opposed to just anywhere in Italy. You won’t find smoked salmon on our menu, for example.”
Regionality is a trend that has already taken seed in cuisines such as Chinese, Indian and French. At PIK this dovetails with a desire to further differentiate the brand by operating in what Ispani calls the “upper mid-market” with food more akin to that found at Carluccio’s and Jamie’s Italian than the more mainstream chains.
Pricing, however, is keen, undercutting the two more established chains mentioned by 15-20 per cent despite PIK’s two prime central-London locations.
“You’ve got to have fantastic quality ingredients and not mess about with them,” says Ispani. “We are about upper casual dining, serving tablecloth-style food but without the tablecloth and prices.
Italian all-day cafe model
A further strength of the PIK brand is its experience in all-day operations, which the Ponti’s business was again adept at well before its larger rivals got in on the act. Having previously been a café-style restaurant, the flagship PIK already has a well-established morning trade as well as a strong afternoon tea and cakes business.
Breakfast, in particular, is a good fit with the Italian model, says Ispani – despite some of the larger chains struggling to get people through their doors pre-11am. “People ask how you can marry an English breakfast with an Italian restaurant. The reality is that in this country, from the 1950s onwards, the average London café was run by Italian immigrants. My aunts have cooked more eggs and bacon, Yorkshire puddings and braised liver than the average English chef has because they’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
The PIK brand may be trying to break new ground, but Ispani has another trick up his sleeve, this time with the remainder of the original Ponti’s counter-service cafés. There are 14 in its estate, predominantly in airports, railway stations and shopping centres, all of which are being refurbished and rebranded under the Caffè Italia logo. So far, six have been converted with the remainder scheduled to switch over within the next 18 to 24 months.
Here the concept is different, with a wide range of salads, sandwiches, soups and omelettes alongside the more traditional pizza and pasta dishes. Dwell times are shorter, with the customer in and out within around 15 minutes if they wish, compared with an average stay of 30 to 45 minutes in PIK, and an average spend of around £7 per person, half of that at the full-service restaurant.
Ispani admits that the remaining Ponti’s are “a bit out of date” but their positioning in highfootfall locations again puts it at the vanguard of a new market for super-fast Italian operations recently populated by the likes of sliced pizza concept Malletti and pasta group Kitchen Italia.
“Caffè Italia appeals to a very different market to PIK and does well. Italian meals are often seen as a slow, sit-down process, but Caffè Italias serve good Italian food quickly in busy environments. It is a business model I have a lot of hope for.”
Playing the property game
The ultimate goal, after the rebrand and refurbishment programme has been completed, is for the two concepts to grow and sit side by side in certain locations.
Ispani says: “Our aim is to use our experience in the airports and stations, and to work with companies such as Network Rail, to introduce these concepts to serve different markets.
“What we do in the airports we do extremely well and I’d like to think if there was an opportunity BAA would give us a chance with the PIK concept too, ditto Network Rail.”
Herein lies the company’s challenge. While PIK’s regional USP and competitive pricing and Caffè Italia’s speedy credentials means future brand building has every chance of success, securing sites to facilitate such growth is a stumbling block.
The firm aims to open at least two more PIKs in the next 18 months – on sites of 2,500sq ft to 3,000sq ft and not necessarily in London. Ispani would consider cities such as Manchester and Birmingham.
In particular, he’s on the hunt for new developments, which requires going toe-to-toe with established brands with more leverage in the property game. “Whether you open in the new Westfield or a market town in Timbuktu, the capital costs are about a 5 per cent variance. Given that, the reality is we are looking for a great site where we are really going to trade our socks off
"The challenge we have is that we are dealing with institutional landlords; for them, it's all about strength of covenant. Most Italian restaurants are controlled by a handful of companies, so they only deal with a few people. We hope there are landlord that will look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
"How do you compete with the Behemoths that have so much resources and landlords tripping over themselves to sign them up? It’s like David and Goliath. We’ve been trading for nearly 50 years, we’ve got a proposition that’s different. Where we can outgun chains is to deliver an ambience and food that doesn’t feel corporate.”
It’s an uphill battle but Ispani is undeterred. He believes there is still plenty of the consumer purse to go round. “Italian food is accessible. If you’re a vegetarian you’re going to be OK. A meat lover, OK. If you’re an athlete and you want to eat carbs, no problem. Muslim, Jewish, it doesn’t matter. Spicy, not spicy, hot, cold – there’s something for everyone.
“Twenty years ago there were no restaurant brands. Now there’s a plethora. Soon it will go the other way again. People will look for something a bit more individualistic, and that’s what we are.”