"No cutting corners. No compromise.” That is Simon Blagden’s answer to the question on the lips of the restaurant industry as a whole: namely, what is behind the success of Jamie’s Italian?
And what an extraordinary success story it has been. Since launching its first site in Oxford in 2008, the premium middle-market chain has grown rapidly to 26 sites, and counting. Its no-reservation restaurants are characterised by queues snaking down the street outside, a buzzing sense of fun inside, and the cocktail of admiration, envy and grudging respect that they engender fellow operators.
In its short life, Jamie’s Italian has garnered industry accolades aplenty and is already expanding internationally with outposts in Sydney and Dubai, and a continent hopping list of partnerships in the pipeline.
Of course, some claim the success is grounded in Jamie Oliver’s celebrity status, and there is no denying the TV favourite’s stellar profile has helped draw in curious punters. But there’s much more to the restaurant game than your frontman being on the box and selling bucketloads of books, as numerous less-successful celeb chef ventures over the years have proven beyond doubt.
Blagden, the managing director of the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group, points out that by putting his name to the business, Oliver left himself somewhat vulnerable. “It leaves him exposed, potentially in a negative way if we get it wrong. Using Jamie’s name means the business has to be about what he stands for, so there’s no compromise: on quality, on people, on standards, on ingredient, on design. Part of our job is to enhance Jamie’s reputation. So no corners are cut, and that really appeals to me.”
While the 44-year-old Blagden credits Oliver with inspiring the overriding culture of the business, it is he who is responsible for turning that passion into an appealing and profitable business. Sitting in the recently opened Threadneedle Street branch of Jamie’s Italian in the City of London, we witness that business in action. The interior fit-out is immediately impressive and surprisingly grand: a combination of the high ceilings and chandeliers, brass-railed bar and the chain’s signature hanging charcuterie. There’s the already fabled sense of theatre, with much of the prep work on show behind the counter, including pasta-making and prosciutto-carving.
“Theatre is massively important to us. We put as much of the back-of-house [functions] front of house, because it’s all about freshness and ingredients. It’s also about making life and food and eating out more interesting,” says Blagden.
Many elements of the Jamie’s Italian approach – from the prominent produce to the furniture, light fittings, crockery and even the menu fonts – have been picked up and ‘reinterpreted’ (to put it kindly) by other restaurant operators, large and small. But, as Blagden says, that simply forces the
company to keep moving forward, to stay fresh and come up with new creative ideas.
This process is aided by the fact that it retains three separate design agencies (Martin Brudzinski, Stiff & Trevillion and Black Sheep) and demands that each site is individually designed – an anti cookie-cutter approach that is increasingly de rigeur amongst leading chains including Byron,
Nando’s and Zizzi.
Threadneedle Street is tailored to its City audience, with a number of premium-priced dishes on the menu and a more extensive wine list. It houses a larger bar area than usual, with the hot antipasti section expanded to provide more tapas-style dishes for peckish post-work drinkers. The site also boasts a large mezzanine floor, which can be segmented into semi-private dining areas.
“It’s tempting to pick up a template and use it across the board, because that’s easy. But we stop ourselves from doing that,” says Blagden. “Some things are set in stone – there will always be hanging hams, for example, but even how they are hung varies from site to site. We adapt to the
environment and are constantly tweaking.”
The majority of the menu is consistent across the estate and cannily eschews pizza in order to differentiate it from the mass of Italian chains on the high street.
“We wanted to focus on pasta and didn’t feel you had to do pizza and pasta together. We worked with Jamie and Gennaro [Contaldo, Oliver’s Italian food mentor] on the recipes and on pasta-making. No one else was doing fresh pasta at the time.” The result is an extensive menu which includes pasta dishes such as Meatball Carbonara (£7.25/£11.25) and mains such as Truffled Turkey Milanese (£12.25) and South Coast Fritto Misto (£15.95).
But creating something fresh and exciting on a small scale is one achievement; successfully maintaining standards when you grow into a nationwide chain is quite another. Last year, Jamie’s Italian opened nine new restaurants; this year it has opened two already with a further three lined up.
In addition, the company is opening in Gatwick this summer with a hybrid concept comprising a tweaked Jamie’s Italian (including both breakfast and pizza), a Jamie’s Italian bakery and a Unions Jacks bar. And that’s before we even get onto the international plans.
So does Blagden really believe food and service standards are as high as when they set out on their adventure? “It’s a challenge, but I don’t think
having 20-odd restaurants means you can’t [maintain standards] if you have the right processes and procedures, with the right people across the business.”
Long-term, he sees the chain growing to between 40 and 50 sites maximum – a number he views as still manageable.
Much of the current focus, however, is on the business’s burgeoning overseas development. It opened a first non-UK site in Dubai a year ago and
a second in Sydney before Christmas. All are run in partnership with a local restaurant operators “who share the same values”. Blagden and international business development director Nick Schapira are tying up partnership deals for Russia, Germany and the Republic of Ireland, with the US
and Sweden strong future possibilities.
But they already have their hands full in the UK, not least in launching a brand new concept onto the market in the form of Union Jacks. So why take on the world? “Demand is there,” shrugs Blagden. “And it’s a bit of a dream, seeing restaurants on the other side of the world opening up with the same ethos and quality as here. The brand deserves it.”
Back in the UK, 2011 saw Jamie’s Italian joined by its new sibling. Union Jacks will target suburban pockets of London and smaller affluent towns as
part of its gradual development into a national chain. “One of the reasons we did Union Jacks is that it can in-fill some places where we wouldn’t
put a Jamie’s Italian. It suits suburban London, and maybe market towns and small cities, rather than the university cities that Jamie’s Italian relies on.” This accessible British flatbread concept is also effectively competing in the pizza space that Jamie’s Italian has studiously avoided.
Blagden foresees Union Jacks occupying smaller sites – around 100 covers, as opposed to Jamie’s Italian’s 160-plus – requiring lower fit-out costs.
Average spend per head and dwell times reflect the market positioning of the two concepts: £15 versus £20 and 55 minutes versus 75 at Union Jacks and Jamie’s Italian respectively.
Jamie’s Italian has a broad appeal, attracting the family market, business-lunchers and even dating couples. But for a narrower band of young professionals, Union Jacks could prove extremely popular, competing on price with the likes of Blagden’s former employer, Pizza Express. “We
don’t have the same aspirations on GP as other pizza operators. We use British-milled artisan flour, free-range eggs, British cheese – none of these things are cheap. We honestly don’t believe in trying to make as much money as possible. You can get in and out for a tenner if you want.”
Straight to the point
Blagden was introduced to Jamie Oliver in 2007 by then-Wagamama boss Ian Neil, for whom Blagden had worked at Sweeney Todds. When it transpired that Oliver was interested in launching an Italian restaurant concept, Neil recommended Blagden.
“Jamie and I met, got on, and set about writing the business plan. John Jackson put together the finance and off we went,”
he says. Blagden had recently opened his own pub in the West Country, where he still lives with his family, following four years as operations director at Pizza Express. Prior to that he’d worked across the hospitality sector, for Prima/Bella Pasta and pub giant Bass, but most significantly for the Browns restaurant group in its ’90s heyday.
“It was a golden time really, running restaurants that were busy and well thought of. And working for the founder, Jeremy Mogford, was wonderful –
he created a great culture. In fact, a lot of the people working with us now are from those Browns days.”
The creation of a meaningful company culture is evidently as important to Blagden as it is to Oliver. He is calm, approachable and dry-witted, but one soon gleans that any slip in standards is not tolerated for long. “If and when our waiters and managers move on, we want them to take the right standards with them. If you come up through the ranks working for someone good, it calibrates your standards. I enjoy a bit of banter, but I guessI’m quite direct and we don’t let anything go.”
Blagden divides his time between viewing prospective sites, liaising with the London-based senior team, visiting his restaurants and grabbing time with the hectic Mr Oliver when he gets the chance. It involves a lot of early starts, but he gets back to his home near Bath most nights.
The group is now set up to run multi-faceted operations with an exec chef and ops director for each restaurant brand (including the one-off St Paul’s restaurant, Barbecoa), and a strong emphasis on training and investment in staff. “It’s a big thing for us right across the business – as important as the food. Without training, we haven’t got an offer; we can’t do anything.” And, true to form, that training focuses not just on product knowledge, but on the broader notions of positivity and personality. As Blagden admits, “It becomes like a cult!”
Despite competition within the casual-dining sector being fiercer than ever, the cult of Jamie shows no signs of abating. Could there be more Oliver/Blagden concepts on the horizon to add to Jamie’s Italian, Union Jacks, Fifteen and Barbecoa? “I’m sure there will be, because of the type of person that Jamie is: he’s massively creative and always looking at new things. But we’ll only do it if there’s the structure in place to deliver it properly,” says Blagden. There are no half-measures with this crew.