Steve Holmes is under no illusions. “It’s not that the food was bad, it just wasn’t memorable. The same went for the service and the restaurants. It was all a bit middle of the road – or worse,” he says. “So we knew we needed to do something pretty radical or we wouldn’t survive.”
The recently appointed managing director of Ask Italian is discussing the restaurant chain’s recent history, prior to its current rebranding process. “Everybody knew the name – Ask has high awareness – but customers just weren’t using it. There were lots of other [casual dining chains] that were a bit newer, a bit sexier.”
Such is the context in which Ask’s parent company, the mighty Gondola Holdings, has sought to revitalise the 118-strong nationwide operator over the past couple of years.
Holmes, 38, joined the business from its sibling Pizza Express some three years ago as operations director. As such he has been instrumental in helping review Ask’s position, and in developing its revised strategy and identity alongside Gondola CEO Harvey Smyth.
Now he has been rewarded with a promotion to the long-vacant managing director role, where he will lead the implementation and rollout of the next-generation, renamed Ask Italian as a vibrant mainstream Italian pizza and pasta concept.
“We have a basic philosophy: to do simple Italian dishes really well,” says Holmes. “We are inspired by Italy, but we’re not trying to be a traditional trattoria.” That much is evident at the newly opened site at Bluewater shopping centre, Kent – effectively a flagship for the tweaked template – where the design is bright, busy and multi-layered.
The 145-cover space incorporates a mixture of Italianate tiled flooring and light wooden floorboards; patterned wallpaper used as a design accent; a striking wine-rack feature over the bar area, and pastel-hued leather banquette seating.
It also emphasises its culinary credentials with what Holmes dubs ‘kitchenalia’ – cooking utensils, ingredients and aluminium stovetop coffee makers strategically positioned around the dining area, as well as an ‘Italian wall’ of images designed to evoke the spirit of la dolce vita.
Much has been thrown at the Bluewater model, both in design terms and in the form of Holmes’ and his team’s time and energy. But the journey, which began with the launch of the first liveried Ask Italian site on Spring Street in London’s Paddington in the summer of 2010, hasn’t always been a smooth ride.
From the outside, it has long looked as if Gondola has treated Ask as something of a problem child. With Pizza Express indisputably the group’s flagship brand, Zizzi seen as its cooler sibling and Byron the hot new concept that everyone loves, Ask’s lack of distinct identity seemed to be compounded by a relative scarcity of attention and investment from its parent. Consequently, rumours that it will be sold off persist.
Holmes swerves discussing the possibility of a sale and states that Ask is simply at a different stage in its journey to others in the portfolio (with whom he shares a management office in London’s Marylebone). But he tacitly acknowledges that the rebranding of 50 of the 118 sites as Ask Italian from mid-2010 to mid-2012 hasn’t been quite as effective as the company would have liked – hence this revised Bluewater version. However, since the summer it has already reopened 11 sites in its latest guise, including Bromley, Norwich and Horsham, with Holmes claiming they are trading extremely well.
“Those 50 were definitely a step forward, but there are only these 11 that we are truly happy with,” he says. “We can go back and adjust them [the 50] pretty easily, though.” That still leaves around half the estate languishing with the old-style name and design, complete with that distinctive but dated spindly red logo. The aim is to convert 20 a year for the next few years, in addition to a handful of new openings. At the same time, a number of underperforming sites are also likely to be closed, leaving the total operation at a similar or marginally smaller size.
The Randall factor
Given the fierce competition in the casual dining sector, combined with Ask’s previously tired look and feel, it’s no surprise that much of the focus has been on upgrading the restaurants themselves and forging a fresh identity. But Holmes is equally, if not more, passionate and proud of the quiet redevelopment of Ask Italian’s food offer.
This has centred on the recruitment of acclaimed chef Theo Randall, whose eponymous restaurant at the InterContinental Hotel on London’s Park Lane is regarded as home to some of the UK’s finest high-end Italian food. Randall is no stranger to Gondola, having created a range of pizzas for Pizza Express back in 2008 when Holmes was London regional director of the chain. The chef has been on board as a consultant at Ask since 2010, and Holmes is anxious to emphasise that he remains heavily involved in dish development and chef training, as well as on the marketing side.
“Our relationship is about much more than simply putting his name to a couple of pizzas. Theo oversees every dish, he looks at all the ingredients, meets suppliers, he’s part of the family. Our starting point a couple of years ago was that if we wanted to do Italian food really well, we needed someone that knows more about it than anyone else.”
Pizza, pasta and pomodoro
Randall’s ‘prima’ premium pizzas were introduced to the Ask Italian menu back in 2011, with the remainder of the offer coming under his remit from spring 2012. The menu offers a broad selection of classic Italian pasta and pizza options: fettuccine Bolognese, linguine all Genovese, lasagne, risotto gamberoni, Caprina and Fiorentina pizzas, plus salads, chicken dishes and the like. Holmes highlights its rosemary and sea salt bread, cooked to order and served with new-season olive oil from Puglia, as an example of straightforward but tasty fare.
Half of the dishes sold are pasta-based, with pizzas around 35 per cent, and average spend per head hovers around the £14 mark; average dwell time is around 90 minutes. It’s perhaps reflective of the mainstream non-foodie audience Ask Italian attracts that it can’t quite afford to remove the Anglo invention, spaghetti Bolognese, from the menu. “It’s something Theo would dearly love to see, but we’re not quite brave enough yet!”“Our spaghetti al pomodoro, for example, is made on site with four types of tomato in the sauce. It’s finished with buffalo mozzarella – served at room temperature, of course – and fresh basil,” he says. “There are no microwave technicians here; we have real chefs cooking real food.”
Alongside Randall’s menu, the chain introduced an all-Italian wine (and beer) list last year, overseen by Adrian Garforth MW. It also retains the consultancy services of Italian food and wine expert Carla Capalbo, who has co-written the new Ask Italian Cookbook.
Capalbo is used in part to help inspire the managers and front-of-house teams with her passion for and knowledge of all things Italian. Holmes has driven a staff education and training programme designed to explain, for example, where the group’s olive oil is sourced from and why it’s important. “We’ve run four or five staff training trips to Italy this year. We want them to be as passionate about good Italian food as we are,” he says.
But what of the elusive customers: why would they come to Ask Italian over Jamie’s Italian, Zizzi or Carluccio’s, for example? Price point would be the first attraction, as well as the accessibility of the environment – these are the sort of restaurants anyone can comfortably drop into unplanned while out shopping, rather than necessarily destinations in their own right.
“We attract a broad age range of customers – young, old, families. We’re a bit of an all-rounder in that respect. And our staff reflect that: they are natural, warm and friendly as opposed to quirky or cool,” he says. Holmes’ ambition is to pull lapsed Ask users back into Ask Italian, and to attract a new generation of customers.
Along with many of its peers, Ask Italian’s margins have been hit by the discounting onslaught of the last decade, but it’s not an area Holmes is prioritising. “It’s here to stay for the time being and it makes us accessible to people in tough times. We’d hope to start discounting less, but we’re not stopping tomorrow.”
Holmes is dynamic, passionate and committed, as he will have to be to compete effectively in the mainstream casual dining arena. That particular battle will continue to rage, but at least he now has a concept he is proud of. “Bluewater is a milestone. For years we haven’t opened a big, busy restaurant like this one. Now we feel we have a proposition that will perform well against those we were previously looking up to.”
He reports that the York branch recently had a record day, serving 1,352 customers from a 300-cover site. “Lots of restaurants are breaking records – things are on the up.” Perhaps, amid all the burrata, fregola and n’duja in the Italian space, there is still a place for spaghetti Bolognese.