ON-TRADE INTERVIEW: CaffÃ© culture
He has behind him a multi-million pound restaurant chain, an OBE and successful television presenting and publishing careers. So what drives Antonio Carluccio? A simple commitment to great Italian food and wine, discovers Andrew Catchpole
Watching Antonio Carluccio as he scoops up a purply, spiked artichoke in Palermo’s rambling Il Capo market you get a keen sense of what drives this man. Behind the multi-million pound restaurant business that bears his name, the high honours of an OBE and Italian Commendatore Omri (for services in promoting Italian regional food), plus the publishing and television presenting career that has brought him household fame, lies a deep love and genuine respect for his native cuisine.
In Carluccio’s large chef’s hands the artichoke is given a gentle squeeze and, with a faint nod of the head, he indicates that the stallholder’s produce passes muster. We’ll be back soon to collect a box full of these fine Sicilian thistles, plus wild fennel, bottarga, bright oranges and tangy smoked herring, but first there are clams, mussels, red mullet and more to be examined on a nearby fish stall. The finest, freshest ingredients on this market will tonight become dinner at Diego Planeta’s home as a precursor and celebration of a forthcoming promotion between Carluccio’s Caffés and Planeta wines. In addition to cooking, Carluccio will also play the hearty raconteur, food guru and pepper his anecdotes with some surprisingly earthy jokes.
It’s this very mix of charismatic persona and straightforward philosophy – food at best should be wholesome, seasonal and uncluttered – that has shaped Carluccio the brand. This, he says, is the thinking behind the roll-out of Carluccio’s Caffés. “The British are being subjected to an incredible amount
of books, cookery shows and celebrity chefs, but all this is very passive whereas food should be an exploration,” argues Carluccio. “Go to France, Italy or Spain and people talk about food, the ingredients, but do so with a passion.”
Carluccio began working life as a journalist, first on Gazetta del Popolo and then La Stampa in Turin, later becoming a wine merchant in Germany, but moving to London in the 1970s where he set up shop as an independent merchant of Italian wines. Famously, it was his passion for wild mushrooms that began his career as author, presenter and, by 1981, when Sir Terence Conran invited him to preside over the Neal Street Restaurant, one of London’s best known restaurateurs. (Neal Street has recently been forced to close after a 25-year lease expired, more of which below.)
In 1991, when Carluccio and his wife Priscilla (née Conran) opened Carluccio’s food shop next to the Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden, the seeds were sown for the hybrid café-come-restaurant-come-food-shop that would materialise as the Carluccio’s Caffé concept. It took seven years to materialise, but in 1998 the doors opened in Market Place near London’s Oxford Circus and the imprint for a remarkably successful high-street restaurant chain was born.
Walking and talking
The idea was a simple one: to deliver good value, simple Italian food, prepared freshly on the premises, at a price that reflected the quality of the ingredients. “British supermarkets have been largely responsible for encouraging a commitment in people to expect and think of food in terms of how cheaply it can be bought,” says Carluccio. “But food must have a price that reflects its quality and people still need a lot of education.” Scathing about supermarkets, Carluccio reserves further scorn for the overpriced mediocrity that still persists in the mid-market catering scene in Britain. “McDonald’s is better than many high-street restaurants,” he argues. “At least they source good quality beef and potatoes for their burgers and fries.” It’s a sentiment that Marco Pierre White has also aired.
Talking the talk – especially with a high-end, high-customer-spend eatery such as the Neal Street Restaurant to your name – may appear easy, but after so many books and television series attempting to spread the word, Antonio and Priscilla decided to walk the walk. They engaged the services of Simon Kossoff as managing director of the fledgling business and, with an initial £2 million raised from a group of 30 shareholders, described by Kossoff as “business angels”, they launched their
Caffé concept. Kossoff’s background included selling branded goods wholesale and, more recently, running the My Kind of Town concept. It’s an intriguing pairing that has proved a money-spinner.
Carluccio leaves Kossoff to do the talking on matters financial, focusing instead in what he does best – being the figurehead and public face of the business. “We planned to open around five Caffés a year once we had ironed out any difficulties with the first couple, and rather than grow the management team as the business grew we went for a top-heavy model with the management already in place for a far larger group,” reveals Kossoff. A second Caffé opened in Fenwick, Bond Street, in 2000, and the template was set.
“In 2001 we issued an additional share offer only to our existing business angels and this was oversubscribed,” says Kossoff. Three more Caffés in London and Surrey followed in 2001, four in 2002, three in 2003 and a pattern was set that has seen around five rolled out each year since. In December 2005, with the nineteenth Caffé opened in St John’s Wood, the group was floated with a market capitalisation of £100m, more than meeting the expectations of the same original group of investors.
Today, with over 30 Carluccio’s Caffés centred in the southeast and now spreading out across the country – with the most recent at Old Trafford in Manchester – the group has an average turnover per store of £1.7m, with plans for around five new openings a year. The business aims to keep up this momentum until 100 sites are opened. The Carluccios, who kept the Neal Street restaurant under separate personal ownership, originally had a 21% stake (against the board’s 20% stake) but this has been traded down to 3% and then 1.5% with Antonio still remaining the public face and overseer of food matters at the company.
“We don’t really have any direct competitors on the high street because no one else is doing what we do,” says Carluccio. However, Kossoff points out that they are in competition with outlets such as Wagamama, Strada and even Pizza Express. Carluccio points out, “We are the only place that combines take-home food sales with freshly prepared produce on the premises.” The shop element, with its core of Carluccio-branded products, accounts for an average of 22% of turnover in the stores, rising as high as 50% in the run-up to Christmas. Wet sales, which are primarily down to wine on a “very limited list”, account for a further 28%.
This is clearly a formula that works. At the heart of the operation, of course, lies the food and wine offering. It’s the element over which Carluccio still exercises rigorous control. “A restaurant, however simple, has to be more than just a restaurant – it must have a soul,” says Carluccio. “Our chefs are chosen for their love of food and ability with food and if they have this passion we can teach them the principles and techniques of Italian food.” To this end Carluccio’s runs a three-month training programme in conjunction with Westminster catering school and then sends its chefs to “finishing school” in Italy. Following our Palermo jaunt Carluccio is heading off to Turin to check on the progress his latest batch of chefs are making.
An insistence on fresh, high-quality produce, much of it sourced directly from Italy, plus intensive training courses for staff and a high ratio of area managers (one per five outlets as opposed to one per 25 at Pizza Express, for example), raises costs. This is combated by a form of centralised ordering and control that still allows for flexibility at branch level, plus long opening hours (breakfast through to dinner) to maximise each Caffé’s takings.
Recipe for success
Carluccio writes the menus, allowing for seasonal changes every three months, but keeping a core 40% unchanged throughout the year. In addition, there is a “float” of around 100 recipes at any given time that an individual chef can draw on to add a couple of dishes to his or her particular outlet. Focaccia and pasta are made fresh on the premises every day. Wine costs are kept down by using one supplier, Enotria. Further spice is added to the mix through events such as the Planeta promotion which, on certain days during April, offered the option of a tailored meal matched with these Sicilian wines.
The roll-out of his Carluccio’s Caffé concept has unquestionably raised the bar for branded high-street eateries and, in the process, delivered a healthy sum to Carluccio’s bank account. As Antonio and Priscilla head into their seventies the only piece missing from their otherwise enviable lives is the Neal Street Restaurant, which was recently forced to close. Those who know Carluccio described it as his life-blood, his social club, and without it the big man himself admits to being like a fish out of water. “It is very sad that we were forced to close,” says Carluccio. “But we are looking for another site and as soon as we find somewhere suitable we will be back in business again.”
Energetic still, he is also in talks with the BBC about “one final series on mushrooms”. Somehow I doubt very much, though, that this irrepressible restaurateur will ever be able to sit back and stop until the whole country shares his passion.
© db May 2007
|Business profile: Carluccio’s Caffés
CV: Antonio Carluccio
1981 Appointed managing director of the Neal Street Restaurant
1986 An Invitation to Italian Cooking published