Steve Holmes looks after two of the biggest Italian casual dining brands in the business: ASK Italian and Zizzi, which today boast more than 250 branches between them and fall under the banner of the Azzurri Group, owned by private equity giant Bridgepoint. Under Steve’s guidance the two brands have reinforced their identity in the market and established their own clear USPs, so much so that it’s not uncommon to see their stores trading next door to one another in some locations.
Steve was initially hired to take over ASK Italian and he helped breathe fresh life into the brand by adopting a “back to basics” strategy around three things intrinsic to any restaurant chain transformation: the food, the design and the people. This was all underpinned by a radical new approach to kitchen specification, including the introduction of a uniform kitchen design across its 110-strong store estate.
“Every single dish is made fresh and made to order, so we have modified the cooking platform,” he reveals. “We have got more gas burners, we have still got the electric oven that we use, and we have introduced some fryers and more refrigeration. We’ve really focused on upgrading the kit to enable us to produce fresh food to order more quickly. I think one of the things today is that you can’t get away with serving customers slowly, so if you want to invest in the quality of the food and ‘premiumise’ things, you also have to find ways to adapt your kitchen to be able to produce things quickly.”
One of the biggest changes to the back-of-house strategy has been the introduction of a standardised kitchen layout throughout its estate. The flow of the kitchen is also central to the new design, says Steve. “We know exactly what size to build, what the optimum space is and we have also considered things like the optimum number of chefs needed to produce the menu and which dish goes in which section of the kitchen. We have three sections — the salad section, pizza section and a pasta section — and we make sure the menu is engineered so that there is an even workload across all three.”
“We’ve really focused on upgrading the kit to enable us to produce fresh food to order more quickly”