If you ask Hugh Osmond what he is having for dinner this evening he probably won't say he is going out to a Pizza Express. This is despite having set up the chain with fellow dining guru Luke Johnson and growing Aarati's favourite pizza outlet to more than 200 outlets in the 90s. Ah, the 90s; hair, pop, Pulp Fiction, supersizing your food and Microsoft saving Apple from extinction. Despite the good memories, Hugh's had it with these off-plan look-alike eateries and says that private equity firms buying into casual dining was never going to work, pandemic or no pan ... blah, blah, blah, as they didn't understand the business, leaving the model broken because of massive oversupply.
From Zizzi to Pizza Hut, Carluccios to Byron Burger doors are slamming, landlords are getting their haircut, margins are being squeezed and Waha is going caca. Hugh Osmond says that no-one is getting it right and in a competitive market when you are not getting it right it is a one-way system to a predictable exit. Osmond is going through the process of raising up to £25 million via an Aim listing of his company, Various Eateries, but doesn't plan to buy back Pizza Express or pump his cash into any other of the distressed mass eateries. For him Richard Caring of The Ivy Group has it right. Look for niche and make diners feel special, not 'Two for Table 15'.
It is not now about the roll-out, pop-up eating model, it is more about considered small brands that earn their reputation and that is the mouth Osmond is putting his money in. “It’s more likely to be someone with three or four really exciting places that we roll out, than a big acquisition,” he said.
Various Eateries has ten trading restaurants, seven of which are under the all-day Coppa Club format developed by Mr Osmond. It also has a single Tavolino, an Italian outlet serving food at mid-market prices, and two Strada restaurants that will be converted to Tavolino. If you have trillions in your account, making holes in your trousers, take a look at the website of Coppa Club and tell us in the NTI newsroom that it is 'same ol', same ol'. It's doing for restaurants what Malmaison did for hotels back at the beginning of the century before it reversed up itself and disappeared up a corporate backside.
Osmond said that the main strategy of Various Eateries was to accelerate the expansion of Coppa and Tavolino to take advantage of the availability of sites and falling rents. “We could pick up 30 sites tomorrow at 30 per cent lower cost than they were a year ago", but he probably won't do so, because all he would then be doing is saving up the disaster for the next 'once-in-a-lifetime' global disaster ... and that could be as much as, what, eight/nine years away.
Remembering the halcyon days of Pizza Express and the Backstreet Boys, Osmond said: “It’ll be like 1993 all over again. There’s sites everywhere; we’ve got 1,000 sites in our inbox in towns you’d want to be in. Six months ago you couldn’t get a site in those towns without paying a premium. Suddenly everyone’s coming to us.” But the cut in capacity is well overdue and gives real entrepreneurs time to think, to plot and to plan. Fortune favours people like him.