Peach Report

Jamie’s worldwide dealmaker

26 August, 2011

by Peter Martin

Within five years Jamie’s Italian will have more restaurants open outside of Britain than here at home. Ellie Frost is leading that international expansion, by looking for a special breed of business partner. She spoke to Peter Martin

Jamie’s Italian is going global. The casual dining brand already has a restaurant trading in Dubai and will be opening in Sydney, Australia, next month.

With only around 30 Jamie’s planned for Britain – and there are already 19 restaurants open – an international fu- ture is the obvious next step. Partners have already been lined up for Ireland and Germany – and an invasion of the USA, starting in California, is on the drawing board.

Sweden, Russia and even Brazil are on the wish list. Dubai will have three Jamie’s open by end of next year. The initial plan is for no more than 10 openings in total next year, says Ellie Frost, the woman spearhead- ing the worldwide operation. But the ambition is huge and more than 50 in five years is not an exaggeration. “Germany could be massive,” says Frost enthusiastically. It’s a country not famed for casual dining chains, but Frost sees the potential for as many as 20 restaurants within five years.

Having a celebrity chef like Jamie Oliver as the face of the brand is an advantage few other eating-out chains can boast, but as you would also expect from a Jamie Oliver enterprise it is about doing things differently as well.

Passionate people
As International Business Development Director Ellie Frost says: “A lot of established franchisees just seem to collect brands.” Although she will be working with many multi-brand operators, she emphasises: “We want to work with restaurateurs who are dynamic and enthusiastic. We like people who have actually created their own thing.”

It’s all about finding the right people with passion – in other words people like them. ‘Maverick’ is a word that comes up. Frost adds: “Strong partners are those that have generally owned businesses for some time, operate original concepts and match our energy.” One way of looking at it, she says, is if “their staff could be our staff”.

This approach is summed up in the brand’s newly-signed Aussie partners, the Sydney-based Pacific Restaurant Group. “It’s a very entrepreneurial outfit,” says Frost, ”running two great concepts, Kingsley's Steak & Crab- house and the Chophouse.” For those that know Sydney the first Jamie’s Italian will open on Pitt Street within weeks.

“Two of their directors, Wes Lambert and Adam Heathcote, had met Jamie at a trade show,” remembers Frost. “We started talking in the spring of 2010. We visited with our ops manager in September last year. Checked them out and then it was all down to personal fit.”

The general manager and head chef for the first Aussie opening have since been over in UK for intensive training and familiarisation for eight weeks over the summer working in UK restaurants preparing for their first day opening.

It’s a similar story in Germany, which is not a country that casual dining chains have generally looked to grow in. But because it also happens to be a country where the Jamie Oliver name is huge, the company is excited about the potential for Jamie’s Italian.

“We are typically approaching restaurateurs who have say three restaurants and want a fourth,” says Frost. “But it’s more complicated than other countries because it’s incredibly regional.” Because of that they are splitting the territory into four, focusing on Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich, and signing partners for each area.

Other countries are a little more conventional, however. In Ireland, the brand is partnering Fitzers, which already runs other brands like Hard Rock, and in Russia it is partnering with the Ginza Project, which is the second fastest growing company in the country with 100 restaurants.

One of the key factors for deciding where to go is the size of Jamie Oliver’s personal profile in the country and the value of the market for his products. So it’s no surprise that the launching in the USA is on the agenda. However, the approach to the States will be different again. Because of the “massive potential” of the market, the team will develop the States themselves – and because of that they won’t be rushing it, Frost says. But to keep it interesting, and defying conventional wisdom, the plan is probably to start on the West Coast - highly likely in or around Santa Monica.

After the upcoming antipodean launch, immediate focus is likely to be back on Dubai, where the first international Jamie’s Italian opened in January in Festival City. Jamie’s partners with Jawad, a major company the organisation already knew, and another two sites are planned in for the coming year, with the next in the Dubai Mall of the Emirates.

Universal best sellers
Frost admits they did get some things wrong with the first venture. It highlighted the eternal dilemmas for international concepts in balancing the rigidity of core brand values and standards against the need to understand and respect local tastes and custom – not to mention the potential tensions between brand owner and local operator.

“We want to have a collaborative way of working with top notch people,” says Frost, “but it’s a complex brand to franchise.

“They can’t actually change too much, certainly when it comes to the menu. The top five best sellers tend to be the same wherever we are. Prawn linguine and the burger are good sellers everywhere.

“In fact, that’s where we made a mistake in Dubai, by pandering too much initially to what we thought were local tastes. We put on a lot of fish, but that’s not what people came to Jamie’s for. They wanted lasagne!”

Marketing is one area where Frost does bow to local knowledge having, as she admits, under-estimated cultural differences opening in Dubai. “We don’t shout about openings in UK; in Dubai you have to. We didn’t understand the media. How to take the brand to market is important.”

Design can also be more flexible to make it relevant to particular countries and their customs. But food standards is the province where there can be no compromise. Where possible the team want to encourage local supply, which is very much a Jamie thing, but they have to be up to standard, they can’t be inferior, insists Frost.

The basic partnership agreement is fairly straightforward, involving an upfront fee for five years, a royalty payment and site openings fee, with levels based on potential of the market. The basic deal includes exclusive development rights for five years, plus five years of operation.

“We have to ensure fairness, as it’s an expensive business setting up a Jamie’s, costing between £1.5m and £2m in the UK,” adds Frost.

But it’s what’s not in the paperwork that’s just as important. “The hardest thing is letting go and trusting people. It’s our brand, but their business. That’s the scary thing. It’s a huge responsibility. But we’ve learned a lot about relationships – and every partner is different,” adds Frost.

High expectations
What is sometimes easy to forget is just how young a brand Jamie’s Italian still is – only opening its first Brit- ish site in Oxford in 2008. But it has already become a pacesetter in the casual dining market, delivering high consumer marks for quality, freshness and excitement.

Even with having the Jamie reputation on board, the brand still has to be sold to prospective partners – which, of course begs the question just how important the chirpy chef is to the brand’s success.
Frost makes the point that despite the chain carrying his name, it was an intentional decision early on that customers were not going to see the man himself out in the restaurants. “It’s a standalone brand. Jamie purposely doesn’t come to openings – although he does come to see the staff, particularly when training.

“It’s an accessible, affordable neighbourhood restaurant. But we know there are high expectations: people travel a long way and queue to get in. I don’t think we’ve changed much since we launched, but we have to stay relevant” – and that’s going to be even more of a challenge when moving into new markets.
The big question is whether the Jamie’s Italian model will help pave the way for a much bigger British casual dining brand export drive? For the concept itself, international growth will eventually deliver more sites than in the UK.

Not that that will mean less British activity for the wider group, as Jamie himself is already moving onto his next casual dining project the more mass-market Union Jack’s which he is developing with Phoenix-based pizza chef Chris Bianco. The first opens in central London about now.

When Ellie Frost first started working for Jamie Oliver she was expecting a three-month assignment. “Somehow that’s turned into eight years,” says the law graduate and one-time management consultant.

Frost, like many who joined Jamie in the early days, is a family friend – her father used to do the Oliver books. She’d worked for a year in the law and then briefly in consultancy before being asked to help out with Fifteen, Jamie’s original restaurant helping young people come into the sector.

Initially, she was asked to recruit a GM and HR man- ager. But after that was done the jobs kept coming. She helped set up the first overseas Fifteen in Amsterdam and then the Jamie Oliver Foundation. She led the joint ven-ture that created the Flour Station craft bread business, where she remains a director.

Frost has since worked on the food show and bringing digital and design agencies in-house. “It’s been a great opportunity to be entrepreneurial,” she says with some understatement.

She was closely involved in the initial positioning, development and championing of the mid-scale dining concept that became Jamie’s Italian, becoming the brand’s development director. She’s also done a similar job project managing the launch of Barbecoa, Jamie’s joint-venture barbecue restaurant.