Q&A with Simon Blagden, Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group

The chief executive of Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group talks about the challenges of growing the Jamie's Italian brand in the UK and overseas

Simon Blagden oversees a sprawling collection of restaurant brands within the British chef’s restaurant group. The company recently announced the closure of six  Jamie’s Italian branches in the UK, but overseas growth continues to be strong. Meanwhile the grill restaurant Barbecoa will grow from one to four sites and a number of airport concepts are in development

What was the original vision for Jamie’s Italian?
We wanted to do a mid-market Italian restaurant better than anybody else. That means better sourcing and better ingredients. We make pasta fresh everyday, using the best flour and organic eggs. If we are going to serve pasta, we’ll make it the best pasta and any protein we serve will be the best sourced protein. And, of course, we are going to serve it in really stylish surroundings.

What is different about growing Barbecoa?
Finding a site for Barbecoa is hard, they are large and they take time to develop. We have worked on the Picadilly site for four years. In this process they uncovered a lot of bodies on site because it was next to what used to be a graveyard so it turned into an archeological dig rather than a restaurant. It has been quite interesting, but a bit annoying.

What is challenging about operating a franchise model for overseas branches?
Picking the right partners for the right reasons. When we started the business we didn’t build it on the premise that we wanted to make a lot of profit; we wanted to do a better job. So when we go to a franchise partner, we ask, ‘are they buying into it because they like our story and our values or because they want to make a lot of profit?’

How hard is it to find and keep staff?
It is always tough to find chefs and we find that is a global issue, there is a shortage of good well trained and enthusiastic chefs across the world. Turnover in the sector is high in general but I think we do better than most. I think we have some of the best retention rates because we look after people; we have great training and coaching schemes that we are very proud of. A lot of our staff get targeted by other organisations because they know they are great and receive excellent training with us.

How has the levy on sugary drinks worked for you?
We put in place a 10p levy on carbonated sugary drinks. We didn’t do this to stop people drinking them, but to highlight the fact that they are not great for you and to heighten awareness. We have a fairly educated demographic and we have not had one single bit of negative feedback. The money we raise goes towards the Children’s Health Fund and so far we have raised £100,000. I have seen some of the projects the money paid for and they do things like installing a water fountain in a skate park where there used to be a Coke machine.

Tina Nielsen

Read the full story about Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group in the Q1 edition of Foodservice Consultant.

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