As The Ivy Collection is poised for a £1bn blockbuster sale, Jon Blakeney of experience branding agency I-AM explores how its recipe for success provides valuable lessons for the hospitality sector

The Ivy in the Lanes, Brigton

Earlier this year, the holding company for Richard Caring’s Ivy Collection, Troia Restaurants, was reportedly put up for sale with an asking price of £1bn.

This is an incredibly rare feat for a restaurant chain, especially one from the UK. To put it into perspective, Wagamama, a huge success story, was sold to The Restaurant Group in 2018 in a deal valuing it at £559m when it had over 170 restaurants, suggesting an acquisition multiple of 13.2x EBITDA.

The Ivy has closer to 50 restaurants, which according to its 2023 financial results would give it an acquisition multiple of 18.2x EBITDA. Pret and Costa were valued at £1.5bn and £3.9bn respectively at the time of their sales to JAB and Coca-Cola.

The reported value of The Ivy is all the more remarkable when you consider that it only began to expand from its original premise in 2014. Its success provides lessons for all of us in the restaurant industry. Here’s what I believe we should learn from it.

A unique standing

Brand identity is everything. The Ivy has long stood apart from its competitive set through a mix of affordable opulence, immersive interiors, and memorable luxury-coded design touchpoints. It has avoided the experience feeling old school or stuffy, but at the same time draws cleverly on its heritage. It feels like a treat, while remaining accessible to a broad customer base.

It’s not easy to achieve this. You must keep interior design adaptable while ensuring this attention to detail permeates through service, marketing, and customer experience. You need a keen sense of direction for the brand. What makes the roll-out so impressive is its commitment to maintaining high standards across all these elements at scale.

Being people first

To maintain these standards can be costly, and takes a committed belief in the importance of building a brand over the long term. The Ivy priorities the guest experience, and has resisted the temptation to economise on the ‘critical non-essentials’ such as staff uniforms, tableware and furniture, in order to retain the immersive quality of being at its restaurants. The often-seen pattern of standards slipping and ‘value engineering’ eating away at quality seem refreshingly absent.

The group has managed to provide an elevated experience which is accessible. The staff make customers feel special, there’s an extensive cocktail list, and a food menu packed with familiar favourites that are affordable. Ivy fish and chips for example is £18.95, not much more than it would cost at a local gastropub.

Location

Significantly, over half The Ivy’s locations are outside of London. Many brands become London-centric, but to be a truly successful national brand, a business must prove it can work in other areas, from Exeter to Norwich.

The Ivy has locations throughout the United Kingdom, and one in Dublin. In each case it has invested in high standards of service, lavish interior design, and consistent comfort food, setting standards in the local area with its aspirational offer.

The restaurants are often in repurposed landmark buildings, such as banks. They quickly become popular destinations in town, capturing imaginations about how grand and immersive a restaurant can be. Importantly, they have proven they can scale through a variety of geographies.

Successful expansion

The Ivy Asia is another example of the brand’s ability to extend beyond its original concept while still remaining credible. With a theme and menu switching from the Ivy’s contemporary European focus to pan-Asian, while using an enhanced Oriental-inspired design model, the brand has found a way to disrupt and jump between two different cuisine categories. Often, The Ivy has opened these as dual locations, with an Ivy Asia being situated near or even next to the original Ivy cafes and brasseries.

Perhaps this example is an insight into the value of the brand, showing its ability to stretch into new hospitality areas and engaging new audiences. It is easy to imagine The Ivy venturing into other cuisines, but why stop there? Will we ever see Ivy Hotels arriving in UK high streets? The potential speaks volumes.

Leadership excellence

None of this would be possible without robust brand strategy and a strong sense of direction. Majority controller Richard Caring’s leadership and hands-on attention to detail is a testament to The Ivy’s success, and at other Caprice restaurant brands such as Sexy Fish and Scott’s. Few people have such a portfolio. It is not a coincidence he has done this time and time again.

The Ivy is a great example of a very well-designed experience, wrapped around a good core product, which has allowed the brand to strike a chord with the general population. It figured out what people wanted, then went above and beyond in answering their call. It managed to diversify and scale without faltering in quality. This is how you make a billion-pound food and beverage group.

Jon Blakeney is founder of the experience branding agency I-AM and has over 25 years of experience working with brands such as KFC and Cote Restaurants. I-AM specialises in choreographing memorable experiences that wrap around good products to create memories that people want to share with their friends and family.

Jon Blakeney