With the demise of its Union Jacks brand and the furore over its comments about Brexit, Jamie’s Italian is taking some strong learnings into the coming years. The company’s chief executive Simon Blagden talks to Joe Lutrario at Restaurant magazine

This year did not start well for Jamie Oliver’s restaurant business.

Having to close six underperforming Jamie’s Italian sites was bad enough, but citing Brexit when talking about the pressures and unknowns the restaurant market is facing this year elicited a barrage of criticism on social media, throwing into focus the challenges that come with running a brand so closely associated with a major public figure.

“We should have thought harder about our PR messaging,” says Simon Blagden, the affable and straight-talking custodian of the celebrity chef’s 80-plus-strong restaurant empire.

“We thought we might be let off the hook. But Brexit is so divisive. I think the biggest problem was the perception that we were playing the blame game and making excuses. It wasn’t a great couple of weeks for us.”

He isn’t quite able to laugh about it yet, but is able to find other sources of humour, not least the half-finished signage at the newly opened Barbecoa on Piccadilly, the group’s meat-focused restaurant brand.

At the time of our meeting, Oliver’s name had yet to be added, an omission that didn’t go unnoticed by the chef when he popped in for a look a few days before. “My fucking name’s not even on it,” says Blagden, gently mocking his boss’s estuary accent.

Industry uncertainty

Blagden – who now oversees all of Oliver’s hospitality businesses, from charity restaurant Fifteen and his four cruise ship restaurants to his high-street delis – stops short of saying he was misquoted.

Jamie Oliver Group’s CEO didn’t quite blame Brexit as some claimed, he simply cited the UK’s decision to leave the EU as a contributing factor to the uncertainty the industry was facing, an analysis that is difficult to argue with.

“We spent a year looking carefully at those six restaurants (in locations as varied as Aberdeen, Cheltenham and London) and what we could do to make them better and it was decided that they needed to go because we weren’t getting the right number of covers through the door.

“The sweet spot for us (not the break-even point as some newspapers stated) is about 2,500 covers a week. It was not a decision we took lightly. If you do 100 things, you’re going to get some things wrong. It’s a normal part of business life unless you’re extremely lucky, which we have been.”

The brand to beat

At the beginning, Jamie’s Italian was pretty much untouchable.

The brand launched in Oxford in 2008 on George Street, which was affectionately dubbed ‘puke alley’ by locals, its then quietness and proximity to the town’s late-night circuit making it an ideal spot for a post-pub heave (it’s now thriving).

Jamie’s Italian was a brand determined to do things differently. It invested heavily in its sites and eschewed the cookie-cutter approach to restaurant design prevalent at the time. There was a focus on from-scratch cooking, with very little made off-site, in stark contrast to most of the group’s branded competitors, particularly those in the Italian space.

This paid off in spades. The businesses grew rapidly, engendering a mix of envy and grudging respect from its competitors.

For some years, it was a brand that could do no wrong, enjoying snaking queues and heady weekly turnover figures. But time catches up with us all. The competition has since raised its game and new players have entered the market.

While it is unquestionably still a brand to be reckoned with, some of the shine has now rubbed off.

Pleasing the people

“Competition is furious,” says Blagden. “Over the past five years, the market has changed completely. But we still feel we do a great job. This is backed up by some recent Mori research that puts us pretty much at the top of all the things we want to be top at, including service, quality of food, atmosphere and environment, and being a socially aware business.

“But we can’t please everyone and sometimes we do get it wrong.”

He also hints that the Jamie’s Italian business is rather more complicated to run than some of its competitors. “We make our own pasta on site. That’s a lot more complicated than buying it in. I know. I’ve done both,” says Blagden, whose CV includes four years as operations director at PizzaExpress as well as a spell with Brown’s during the brand’s ’90s heyday.

He was introduced to Oliver in 2007 by then-Wagamama boss Ian Neil, with whom Blagden had worked at a restaurant called Sweeney Todd.

Bullishness has gone

Blagden admits that the early days of the business were characterised by a bullishness that is no longer present. “With hindsight, there are a lot of things we would not do today that we probably would have done eight years ago,” he says.

With the exception of its restaurant in Ludgate Hill, near St Paul’s Cathedral, all the other Jamie’s Italian restaurants that closed were in quieter suburbs, towns or cities. The volume of trade required for the brand to be successful simply wasn’t available.

Blagden is not a fan of the word ‘freeze’ in the context of Jamie’s Italian’s UK expansion, but there are no new openings expected for the foreseeable future.

“We’ve pretty much got them everywhere we want them. We never set out to have 100 in the UK. We want to keep it special. Around the 40 mark is about right. We’re not private equity-owned so we don’t have someone going more, more, more,” he says.

Local knowledge

But for the international arm of the Jamie’s Italian business, it is a different story. There are 22 openings lined up for this year in locations as diverse as Iceland and India.

The company recently purchased six restaurants Down Under following the collapse of its Australian franchise partner but the rest of its overseas restaurants are partnership and franchises.

“We need that local knowledge,” says Blagden. “We choose our partners carefully and we have a strong team dedicated to ensuring that our high standards are met.”

He is especially proud of the group’s bespoke IT system that manages all the ingredients the worldwide business uses, which is known as JOSIE (Jamie Oliver Supplier Information Exchange). It ensures that all the restaurants “source ethically” and avoid certain products, including controversial ingredients such as palm oil.

“When the horse meat scandal broke, we had loads of calls. People asked us if we knew where everything came from and whether there was a chance we had horse meat in our supply chain. The great thing about a system like JOSIE is that we can straightaway say 100% that we’re clean. We don’t even need to check because the whole thing is monitored 24/7. In this day and age, that’s really important,” he says.

End of the line for Union Jacks

Blagden casually lets slip that the group is about to close its final Union Jacks pizza restaurant, in Covent Garden Piazza. “That will probably be reported as a huge deal in the press too,” he says. “It was a highly profitable restaurant for us but we’ve taken a decision to move on and invest that money into our other restaurant projects. There are only a few years left on the lease anyway.”

The concept launched in 2011 in Covent Garden’s Central Saint Giles development as a partnership between Oliver and Arizonan pizza expert Chris Bianco. While the remaining one may be profitable for the group, the concept proved something of a difficult second album following the success of Jamie’s Italian.

Initially, the restaurant avoided the word pizza in its marketing material, referring to its core product as ‘British-inspired flatbreads’. This caused confusion, and eventually the company relented, rebranding itself as a purveyor of flatbread pizzas.

Further Union Jacks restaurants opened in London and one outside the capital in Winchester, but most were converted to other formats after a few years’ trading.

Blagden and Oliver have since had a second and apparently more successful stab at the pizza category with the Jamie’s Pizzeria brand, which has restaurants in Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and St Albans as well as a handful abroad.

Getting personal

What most surprised Blagden about the Brexit episode was the amount of pent-up hostility for Oliver and his business.

Many people used it as an excuse to air grievances, in some cases, linking the brand’s closures with poor food and service. It got personal, highlighting the double-edged sword that is running a business so closely linked with a personality.

“If another major chain had sold off a handful of underperforming sites, nobody would have batted an eyelid. I believe Jamie is a force for good – 80% of people love him, but the remaining 20% don’t feel that way. And 20% of the UK is an awful lot of people.

“Jamie’s name raises a lot of awareness about the business, but it’s also something that needs to be protected and looked after. When we set up the business 10 years ago, the first thing I promised him is that we would only enhance his reputation. The odd hiccup aside, I think we have done.”

This article originally appears in the April 2017 issue of Restaurant magazine.