Chopstix Group has seen strong like-for-like (lfl) sales growth in London, with the capital bouncing back following a slow post-pandemic recovery, managing director Jon Lake tells MCA.

The Asian QSR concept, which operates c127 sites across its brands, has also seen some “polarisation” in its shopping centre estate, with destination shopping centres coming back strongly.

“There have been marked swings in geography,” he says. “Last year, we were still struggling with lfls in London, and now we’re seeing much stronger growth.

“The good shopping centres are still really good and becoming destination ones, as competitive socialising concepts have moved in to take over some department stores. Shopping centres that were starting to struggle pre-Covid are difficult though.”

The brand, which opened its first airport site at London Luton earlier this month, is also expanding its footprint in motorway service areas (MSAs), where volumes are strong but spend has fallen back.

“There’s lots of road traffic but the spend is a bit less,” Lake continues. “It’s evidence people are out there, but they’re on the hunt for value. So we’ve got to stay relevant in that space.”

He is confident city centres will continue picking up as consumers continue to return to the office, attributing current footfall levels to the short-term effects of the pandemic.

“In the medium term, I think things will probably settle back to 90% of what it was pre-Covid.”

Following its acquisition of competitor Chozen Noodle – and its 27 MSA sites – earlier this year, Chopstix has begun converting some sites to its core brand, beginning with Beaconsfield.

The first conversion will see the site reopen in four weeks, after which the brand will look into future conversions.

“We’ve started talking to franchise partners and will form a plan with them depending on how the first conversion goes.”

With a pipeline of 200 sites over five years, including 10 company-owned stores opening per year, the brand is focused on proving its versatility across formats.

“If you’re going to be a large QSR brand, you need to work in multiple formats and locations,” Lake says. “We’ve proven that at this point and we’re fortunate our franchise partners agree.

“We haven’t yet come across a format where we don’t work.”

Market mapping with CACI has indicated the potential for a 500-strong estate across the UK, with a strong focus on travel hubs to increase brand awareness.

The point of differentiation as an Asian QSR concept will serve Chopstix well as it works to reach that goal, while keeping an eye on footfall trends in city centres.

While Chopstix may have benefited from a trading down effect, Lake acknowledges it needs to maintain resilience once the cost of living crisis eases.

“What we have to do as a brand is watch those trends,” Lake adds. “We’re focusing on the simplicity, value, and the reason people come to visit us, and trying to expand on those occasions.

“As long as you’re differentiated, convenient, and exciting to people, you’ll continue to benefit. Nobody else is doing Asian QSR like we’re doing it.”

A value proposition through meal deals and bundles have kept customers coming back, but the business is also maximising trade across day parts.

Its new opening at Luton will allow it to flex its breakfast offer, which has previously worked well in its partnership with Welcome Break.

“This is effectively about sweating an asset,” Lake explains. “Given how simple the Chopstix offer is, can we find a way of utilising the equipment, tech, and formats available to us to trade a morning offer?

“So we took inspiration from Welcome Break to develop our breakfast offer into airports.”

The ‘breakfast in a box’ offering is a simple but strong value proposition for those on the move.

“We know we work well in food courts and holiday parks too. Airports were a natural extension of that.”

Chopstix has continued to challenge cost lines, its supply chain, and relationships with landlords to mitigate cost inflation and other concerns. However, its differentiation as an Asian QSR concept has been a strong positive factor, according to Lake.

“We occupy a space not hugely occupied by others, so there’s room to breathe and we can continue to grow.

“We’ve never been a business that’s over-leveraged. Positivity with resilience and discipline are key characteristics of what we’ve been trying to do.

“We’re positive about our market position and long-term prospects.”