Comptoir Group looks to continue expanding its Libanais brand at the rate of one or two sites a year, with all its brands remaining in growth, CEO Nick Ayerst tells MCA.

The Lebanese, Middle Eastern and North African-inspired restaurant operator reported group revenue up 1.4% to £31.5m in its 2023 full-year results.

“Profit is up as well, and we achieved positive EBITDA in a difficult trading year and transition period for the business,” Ayerst says. “All brands performed well.”

Looking at central London, there are “untapped areas” for expansion, he adds. Comptoir Libanais recently opened its 20th site in London’s Southbank, which followed an opening in Ealing in Q4 last year.

“There are no plans for more [Libanais] openings this year, but we’re certainly looking for sites to open in 2025.

“We also trade well in places like Manchester, Birmingham, and Oxford.”

The group has also opened Shawa Lebanese Grill – its fast casual concept – with a new franchise partner in Abu Dhabi. Whilst looking for more opportunities to roll out the brand overseas, Ayerst sees opportunity to prove the brand in the UK as well as adding digital advancements to increase efficiency.

Comptoir also operates Kenza – a live entertainment venue in London’s Devonshire Square – but has no plans to expand the concept at the moment.

The strategy for the future will focus on Libanais and Shawa rather than new brands.

While December was a record month, January this year saw subdued trading – but sales have since recovered, according to Ayerst.

“Inflation is dropping but there are still pressures,” he adds. “The wage inflation puts significant pressure on our single largest cost.

“Utilities spiked last year – we were paying 75p per unit at one stage – now fortunately we’re back to 24p per unit.”

While consumer confidence is improving, it will take another 12-18 months before “people are back to spending as much as they’d like.

“As a sector, we’re growing the top line but not at the same pace as costs are rising,” Ayerst continues. “Therefore there’s a crunch on EBITDA and that makes the whole sector less interesting for investors.

“But things change and move on. We’re fortunate to have a strong cash position…and we’re comfortable with our London listing at the moment.”

Following a transition period, the group is “happy and comfortable” with its senior leadership team in place. The appointment of James Fisher as FD last month finalised the restructure of team, following the earlier appointments of Travis Fish as operations director and Dominika Kurowska as people director.

“The business is in a good place. We’ve done a lot of work this year in terms of understanding our guests, consumers, and what the friction points are with each of our brands.”

The process also included improving the digital experience, by relaunching the website, implementing a new bookings system, and engaging with a new CRM agency.

The group is therefore now “more integrated” in terms of collecting data and customer communications.

“We’re very positive about the future,” Ayerst adds. “We’re in a good cash position with minimal debt unlike a lot of other businesses in the sector.”