The pandemic has accelerated Itsu’s move to make hot food a more prominent part of its offer, chief executive, Ganan Kanagathurai has told MCA.

The food to go retailer has been working on its hot proposition for several years now and has shifted its sales split from it making up around 20% of sales, to 40% over the past two to three years.

“It’s something we have invested even more time, energy and effort into over the pandemic,” he said. “We want to get to 50/50 on cold and hot food next year.”

Kanagathurai said its work in this area has included new launches, such as its gyoza and bao ranges, and investment in kitchen equipment and the training of its staff to be able to handle a great number of hot food sales to order.

The rationale behind the move is down to the team’s belief that hot food evokes a powerful emotional connection with customers.

“That’s why it’s so important to any large, scalable food business. All the best food businesses in the world are hot food led, and there is a reason for that, because of the emotional connection,” he said. Any new products would still be aligned to Itsu’s main brand tenets of offering affordable and nutritious food, with all meals coming in under £9.

Kanagathurai admitted the past year had been “a bit of a painful process”, but that things were moving the right direction with its regional shops and delivery business seeing strong sales. “It is still tough in London”, he said.

Overall, its London estate it is currently trading around 30-50% of where it used to be. “Things are slow in London. The office worker is still to show themselves in volume, the West End is showing encouraging signs of footfall recovery but the city is lagging behind,” he added.

Itsu underwent a CVA last summer, but the need to close shops was not the driver behind it, said Kanagathurai, with all of its shops profitable in 2019. The impact of the pandemic meant it was a necessity in order to strengthen the business’s balance sheet and to protect the jobs of its staff, he added.