Giardino Group insisted its performance was still better than others in the restaurant sector despite a near-10pc dive in interim pre-tax profits, in part caused by a slow start at some of its new openings.

The company, which runs the Cafe Giardino, Pellini coffee shop, Auberge restaurant and Azzurro pizza/pasta restaurant chains, saw half-year pre-tax profits for the six months to January 31 drop 9.6% to £1.5m, though turnover rose 34% to £12.8m.

It opened its 41st Cafe Giardino in Coventry's Lower Precinct last week.

David Leveton, Giardino's chief executive, said that although the group was trading below its original target levels, Giardino "continues to grow and generate profit while others in the sector have yet to achieve similar levels."

The company's chairman, John Moxon, said Giardino's aim was to achieve profitable growth, and "we will resist being drawn into competition with our loss-making rivals in order to achieve increased market share or to acquire locations demanding a high base rent." In a hint that it was looking out for acquisitions, he said: "The group is well placed to take advantage of opportunities as they arise."

Leveton said gross profit had increased by 35% to £9.7m, despite a reduction in footfall at many of the shopping malls where the group has its outlets after 11 September and the subsequent loss of tourists in the London area. The period since then had seen fluctuating trade with October and November sales down while December saw comparative sales increase by 35% and trading profits by 40%. However, January sales were some 10% below expectations, the company said.

In addition, costs had increased because of changes in holiday pay entitlement for short contract workers that were introduced in October 2001, the group said.

Giardino said it had opened seven new outlets in the six-month period, with six new Cafe Giardinos, including outlets in Birmingham, Ipswich and Mansfield, taking the chain to 43, including three Pellini coffee shops. However, it admitted, some of the recent openings "are taking more time to achieve expected profit contribution levels", which had also affected group profits for the period. Action had been take "to maximise customer awareness" and tailor the offer to local demand and taste.

The group also opened one new Azzurro restaurant in Maidstone, Kent, lifting the chain to four outlets. It also runs nine Auberge restaurants. The group plans to open a further six to 10 units over the next 12 months and is negotiating leases for three more sites in the M25 area destined to become either Azzurro or Auberge restaurants.