Sala Group Holdings, the James Horler-led group which operates the La Sala restaurant concept that is looking to launch in the UK, has appointed Richard Wheeler as operations director.

Wheeler joins the company, which is looking to open circa six sites in the UK in the next two years, after spending 10 years at Sodexo, including over two as account director.

The company is believed to be close to raising the £3.5m to £4.5m for the 65% of the equity required to realise the first phase of the brand’s extension on these shores.

Horler, who is joined in the new company by Steve Tatlock as finance director and Barry Aldridge to guide on licensor conditions and strategies, has appointed Colliers International to seek sites over 6,000sq ft, predominantly in affluent locations around Essex, Surrey and Hertfordshire.

Loughton, Brentwood and Epping in Essex are being considered, along with Richmond, Guildford, Esher and Cobham in Surrey, and St Albans in Hertfordshire.

Those who have signed up so far to invest in the business include current footballers, like Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; retired footballers like Stephen Carr, ex-Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United defender; sports personalities such as Gillette Soccer Saturday presenter Jeff Stelling, and businessmen such as Mike Armstead, owner of candle retail chain Wax Lyrical.

The plan is to open the first two La Sala restaurants in Essex this year.