M&C Report talks to Stefano Ispani, chief executive of The Ponti Group, operator of Ponti’s Italian Kitchen and Caffe Italia, about his best investment, his best business decision and the best piece of advice he’s ever received 

What is the most important action the industry can take to encourage the consumer?  

It’s the sector’s ability to constantly evolve and provide consumers great value for money and outstanding experiences at every level that will help keep the money being spent in cafes, bars and  restaurants and not in supermarkets for their lunchtime snacks or evening meals.

What single action could Government take that would make a difference? 

I think the restaurant sector is a big beneficiary of people’s discretionary spend so as long as interest rates remain low and house prices continue to gently rise people will feel (financially) confident and continue to “treat” themselves to eating and drinking out regularly. It’s largely a frame of mind; when the all the press reported a few months ago on the Government’s positive economic data the sales of “extra” breakfast hash browns went up dramatically that weekend in all our shopping centre locations… 

What is your top priority? 

To remain focused on delivering an outstanding guest experience and ensuring we continue to take all unnecessary costs out of the business!

What has been your best investment? 

Easy – it was promoting existing team members into more senior roles.

It’s often tempting to hire from outside the organisation believing a new hire will be the panacea to ones problems but as is so often the case in life, the answers normally derive from within.

What has been your best business decision?  

Recently, it was the merger of our outside catering business Cucina to Eden Caterers. It really allowed us to spend our management time properly focusing on improving the restaurants.

How much has your business changed to combat the recession? 

Well I think many mid-sized businesses suffered, as we have, a very considerable amount. In order to survive we adopted - and live by - three key tenets: simplification, focus and excellence. So far, we’re still here.

Who is doing something special in the industry? 

I would like to proudly declare my bias and say my brother-in-law Patrick and his partners at Merchants Tavern. Outstanding cooking by Neil Borthwick in very informal surroundings with a cool lounge bar playing vinyl records via £50k Tannoy speakers – gastronomic and acoustic nirvana under one roof.

Most admired brand?

Pret for being an international and world class operator; and Caprice Holdings for consistency of excellence on such a large and ever expanding scale.

Who has been the most influential in your career?

From a culinary perspective the ‘King and Queen’ of Italian cooking in the UK Giorgio Locatelli and Angela Hartnett have both been inspirational.

Also, (the late) Michael Guthrie and Tony Hughes for sharing their timeless values, business savvy and people philosophy.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

I think it was restaurant sage Andrew Guy who once said: “Awards from your peers, staff adulation and public recognition are all really great, but never forget that in the final analysis of the restaurant business, the bottom line is always the bottom line”.