Carluccio’s, the Aim-listed operator of the Italian restaurant-and-shop concept, has this morning unveiled a slight dip in underlying profits (ebitda), down 3.8% to £7.6m for the full year. Sales in the 52 weeks to 27 September rose 8% to £69m, propelled forward by the opening of five new stores plus one further franchised outlet. At a pre-tax level the group saw profits drop 16% to £4.7m, although this fall did not include a £1.7m non-trading impairment and onerous lease charge against restaurants at Oxford and Manchester’s Trafford Centre. The group said the profits drop came in the face of “extremely challenging trading conditions” and some substantial cost pressures – from the higher utility rates, staff costs and the unfavourable Euro-Sterling exchange rate. On the two “problem” stores, Carluccio’s said that it was currently looking for a more appropriate site in Oxford, while it was very pleased with trading at its Manchester store in the city centre. Of the five stores it opened in the UK, four were outside of London: one in Leicester, two in Bristol and in Canterbury. Carluccio’s said all of its 2009 openings had registered sales ahead of the board’s expectations. It also opened a new restaurant under a franchise in Dubai, which was in partnership with The Landmark Group. It said plans were underway to open two more in the Gulf region with Landmark in 2010. Its Dublin franchise – its first – continued to achieve sales that would place it in the company’s top 10 stores. However, the company said the current difficulties of the Irish economy would see a significant delay to an Irish rollout. Since the year end the company has unveiled its 45th store, in Exeter, incorporating a new design template first trialled at a revamped store in Chiswick, and extended to another outlet in Fulham. It planned to refurbish its St Albans store next as part of a wave of revamps. Carluccio’s will next unveil two new openings in Cardiff and Wimbledon, and it anticipated opening at least five new stores in the current year. The company said that it continued to be debt free and had a positive cash balance of £3.1m, meaning it was “extremely well placed” to capitalise on any additional site opportunities. A higher tax rate at 49% (2008: 35%), as not all the impairment provisions were tax deductable, meant earnings per share was down from 6.2p to 2.6p. On the outlook for the business, Stephen Gee, chairman, said: "There is no doubt that the economic climate will remain challenging during the current year but recently there have been some signs of improved consumer confidence. We have been encouraged by trading in the first eight weeks since the year end, which has been slightly ahead of the board's expectations. “Carluccio's trades all day, combines every restaurant with a retail shop and offers customers excellent value for money. I believe that the strength of our business model will continue to differentiate Carluccio's within the casual dining sector.”