Carluccio’s is to use its Richmond restaurant as a test-bed for its £10m Fresca refurbishment, chief executive Mark Jones has told MCA’s sister title, Big Hospitality.

The chain plans to introduce a more ‘formal and premium’ service style in the evening and bring in new crockery, cutlery and glassware.

Jones says an ‘experimental’ redeveloped menu will embrace trends such as veganism and focus on provenance.

Carluccio’s has been testing the Fresca programme at three restaurants in Chester, Newcastle and central Dublin – which Jones says have all seen an uplift in sales - and will use the feedback to trial changes in Richmond.

The programme was initiated with a £10m investment from backers, Landmark Group, following the completion of Carluccio’s Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA).

“My sense was that too many of our sites didn’t have comfortable enough seating, some of the tables were too small and close together,” says Jones.

“We did some focus groups in Chester and Newcastle and people thought we’d redecorated but hadn’t changed and elevated the service style and menu.

“All the feedback was that at night time customers are looking for a slightly more formal, premium experience which they’ll see at Richmond.

“We will try everything and roll out things that resonate best with the customers. My expectation is that some things will work and some won’t. Everything is evolutionary, I’m just expecting [the restaurants] to evolve a bit faster than we have in the past.”

Carluccio’s plans to spend up to £400,000 a site on the entire Fresca revamp, which it aims to perfect in Richmond by June and roll out across its estate over the next two years.

“We’re 20 years old this year, we pre-date most of our competitors. The market has radically changed, and people [now] require a different customer experience on a Saturday night to a Monday breakfast, and that’s what we’re hoping to achieve.”

The Italian chain will open no further restaurants in 2019 after shutting 35 sites, close to a third of its estate, under the CVA last year, according to Jones. Instead he is encouraging his team to focus on Fresca rather than developing new sites or concepts.

He says Carluccio’s three Marriott hotel restaurants - which opened over the last three years - are all performing well, and hinted the group could focus on further expansion away from the UK high street going forward.

“We’ve formed a successful relationship with Marriott, we have a successful Middle East franchise business and we would like to get back to growing again in terms of our geographical footprint. We expect over time for hotel restaurants to becoming a growing part of the business,” says Jones.

“We’re still very observant about the direction of travel of particular high streets. If your [site] is in the west end of London you’ve got to keep turning tables and stay open as long as you can. The sites in shopping centres are the ones that we spend most time debating. What is the future of shopping centres if Debenhams or House of Fraser ever disappeared?”

He adds that the group is concerned about the long-term implications of Brexit, with 1,550 of its 2,300 employees originating from non-UK EU countries.

Carluccio’s was one of the first hospitality companies to announce it would pay the £65 fee for its EU staff to apply for ‘settled status’, before the government scrapped the charge last month.

“75% of the roles we hire for we promote from within, so we need a within,” says Jones. “People always move on to other businesses, but what worries me is not having a talent pool to replace that. We don’t make roles welcoming enough, but we can tackle that.”

“We have five people in the business who’ve been here nearly the full 20 years, and four out of five are EU nationals.”

“I’m running an Italian business, it would seem odd if I didn’t have Italians working there. It’s a very complex issue but one that plays on our mind.”