Franco Manca translates as “Franco’s missing”, but under the careful watch of industry veteran David Page, you could hardly accuse the pizza concept from passing up any chances to stay ahead of the category it has been shaking up since its launch in 2008. Mark Wingett takes a look at the winner of the Best Concept Award at this year’s Retailers’ Retailer of the Year Awards and parent company Fulham Shore.

Long-time business partners David Page, David Sykes and Nabil Mankarious are all directors of a company called the Old Boys Club Ltd, a nod to their long-term association but also perhaps to the experience all three have gathered over their time in the industry, which has taken in brands including PizzaExpress and Gourmet Burger Kitchen. It is that experience that stands out when thinking about the success of Franco Manca – this isn’t their first rodeo and they certainly know how to pick and develop a winning concept.

Unpretentious, product-led but offering great value, Franco Manca is one of the sector’s driving forces in a category that remains hyper competitive. There is no fancy menus or over the top service, just the two things Page hones in on - quality and price. The brand’s cheapest pizza is £4.95 and as Page points out its highest priced pizza will always be “50p cheaper than a PizzaExpress margherita”. At the moment that top priced pizza is £7.55. Page says: “Yes we have a stripped back design, but the customers make the atmosphere. It is a virtuous circle, because the prices are low, we have more people in the restaurant, our volumes are higher than average.”

The concept is generating average number of covers a week per restaurant of over 2,100, with average spend per head of £10. As Page points out Prezzo “was doing about 1,300 covers per restaurant per week when it was sold”. The group’s original two restaurants, in Chiswick and Brixton were doing 1,000 covers a week, but have doubled their number of customers since that time.

In its last update, the company said it had agreed increased facilities with its bank, HSBC, from £6.5m to £15m to aid both its increased expansion plans and the strengthening of its central team. It said that these new bank facilites would enable the company to gradually “accelerate its opening programme and push for a nationwide presence throughout the UK”.

The group ended the financial year with 45 restaurants, comprising 32 Franco Manca, 12 The Real Greek and 1 Bukowski Grill franchise. It opened 13 new Franco Manca pizzeria and three The Real Greek during the year, including its first smaller Greek on the Street concept.

It has since opened sites in Putney (which with the help of the boat race gave the company is busiest weekend of the year) and Brighton Marina, and is currently building two further restaurants in Richmond and Bournemouth. The group’s current estate mix has 80% of its restaurants in London, but Page says that will eventually come down to 50%. The group will gradually expand along the M4 over the coming with sites either already signed or close to be secured in Reading, Oxford and Bristol. Further afield it is close to signing on two sites in Edinburgh, one in the Royal Mile and the other at the St Andrews Square development. It also hopes to build on its fledgling relationship with Debenhams, although Page believes that only “three in 15” of its openings going forward will be with the department store operator, and those sites would need to have “a big street presence”.

He puts the group’s successful property play to “having a joined up property department” and the fact that it has made a success out of secondary or tertiary sites within walking distance of the main eating and drinking-out circuit. He says: “Some property departments are just told to deliver sites without a definitive strategy, that disconnect is where the problems further down the line arise from. If a site gets over 2,000sq ft we get a bit nervous, you can acres of space on a Monday and Tuesday and you have no atmosphere. We have fitted into as small as 800sq ft before.

Subject to site availability the company expects to end its 2018 financial year with 60 restaurants, comprising 45 Franco Manca, 14 The Real Greek and one Bukowski Grill franchise. The company as a whole is on track to turnover over £1m a week by the end of May, when it will have 36 Franco Manca and 13 The Real Greek open. Page is equally as proud of the success of the latter brand, one he bought back from previous company Clapham House in 2011 against competition from his old PizzaExpress counterpart Luke Johnson. The brand has begun its regional expansion – it’s recent opening at Watermark, Southampton, has already become the second best performing site in the scheme and the concept is averaging 1,600 covers per restaurant per week.

The success of both Franco Manca and The Real Greek has meant that adding a further concept to the Fulham Shore roster has become a “low priority” for Page. He says: “We’ve found two brands that are flying, silly to dilute focus anymore.” His long-stated aim to back a ramen/Asian concept might now come under his fledgling Putney Reach investment vehicle, which currently backs the two-strong FIXED concept.

The pizza brand’s success also comes at a time when established category chains, such as Page’s old company PizzaExpress and Pizza Hut, are either focusing on a new growth model (Firezza) or for new funding, as well as keeping their existing businesses going forward. Franco Manca is at the vanguard of the “better pizza” movement, with the likes of Pizza Pilgrims, Homeslice and Pizza Union ready to follow its lead, not to mention the Sir Charles Dunstone-backed MOD Pizza, which will hope to build of its initial launch here.

And what of the long-term future of both concepts, especially Franco Manca? Page says: “No point in selling any of them at the moment. We can see both of them doubling in size in the medium term and have just invested in the head office team, so need we need to go to the next plateau in terms of size and growth to justify that investment.” Wise head on a young concept.