Nine months on from his appointment as chief executive of Prezzo and Jon Hendry-Pickup admits he is still reeling from the breakneck pace of his role and the sector he is working in.

Taking the helm at one of the UK’s casual dining giants, building a head-office team essentially from scratch and dealing with a period of intense uncertainty, Hendry-Pickup clearly hasn’t had an easy ride. That’s before you throw in the challenges of re-invigorating one of his brands and creating a new one from scratch.

Celebrations on the way

The former Travelodge chief operating officer and operations director for Tesco describes the process as “trying to tune the engine while you’re still driving the car”.

Stressful as it may have been, but there have been celebrations along the way, most recently for the group reaching the milestone of 300 sites.

Asked if anything has surprised him about his first spell as chief executive and his first foray into the eating out market, he replies: “The surprise is the pace at which competition grows, even in the short time I have been in the industry.

“I genuinely think there’s never been a better time to be a UK customer wanting to dine out. Obviously that means we have to continually up our game. Those core elements of value, quality and an environment where people want to spend time – those have always been the fundamentals, but the benchmark is so much higher than it was. Combine that with the challenges we are all facing – everything from rents to National Living Wage, to the growth of home eating – and it means you have to be absolutely on your game.”

The group certainly hasn’t let the grass grow under its feet – with a flurry of recent openings for the core Prezzo brand, including Mere Green and Telford in the West Midlands, the West Quay development in Bournemouth and Belfast.

Meanwhile, after making some changes to the Chimichanga model in the existing Peterborough store, the first new-look site for the brand will open in Bracknell in September.

The baby of the group – MexiCo – will open its third site in Bedford in June – a year after the launch of the debut site in Derby.

Hendry-Pickup says: “We know where we need to be and there are plenty of opportunities left for us.

“The MexiCo concept is growing well and fits into a burgeoning market. What I don’t want to do is over-extend before we have really drilled into what the concept is. It can become a decent-sized business in the right locations.

“From Chimichanga’s point of view, we haven’t grown that business recently but there is definitely demand there if we get the offer right for customers.

“We are already at a really decent size with Prezzo but there are so many places, based on the research we have done, where we’re not represented yet and where we see there could be the demand.”

Hendry-Pickup joined the group following the acquisition by TPG Capital from the founding family of the Kayes.

He says the key task for him coming into the group was ensuring that each site was set up to handle traffic at each day part.

He says: “We have very much focused on the basics and that can be summed up in always aiming to make the next restaurant we open the best one yet. That means working with local teams and effectively communicating that message that we are opening and what people can expect from us.

Meeting demand patterns

“The other thing we have been learning about is very much concerning demand patterns – when customers want to come into the restaurants and what flexibility we have with the layout. Maybe in the past we have not necessarily co-ordinated what the designers are doing with the needs of the operating teams. We have got much better at that recently which has made us slicker and we have seen the effects in our Trip-Advisor scores on recent openings.”

For a group known for its eponymous brand and another sizeable presence in its 37-strong Chimichanga estate, introducing another brand in the Tex Mex stable might have been seen as a risk, but Hendry-Pickup insists the two can happily live side by side with Chimichanga appealing to a mass market and MexiCo targeted at more adventurous souls.

He says: “The new Chimichanga menu we launched is focused on classical favourite Tex-Mex dishes, which we know customers like. Value is a focus so we have looked at sharing dishes. We have also done some fun things, like the Tombstone Challenge, which has generated some good social-media buzz, and really pushed that vibrant, lively yet familiar feel.

“MexiCo is much more focused on being adventurous and offering things that other people aren’t.

“The two brands can work in close proximity, but also in completely different locations. We work well with Chimis in places like shopping centres and next to cinemas. I think we have a different view of where we go with MexiCo – we will definitely be looking at London and some of the more avant-garde urban locations. There are lots of exciting things going on with food in places like Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol etc. I would like us to be part of that. Shopping centres certainly won’t be the focus for now.”

Working to family values

There has also been a new menu for Prezzo including a La Famiglia option – a sharing plate of pasta for four people and a separate lunch menu based around piadina.

Hendry-Pickup said: “It’s all come from feedback from customers. We wanted to harness that idea of sharing a meal in a traditional Italian family home.

“The new menu has a very different look. I think we have been guilty of taking ourselves quite seriously before. I want us to be lighter.

“The piadina menu is another great example of appealing to a time-poor market. It’s been really successful with shoppers, who want to be in and out.”

While Hendry-Pickup is not afraid of a full plate, he says he has no plans to introduce another concept to the stable any time soon.

However, he does see plenty of opportunity for growth in another key area – eating at home.

He says: “We have been in partnership with Deliveroo for nearly a year now and we recently started a trial with UberEats in central London. There’s still more significant work we can do with takeaway – which remains 50% of the market. People tend to forget about how important that is and I think we can do more to make it simpler for customers.”