Mel Flaherty talks to Carluccio’s chief executive Simon Kossoff about expansion both in the UK and internationally, entering the US, charity work and authenticity.

Last night (13th May), Simon Kossoff was in Nottingham for the opening of the 81st Carluccio’s Italian deli-café in the UK, at West Bridgford. “Antonio [Carluccio, presumably no further explanation needed] tells the same joke every single time – we’re like this double act; we say the same things at each launch party,” he says with semi-mock weariness (the joke, about the son of a Mafia boss praying for Christmas presents, is actually funny if you haven’t heard it 80 times before).

Kossoff himself says it is “bonkers” that the two of them still turn up to every opening night, especially now the expansion programme has ramped up to 10 new UK sites a year, but he believes that by doing so they are reinforcing the brand’s values and this is part of the reason for its success.

“People love that Antonio actually comes to their new restaurant, it makes them see that it’s authentic and there’s more to it than just having his name on the front,” he says. “Also, by doing that, you can almost guarantee that the restaurant will be on the front page of the local newspaper the next day whereas if it was just a standard opening, you might be lucky if it was on page six in the restaurant reviews a couple of weeks later.”

It is surprising that the septuagenarian Italian chef still wants to be involved in the business to such an extent. Carluccio and wife Priscilla set up the chain in a joint venture with Kossoff and, respectively, the former chief executive and finance director of Kossoff’s former employer My Kinda Town, Peter Webber and Stephen Gee.

The venture finally secured backing, after two dispiriting years of fruitless presentations, from private investors, namely Scott Svenson who founded Seattle Coffee Company with his wife, and opened the first Carluccio’s Caffè in Market Place, near Oxford Street, London, in 1999. Getting an extra £2m from the backers for the large, risky but ultimately seminal (thanks to the £80,000-plus turnover it was soon generating) site in St Christopher’s Place, also just off Oxford Street was, astonishingly the last time Kossoff has ever had to raise new money for the business.

The Carluccios officially took a back seat when the business floated on the Alternative Investment Market in 2005. The firm is now under its third ownership structure since its inception, having been bought by Landmark Group, the Dubai-based investment group (funnily enough also run by a husband and wife team), for £90m in 2010.

Yet the majority of the senior management at Carluccio’s have been there since day one, albeit many of them started in lesser roles (not that Kossoff would describe them as that – his first job after his post-graduate hospitality course was at a hotel in Gloucester Road, London and it put him off the petty, empirical management hierarchy then so prevalent in the hotel sector and shaped the open, flatter structure management style where people don’t take themselves too seriously that he has always adopted). This continuity is what motivates Antonio to keep his hand in, Kossoff says and he himself talks fondly of his “Carluccio’s family”, more than 15 years since he first came on board.

After careful consideration, Kossoff says he prefers the company’s current ownership type and you can tell it’s not just because he feels he should say that. There are no pressures to work towards an exit date and there are not continuous questions from public shareholders who do not believe the answers that the people who work so hands on in the business give, he explains.

Most exciting for Kossoff, though, is the fact that Landmark’s ownership can facilitate significant international expansion for Carluccio’s. “Landmark is a massive fashion and retail business built over 40 years throughout the Middle East and India. They think about going to a new overseas territory like we think about going to a new town in the UK,” he says. “When you look back in five years’ time, now will mark our real move into the international arena.”

There are already eight stores in the Middle East; two more sites are being built to add to the existing one in Turkey where Kossoff says there will be a total of five by the end of the year, plus two more restaurants will join the one previously franchised but now company-owned Carluccio’s in Dublin. But it is the Carluccio’s US debut and expansion plans that are creating the biggest buzz.

Kossoff is currently visiting Washington on a bi-monthly basis and speaks to Cory Waldron, the ceo of the group’s wholly-owned Carluccio’s USA subsidiary, twice a week. Kossoff says she is already very much part of the Carluccio’s family, having spent three months in the UK business – “it was like having a house guest”, he says.

The first American outlet will open in Alexandria, an upmarket suburb of Washington, in November in a red brick corn exchange building. Like the UK cafes it is about 7,000 square feet and will trade on two floors plus some outside space. There will be small tweaks to cater for the US Happy Hour and bar snacking culture. Downtown Washington and a retail centre in the city will be the next targets before expanding to between 10 and 15 sites in the state. Beyond that Boston and Chicago are suitable cities for Carluccio’s, Kossoff says 

At 53, Kossoff says he no longer has the once held desire to have his own restaurant and although he enjoys his involvement as an investor in the Chilango burrito business, he is not eyeing any other pies to put his fingers in. He believes there is still so much untapped potential for the Carluccio’s brand, not just overseas, that he can’t see himself disappearing to do anything else anytime soon.

He still maintains that Carluccio’s will never be as big as PizzaExpress but, following research by the company, thinks previous calculations of the upper limit for UK sites of 150 were perhaps conservative – 160 to 170 is feasible thanks to the opening up of new types of locations for restaurateurs generally and the continuing “incredible response” every time a new Carluccio’s opens.

In retrospect, he feels that critics of the relatively slow pace of the chain’s UK roll out were right – now he is doing ten a year he realises that he could have done that earlier without damaging the business as he had feared. Other brand extensions are also an option, although not currently on the cards:

“I don’t why we don’t have a Carluccio’s Caffè cookbook or why we don’t have our products in Waitrose like everyone else,” Kossoff admits. The brand did have a range in Sainsbury’s a few years back, but Kossoff says his company didn’t get the branding right, not making it premium enough, and it was the wrong timing with Sainsbury’s who were then putting more emphasis on their own brand products.

Whatever both Kossoff and the Carluccio’s brand do, it has to be done with utter conviction. The chain is the largest restaurant group to get the difficult to attain top three star Sustainable Restaurant Association rating. And the brand’s fund-raising for Action Against Hunger has become a personal passion, as well as a source of pride for the company’s employees, ever since Kossoff visited a children’s malnutrition centre in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia in West Africa, and listened to the manager tell him that it was scheduled to close before Carluccio’s stepped in.

The chain has raised £1.1m for the charity since 2008, largely from the 50p it donates from all purchases of one of its most popular dishes, Penne Giardiniera – using this as a tool to drive sales of a higher price menu item is not an option, Kossoff insists, as it would not ring true and customers would see through it.

The word that crops up throughout a conversation with Kossoff is authenticity. The ‘realness’ of Carluccio’s Italian offer is what initially attracted him to work with Antonio and Priscilla as a refreshing change to the 12 years he had spent in the American theme restaurant scene with My Kinda Town.

At the end of his time with that firm, he had thought he was going to become the head of a large restaurant business owned by Capital Radio. Developing the first Capital Radio Café underneath the Capital Radio studios in Leicester Square, London, was a fun time, he recalls, full of invites to glamorous parties with glamorous people. However, the restaurant flopped and there was a “massive clash of cultures” with the radio station, which changed its mind about buying out My Kinda Town to form a restaurant division.

Kossoff doesn’t miss the theme restaurant days at all, but he still has a penchant for the unhealthy food it peddled – particularly the deep fried onion ring loaf, a signature dish at some of My Kinda Town’s restaurants.

It’s all such a far cry from the robustly healthy Mediterranean fare of Carluccio’s. But then it still takes Kossoff by surprise that he’s ended up where he is. He only did his hospitality course, which he says was “an utter waste of time”, because he liked organising events when he was an economics student and had decided he did not want to go down any of the traditional career routes for economics graduates.

After his disastrous nine months at the hotel on Gloucester Road, Kossoff worked for Peter Boizot at Kettner’s then on the PizzaExpress side where the role took him on the road, away too much from his then wife-to-be, hence he took the job with My Kinda Town. And even though he loved the Carluccio’s concept and saw it had potential right from the minute he first met Priscilla and Antonio, he could never have foreseen what it has become:

“I was saying to the team at the opening last night, I couldn’t believe that the original business plan I wrote was for 25 stores in the UK.”