Stone & River Interview with Steve Holmes, CEO of Azzurri Group

As part of the 2019’s Brand Momentum report, Stone & River caught up with Azzurri Group boss Steve Holmes to discuss the success of ASK and Zizzi during turbulent times for the industry. Here's what he shared.
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As part of the 2019’s Brand Momentum report, Stone & River caught up with Azzurri Group boss Steve Holmes to discuss the success of ASK and Zizzi during turbulent times for the industry.

Here’s what he shared:

What have been the main focus areas in the past 12 months? Is there anything you can pinpoint that has driven the improvement in customer opinion and loyalty?

Everything we do is about focusing on the customer proposition: the look and feel, service, people working for us, as well as the food. We’ve been rolling out the latest look and feel for the past couple of years. It’s nice to know that the effort we’re putting in is resonating with consumers.

How do you go about keeping the fit out of your restaurants up to date?

We refurbish each site every five to six years. We aim for continuous evolution and the intention is to make every new restaurant better than the one before. We want to keep a fresh and up-to-date estate and therefore our internal design team are constantly out in the restaurants, making sure that every site looks individual. This has been part of the Azzurri DNA since inception and we feel it pays dividends in a market that is so competitive.

How do you go about menu innovation?

Steve Holmes, CEO of Azzurri Group

We introduce two new menus a year and our food team is always looking at new trends. We survey the market, we go to Italy a lot and are always on the lookout. We don’t chase the latest new thing but try to keep ahead of trends – for example, we launched vegan items two years ago. In ASK 95% of Head Chefs have been with us for over a year, in Zizzi this is around 93%, which is good stability and gives us a platform from which to innovate as we don’t have to constantly re-train people. We regularly get the chefs together to innovate as a team: that way you get more care for the product that’s being produced. Additionally, Theo Randall has been working with us in ASK Italian for about six years and his involvement is all about innovation.

How much importance do you place on service in your restaurants?

We put a lot down to the people and how we engage them, and we don’t insist on steps of service. Instead, we make sure to recruit the right staff – people who genuinely care about other people – and ensure they have a clear idea of how we want customers to feel and understand what we’re trying to deliver. Everyone has a clear objective – to make sure customers leave feeling happy. It’s all about giving people ownership for what they do, which we believe increases staff engagement and in turn, makes a difference to customer experience.

How do you go about engaging your workforce?

We place a big focus on engaging our teams. We give teams across the business outcomes to work towards and the autonomy to decide how to deliver those outcomes. We also ensure more involvement from planning through to delivery so that there is greater ownership of initiatives on the front line. We work on objectives for the business together – always looking at how are we going to make things better – making sure we build a plan as a team. We strive to create a culture in which people have fun and enjoy working.

How would you describe your approach to differentiation?

To differentiate in such a competitive market, you need to be clear both on who your customer is and the occasion you’re looking to serve. It’s not just keeping the food and décor fresh, we religiously focus on the customer proposition – this comes ahead of anything else.

You need a thread through the business to create the right culture and ours is one of being positively dissatisfied – we look at how can we make things better every single day.

Between ASK and Zizzi we recognise we cater for different occasions. Zizzi customers are mostly under 30, and it is more of a lively afternoon and later evening occasion, serving cocktails and Rustica pizzas. We describe it as delivering an everyday special occasion. We don’t look to have a cookie cutter roll out as each site is individual – we use local artists for example so that the layout is bespoke to the site. ASK is a more family-friendly customer base. We’re more daytime and early evening and work very hard on the children’s menu. So, ASK and Zizzi are highly differentiated by occasion, which means they can be in similar locations and not risk cannibalisation. We can still use scale advantage but between the two we serve a slightly different customer and day part. Knowing who our customer is and then refining the proposition accordingly is essential and what we always strive to do.

How do you ensure you listen to customer views?

We use a social media scraping service and combine this with feedback from review sites which builds up a very good picture of each restaurant. We have a dashboard on customer experience which then goes direct to both front and back of house. Using this meaningfully is more important than ever.

What challenges have you faced in the past 12 months?

We’re lucky that our business has enjoyed consistent growth for a few years. We’ve done this through trying to maintain our relevance and focus on the customer. We’ve been thoughtful on the roll out, making sure we’re in the right locations on sensible rents, which has meant we’ve managed to maintain a sure footing in a competitive market.

Careful, considered expansion is key. We focus on getting the right sites at the right price and if we don’t think the site is right or the rent is too high then we don’t go for it.

You know how successful the roll out strategy is when the environment gets tough like it is at the moment. A thoughtful, measured roll out and growth plan protects you from making poor decisions.

What are your plans for this year?

We need to be relentless about the proposition, continually innovate and offset the challenges on costs and procurement, by using digital technology for example, to keep the business moving forward. We’re continuing with the refurbishment programme and we’ll be opening more Zizzis, especially in Ireland. We have just opened in Shanghai and we may look to do more in China. Coco di Mama is very successful at the moment too and we will be looking to accelerate the brand.

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