At the table with… Art Sagiryan, CEO of Ping Pong

12/05/2014 - 16:22
Restaurant group Ping Pong continues to expand its estate, with its latest opening in London’s Westfield Shopping Centre. We spoke to Art Sagiryan, the chief executive officer about how business is faring in the world of dim sum

How did Ping Pong come about?
Ping Pong is privately owned by Igor Sagiryan, Russian born Igor who arrived in London with a good knowledge of the restaurant scene and an idea to create a new restaurant concept offering value for money, healthy, fast food in an atmosphere that would have trendy, young urbanites queuing up for a taste.  It was over a meeting with Kurt Zdesar - general manager of Nobu Europe – that an idea was born and Ping Pong was created.
The first Ping Pong opened at 45 Great Marlborough street in 2005 and this remains the flagship property within the group.  Ping Pong currently has eight locations all over London.
How did you get into hospitality?
After a brief stint in investment banking - I quickly realised this was not for me and moved to Ping Pong in 2005 where I started in operations and slowly worked through marketing, sales and finance to develop a full understanding of the business. I took over as CEO late last year and I am loving every moment of it.   
What would you say are the main characteristics of your restaurants?

We are known for Dim Sum, tea and cocktails – from our early concept these have been the foundations of our business.  An essential part of the Dim Sum culture is sharing among family and friends and we felt passionate that Ping Pong should bring an authentic Dim Sum experience to London, but with its own original twist, so all dishes were created to be shared. Our tea offering has always been well received by customers – our cocktail list is continually expanding. Our head barman is wonderfully creative and we have become as known for our cocktails as we have for our Dim Sum.

Who are your customers?

Predominately females aged 25 – 35, women make up 60% of our business, although we are beginning to see a shift in this demographic as we add bigger dishes to our menus. The openings in Stratford and Wembley have also seen our family business increase.
 What is your long term business strategy?

We are keen to develop Ping Pong and introduce new sites in new locations. We are focusing on regional development with perhaps a couple more sites in London. Our plan is to open a new site in Q4, before the financial year ends in April 2015. After that our plan is to open two in 2015/2016, and grow from there. We would love to see 20 - 25 new Ping Pong locations open within the next five years, including our first regional ventures.  

As a business, how important is social media?

It is essential – we spend a lot of man hours and marketing budget developing our social media. Twitter in particular is brilliant for us, I like the fact that guests can talk about their Ping Pong experiences in real time and we can action it, we have had a couple of incidents recently where people have tweeted about service issues and we have been able to resolve them and ensure the guests leave happy. For me – this is the best side of social media
What are your plans for the business, going forward?

As I mentioned before, our long-term plan is regional expansion. In terms of the branding and company image, this year we have completely re-branded and invested heavily in a new website with an enhanced user experience.

In 2013 we invested £1.5m in an updated design concept and refreshed branding for our Wembley and Westfield Stratford sites. We will roll this branding out across our new locations as they open.

We listen to our guests and it is important that we continually offer them something new. Our new sites have a lighter interior and more comfortable seating in response to guest’s requests.
In terms of looking for new sites how are you finding availability? When looking for a new site, what do you look out for?

With the current market boom it is hard to find new space.  When you are a small group like us, it is difficult to fight off the bigger groups with private equity backing.  The maximum space size we are looking for is 6000 SQ foot – which is popular with our competitors. Location and size is key for us and we are researching the perfect locations where lunch and dinner is thriving in the week and weekends - we want to get it right.

We will explore QSR opportunities and travel hubs as the footfall is there and we thrive in these places - We learnt a lot from the NOW pilot concept that we can apply to the right QSR ventures in the future and the offer from QSR is much more sophisticated these days and that suits us.

You recently opened a site in Westfield Stratford, how is that going so far?

Westfield Stratford is a very exciting new site for us and we are pleased with the sales there so far. It is a totally new design and branding for us and we have had brilliant guest reactions so far – I am confident Westfield will continue to do well.

Who are your competitors and how do you stand out from these rivals?

I don’t believe there is anyone doing Dim Sum the way we are in the market today so I would say our competition sits within groups like Wagamama, Yo Sushi, Las Iguanas etc. - we are all in the premium casual dining market and have a fairly similar audience mix. I believe our product and offering makes us stand out – Dim Sum is still a relatively new concept and we are focused on keeping Ping Pong a value for money experience that is accessible to everyone.
Apart from Ping Pong, where else do you eat out?

I eat anything and I eat out a lot, naturally I eat a lot of Dim Sum and Asian food. I also love Zuma, Coya, Zafferano, Bodean’s – these guys get the dining experience just right for me.

How do you build customer loyalty?

We have a brilliant loyalty card that I am incredibly proud of. We have over 20,000 members and it works on a very simple pounds to points system. We communicate often with our loyalty members who will receive special deals in return for points. We will never change this - many customers come to Ping Pong just for the points.

We also have a happy hour four our cocktails and our Lazy Sumdays is still a tremendous hit - all you can eat dim sum for under £22 - our regulars love this.

What sort of focus do you give the food?

It has a huge amount of our focus – we have an active menu development team, each member suggests new dishes monthly that then go onto our test kitchen and from there we spend weeks and sometimes months perfecting the perfect dish.  The quality of the food is something we pride ourselves on and we work hard to bring our customers new dishes every three months. We have just launched our new summer menu which has brand new dishes such as the prawn, squid and coriander cake but the menu also sees the return of crispy asparagus which is a customer favourite from previous years. Our business model and sales is 70% dry, 30% wet.
Identify the challenges and opportunities for Ping Pong so far?

A key challenge for us has been site locations. Our current business locations show that we thrive in busy, cosmopolitan areas so we made tough decisions to close sites that were not on ticking this box. After nine years running the business we now have a solid understanding of what works for us and the types of consumer we attract to our restaurants. We have learnt that certain areas which bring huge footfall and the customers, for example Wembley and Stratford work much better for us than some of the smaller sites.

The opening of these sites with new branding mark the next chapter for us and I am confident we have an opportunity to be one of the leading premium casual groups by 2016.
Looking ahead, identify one challenge and one opportunity for the business?

Our biggest challenge is finding the right site in the right location. Our next move will be a major step for the group and it is essential we have the right space.
Our opportunity is expansion outside of London. The dining scene in cities like Manchester and Leeds are changing , there is a lot of demand for more exciting places to eat and that is what Ping Pong brings. We have a niche offering in London so the opportunity to bring our dining experience to up and coming, creative cities is something we are seriously considering and really want to do.

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