At the table with…Julian Metcalfe

16/12/2014 - 11:48
With one high street food revolution already under his belt plus his healthy food making firm Metcalfe’s Food Company, Julian Metcalfe, founder of itsu, is looking forward to expanding the Far East inspired food chain concept.

• How did itsu come about?

itsu started as a conveyor belt Japanese restaurant in Chelsea in 1997, winning "Time Out restaurant of the year". The chain’s first ever take-away only store opened in 2005 on Hanover Square in Vogue House and this small shop now has sales per sq ft amongst the highest in the world in the food category.

• Was there a gap in the market?

Yes, I created itsu to serve an increasingly prevalent wave of consumers wanting lighter, healthier, affordable, freshly prepared food.   It's time for change. People don't go to fast food chains because they crave mass produced deep fried carbs and fat ... it’s because there’s still little else available  on the high street.

• Pret a Manger is your brainchild, how did it feel going from Pret to itsu? How do the two businesses compare?

When we sold most of the Pret business in 2008, it was natural for me to go and spend my time in building itsu, that’s my passion! Itsu has learned a lot from Pret… especially on the logistics side and how we treat our staff and customers. Pret is known in the US whereas for itsu this is still to come and our potential is huge. In terms of food, itsu’s cuisine is inspired by Asian flavours, Pret masters French inspired Anglo Saxon cuisine…The care and passion that goes into making the food is very much the same, that’s what makes our food beautiful… the menus however serve a different purpose.

• What was your journey to get to itsu?

There’s no doubt that Itsu has learned a lot from Pret, especially on the logistics side and how we treat our staff and customers.  The care and passion that goes into making the food is very much the same but each menu serves a different purpose. itsu’s cuisine is inspired by East-Asian flavours but far from just sushi or miso soup… you can buy a Jaipur chicken noodle soup, a chicken teriyaki salad on a bed of rice or a saladwrap with khobez flatbread.

• You recently launched an itsu in Brighton, any more expansion plans?

We have a great team looking for sites in various cities and hubs across the UK; we’ll be opening a store in Stansted Airport early next year, Leeds and Manchester are next… we plan to go international and open in the US soon.

• How are the two ventures outside of London faring and how do they compare to London sites?

Oxford is our busiest store of all. Richmond opened early in August and has been a roaring success from day one, the same with Brighton. We are over the moon! In London our trade is very much focused on lunchtime, in our out-of-town stores the evenings and rest of the day are just as busy. It’s because in London we get a lot of business people who take their lunch back to their desks. Certainly in our regional stores we attract a very broad clientele; many mothers with prams…

• How was the new menu received?

We have an ever evolving and East-Asian inspired nutritious fast-food menu. Our five new saladwraps have been a success so far. They are so beautiful, look sumptuous and colourful… we have used some great new ingredients such as delicate micro herbs and a light wasabi cream inspired by our [dining] restaurants. Customers say to us they love them. We’ve got more on the way, three beauty smoothies, and there is something special for Christmas…

• What are the most popular items on the menu?

Our ‘on a bed’ salads are definitely part of the best sellers, especially the chicken and salmon teriyaki. Within hot food it’s the classic chicken soup with gluten free crystal noodles. It’s been so good the itsu [grocery] team have developed it to be sold in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco.

• What's your favourite?

I love our low carb salads, they fill you up with a good amount of protein – chicken, tuna or salmon and certainly will not put you asleep when you’ve got to keep going after lunch. They are popular with the 5:2 diet. I see people in their gym kit buying them for dinner…

• What is your business strategy?

We will grow the brand sensibly and sustainably in London, nationally and potentially internationally.  We are not planning to franchise.  I dedicate most of my time and passion to itsu.

• Identify your competition

Everyone who sells food and drink is our competition. Of course there are more and more places that are offering healthier food on the go such as pod, crush and even Pret. But we are also competing with KFC and McDonalds… You can see in Oxford for example people that have always gone to McDonalds for a strawberry Sundae are now walking out of our store with a zero fat frozen yoghurt topped with fresh strawberries.

• Sum up itsu in one sentence

itsu is all about eating beautiful - lighter, healthier, affordable, freshly prepared food which tastes as good as it looks.

• Does technology play a big part within the business?

Yes, technology plays a huge part for everyone regardless what business they are in. It helps us manage our business, see through complexity and to some extent allows us to talk to our customers… we must keep on top of the fast pace of technology.

• What are the opportunities and challenges for itsu going forward?

The opportunities are huge - people demand to eat better & be more conscious, it motivates us as a business and gets the momentum going! 

Some challenges are the high rental rates and overheads especially in London, but we’re focusing on the long term… Competition is picking up the game and new food trends are popping up all the time, it’s vital to keep up and it’s exciting – that’s what keeps business interesting!

• What are your career plans?

I love itsu and the team I work with so wherever I can I will put my energy into the growth of the business. We’re here with a purpose to help people eat beautiful!

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