Jamie Oliver set for NZ launch

ROB O'NEILL
Last updated 05:00 19/02/2012
Jaime Oliver

CELEBRITY CHEF: Jaime Oliver is set to open up shop in New Zealand.

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Last week David Williams toured through Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown looking at sites for three new restaurants, each seating up to 200 diners.

Williams had been commissioned by the Australian licensee of television chef Jamie Oliver, Pacific Restaurant Group, which plans to open 14 Jamie's Italian restaurants across the two countries after inking a deal last January.

The company cut the ribbon on its first Jamie's Italian restaurant in Sydney in October.

The chain is growing fast after its launch in 2008. It now has 26 branches across Britain as well as the one in Sydney and another in Dubai.

In March last year, it was reported that a 100 million ($189m) float was being planned, while in January Oliver was reported to be planning to expand into North America.

Pacific Restaurant Group director Wes Lambert said Oliver was always keen to include New Zealand in the Australian licence, as it is a popular market for his television shows and books. Analysis of hits on Oliver's websites also indicated he has a strong following here.

"He loves New Zealand," Lambert said.

So what can diners expect?

"Jamie's Italian was designed to be accessible and affordable, a place where anyone is welcome and everyone will feel comfortable, no matter how much you spend or how long you stay," the Jamie's Italian website says.

"Authentic" is a key word. In Sydney, a pasta machine in the front window cranks out fresh pasta daily while a mezzanine area features an antipasti and dessert counter.

"The Jamie's Italian menu will have a variety of pastas, authentic Italian mains and delicious antipasti made with well-sourced, quality fresh and organic ingredients," Pacific Restaurant Group announced last year.

"Every dish has something to make it different, offering gourmets and fans an unrivalled experience coupled with a rustic, authentic Italian ambience."

The restaurants will demand about 500 square meters of space each.

Lambert said Oliver was actively involved in the business, designing all the menus.

He is expected in Sydney next month and will visit his new restaurant there.

"Fine dining as a food type globally is struggling mainly because of the perception of value," Lambert said.

"People actually know where their food is coming from now; they know what their food should cost them and so many customers are seeking out the mid-market, value-for-money, casual and family dining restaurant and we saw this as a global trend a couple of years ago."

While the menus at all Jamie's Italian restaurants are similar, Lambert says the venues do not have "cookie-cutter fitouts".

Pacific Restaurant Group is a public unlisted company, so its financial reports are readily available.

After raising $3 million in a public offering in 2008 to fund its expansion plans, the group reported a loss for the year to June 2009 of A$1.8m ($2.3m), followed by a loss of A$916,160 the following year.

2011 saw a turnaround, with sales of A$19.9m from its brands Kingsley's Steak and Crabhouse and Chophouse brands. Net profit after tax was A$1.2m.

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Surprisingly, the company had total bank debt of only A$61. Lambert agreed that could be described as a "lazy" balance sheet.

"The bank doesn't own us," he added.

All new restaurants were organically funded through cashflow from its existing businesses, he said.

Pacific Restaurant Group will pay its first ever dividend in March.

Oliver also operates two other restaurant brands, Fifteen and Barbecoa.

THE SUPERBRAND THREAT

A spate of superbrand restaurant launches in Sydney has some worried about the future of independent businesses and asking if a "cookie-cutter" dining culture is about to emerge.

With profit margins already minimal across most of the industry, more small independent operators will go the wall, says the president of Restaurant and Catering NSW, Ian Martin.

The spate coincides with an increase in the number of exits from the industry.

"Margins are already so small and making money is going to get worse over the next three to five years," Martin said.

And things are no easier this side of the ditch.

Marisa Bidois, chief executive officer of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand, described the environment for the industry as tough. "The recession has had a big impact."

In addition, the Rugby World Cup has led to other new launches, putting more strain on existing operators now that the visitors have left.

While you couldn't stop growth and competition, she said, some were questioning whether the market could sustain new businesses.

That said, New Zealand hasn't seen many superbrands here so far.

"We have strong brands but no dominating brands in hospitality," Bidois said.

Martin said much of the Australian brand expansion was being funded by restaurant investors and many small players hadn't got the financial backing, or business knowledge, to take them on.

However, a shakeout could be a good thing in the long term.

"Now what we're seeing are business people running restaurants, not chefs," he said.

Independents will need to find a niche, something that puts them on the culinary map. That will mean more choice for diners.

At the same time, the industry will become more professional. More business people at the helm will raise the bar, and chain restaurants will mean a more standardised business.

- Additional reporting AFR

- Sunday Star Times

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