Itsu boss: 'We see processed and fried food as the enemy'

  • Published
Julian MetcalfeImage source, Itsu

"Fast food across the entire globe is fried, and still dominated by a handful of people." says Julian Metcalfe, the boss of Asian-inspired food chain Itsu.

He told the BBC that the company sees fried food "as the enemy", as it plans to expand ahead of a possible float on the stock exchange.

Itsu currently has 75 UK stores but plans to double this number over the next five years.

Mr Metcalfe called the opportunity for growth "almost endless".

The food chain started in 1997. It sells sushi and hot food that is steamed rather than fried, with a kitchen in each store.

Mr Metcalfe - who also co-founded Pret a Manger - told the BBC's Today programme that consumers were placing greater importance on nutrition: "It's time for change, and it's time for this new type of healthy nutrition."

Itsu opened its first branch in the US last year, and it has plans to expand to France, Belgium and Germany.

Float plans are not so far-fetched

Stock market investors have good reason to be wary of retailers. Putting your money into High Street names can be hazardous to your financial health, as those burned by Patisserie Valerie, Ted Baker, Countrywide Properties and a score of others can testify.

Why then would the backers of Itsu be thinking about floating the company to raise money for a big expansion?

Julian Metcalfe, Itsu's founder, told the BBC on Tuesday that it "may have to" list its shares, even though money from other sources would, he said, be available.

Mr Metcalfe hinted that the scale of his ambitions meant he was looking at a float rather than private-equity investment.

He has opened one store in New York and clearly wants many more overseas, talking boldly about the need to take on the overwhelming dominance of fried fast food. Whether investors share his enthusiasm remains to be seen, but they do in general like backing management teams that have a good track record.

Mr Metcalfe definitely has that, having built Pret a Manger into a fast-food giant before selling a stake to McDonald's. They would like a chance to tag along for a similar ride, which means Mr Metcalfe's float plans are not so far-fetched.

'Competition is rife'

Mr Metcalfe added: "Funding and money is not what keeps me up at night at all. Making sure the food is made right, the staff is motivated and customers are served properly is a continuous worry."

The average spend in-store sits at about £7.20, and Mr Metcalfe said that presented some challenges.

"To keep prices down is terribly difficult. You have to be unbelievably organised.

"Getting big and keeping the quality is nearly impossible, but it is still possible."

Trish Caddy, senior food service analyst at Mintel, said that Itsu had been successsful in targeting office workers who were willing to spend more on "quick and healthy meals".

But she added: "Competition is rife in the UK eating out market, and Itsu faces an increasing threat from non-specialists, such as supermarkets, which are competing on price and convenience."

Itsu is also aiming to make 50% of its products plant-based, an increase from about 40% at present.

The estimated sales of meat-free foods stood at £740m in 2018, according to market research firm Mintel, up from £539m three years previously.