I have always had Coco di Mama, the quick-service Italian concept founded by Jeremy Sanders and Daniel Land in 2011, down as one to watch. But before I get carried away with my own soothsaying powers, I also picked out Mooli’s, the ill-fated Indian burrito concept in Soho, as a long-term winner. I guess you can’t be right all the time.
As fate would have it, Coco di Mama’s first site on Fleet Street was earmarked as the second Mooli’s before the brand died away. It is from here that Sanders and Land have gone on to build a 13-strong chain of restaurants that has had some of the larger Italian operators looking more closely at the food-to-go sector.
This year marks a transformational 12 months for the business and has been the staging point for the next phase of its development. It began with the company being acquired by ASK Italian and Zizzi operator the Azzurri Group and has since seen it open new sites as well as undergo a rebrand.
Yet, although under the auspices of a much larger group, Coco di Mama remains the smart pasta and baguette-focused business that captured the imagination of hungry London office workers half a decade ago.
The brand’s strength, and indeed why it was so attractive to Azzurri, is its simplicity while at the same time tapping into the growing segments of both takeaway and more specialist pasta offerings. The hot food element comprises six pasta options, including a classic pomodoro, carbonara and bolognese that comes served in cardboard pots, as well as two ‘from the oven dishes’ – lasagne and mac ’n’ cheese – and a number of soups. Cold dishes, meanwhile, comprise five salads – with options such as roast chicken and garden pesto; roast chicken marinated in balsamic vinegar with tomatoes, avocado and pine nuts; and quinoa with piquillo peppers, avocado and occelli cheese – and eight different filled baguettes.
As with the larger high street sandwich chains, Coco di Mama also does a good line in breakfast with options including breakfast ciabattas, baked eggs, porridge and pastries. Where it differentiates itself is with its more premium coffee offer. It serves a bespoke espresso blend, created in partnership with Allpress, that blends beans from Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Sumatra, and spends a lot of time and resources on its barista training programme.
“We have not changed the way we think about the business since Azzurri invested in us,” insists Land. “We still act like we own the business. We raised some money when we first started, but we have never viewed ourselves as shareholders or managers in a venture. This is our baby.”
What Azzurri has brought to the party is a wealth of knowledge that the pair hope will see it safely through its next stage of growth. “Azzurri coming in has been great and helped to push us on in a few areas, but we are progressing in the way that we have always done,” he continues. “We don’t see it as being taken over by a big beast. We see it as having a new investor that is backing us, and it just so happens to have a load of experience in the sector and has great people involved. We call it ‘smart investment’; not only do we have the investment, but also all the knowledge that comes with it.”
Operating in the sweet spot
Coco di Mama finds itself at the centre of one of the fastest-growing parts of the eating out market. Rapid acceleration has continued in the contemporary fast food sector and, according to the latest research by MCA, the segment is expected to increase in both number of sites and turnover by 20 per cent and 25 per cent in 2016 to 497 outlets and £607m respectively. What’s more, it is driving growth in the branded fast-food market,which is set to increase in turnover by 0.5 percentage points to 7.1 per cent this year.
By comparison, traditional fast food outlet growth is expected to decline by one percentage point, from 4.7 per cent to 3.7 per cent, this year.
The past year has also been one of significant growth for the company. In 2015 it employed 60 people, today it employs 150, with its 13th site opening last month in Crown Passage in London’s St James’s. Such rapid growth has not been without its challenges, with Land admitting that Coco di Mama has had to work hard over the past 12 months to create a clear image for the brand in the crowded Italian sector.
“The bigger you get, the more it becomes about the brand,” he says. “This is an obvious thing to say, but if you are Pret, Itsu or Leon, you are protected by a strong brand. It goes without saying you have to continue to drive culture, innovation and quality – all of those you need to have a successful business. But customers know what these brands are all about as soon as they go into a site, so they win. We are becoming clearer about who and what we are.”
This much is clear from the new-look Fleet Street site, which Land describes as ‘Coco di Mama 2.0’. Whether it is a natural progression or having Azzurri behind them, there is a growing confidence about the business and brand, borne out in the new look and feel of the store.
As important to the pair is that with the growth of the business they can provide greater opportunities for their teams. “The way we approach the cultural play and what makes us special is first and foremost to try to promote from within,” says Sanders. “When you open a new store there will obviously be new faces from outside the company, but the core of the team are your rising stars from other stores. Firstly, that immediately kick-starts the culture in that store. Secondly, you want to grow to allow those rising stars to grow with you – you can’t stop their progression.”
This isn’t just talk. The company’s head of operations has been with the company since 2012 starting as a ‘pasta guy’, says Sanders. Three of its operation managers have been with the company for more than three years, one having been Land’s assistant manager when he was managing in store. “If we have a rising star and they are just beaten to a role by someone from outside, we can point to other opportunities that may come up.”
“Something we always talk about is founder-led businesses where you can see a difference, for example Leon and Hawksmoor,” adds Land. “The businesses we most admire really understand how their teams are feeling on a day-to-day basis and what challenges they are facing. The guys here serve 1,500 people a day, it is intense. Culture often suffers in larger businesses and we are fearful of that. We are putting as much effort into the internal comms and marketing as we do to the external parts.”
Seven sites a year
That rigorous attention to detail and on-going improvement is translating into performance. Annual like-for-like sales for the year to date have risen significantly, while the company is on track to post a full-year turnover of £12m.
In terms of further opportunities to reward staff with new roles, the group has already lined up an opening in Holborn later this year and is close to completing on a site near Bank Station.
Azzurri chief executive Stephen Holmes believes the brand could grow to up to 40 sites over the next few years and Land says it is looking to open seven-plus sites next year. The transport hub section will be a focus next year as well, but openings in stations and airports will not be to the detriment of its existing business, the pair insist.
“We have ways of doing things now which are steady, ambitious, but also sensible,” says Sanders.
“A big year for us could be refining our brand or taking care of the mechanics underneath the business. It is not all about expansion. There is no point in opening new sites if the structure isn’t in place to make
them work as well as the ones we already have or impact on those we have already established.
“If we can keep looking our staff in the eye and saying there is more for you here, then we are on the right track.”