“The thing about Comptoir Libanais is that you have to be standing in one of the restaurants to truly appreciate it… each has its own nuance and design” enthuses Hanna.
“It’s all about the small details. From the rose petals on the floor, to fresh lemonades, the artist collaborations and even the design of the table cloths: everything matters. Not everyone notices them, but our target market does, and it makes all the difference”.
The man behind such attention to detail is Founder and Creative Director Tony Kitous who set up his first “Lebanese counter” in 2009. His vision merges an open café-come-canteen teeming with vivid colours with the hustle and bustle of a Mediterranean deli, all astutely enveloped in souk-style surroundings where guests (as they call them) can buy tagines, cookbooks, sumac, and bright branded homeware. “The retail arm only accounts for around two percent of revenue but the layer of experience it adds brings so much to the brand”, states Hanna. It symbolises the spirit of the place.
Targeting the £10 diner
One of EY’s 2016 “10 Brands to Watch” in the Casual Dining space, a market currently valued by the same firm at over £4bn in the UK, the family of 11 Comptoir Libanais eateries (with two airport sites franchised to The Restaurant Group) are known amongst foodies as some of the best budget outlets in town. The group also has a secondary brand, Shawa, as well as two larger and more traditional Lebanese restaurants called Levant and Kenza. The offering is already popular with women and vegetarians, with the core target being cosmopolitan urbanites who, faced with full working days and busy schedules, are increasingly eating out throughout the week, and in many cases several times a day. “This is about the person with £10 in their pocket expecting to eat a good meal. They could go to Wagamama or to Yo! Sushi. These aren’t people who would traditionally go to a Lebanese place… that’s Comptoir’s opportunity”, enthuses Hanna. With average spend per head at around £14, versus £15 at a competitor like Pizza Express, “we want to make Lebanese as popular and accessible as Italian is today”.
A quiet food revolution
Since the first launch in 2007 the Comptoir management has been silently spearheading an Eastern Mediterranean food revolution in the mainstream market. With help from higher-end players in the category, such as Yotam Ottolenghi, the likes of sumac and hummus are far more likely to be found in kitchen cupboards sitting alongside their Italian counterparts. With an inherently healthy and vegetable based offering the group continues to grow a loyal customer base that is increasingly attractive to mainstream diners. Having just raised new funds of £8m from a recent, and highly successful, IPO (to give a market cap at 8 July 2016 of £48m), the management team’s expansion plans include a further 12 sites across the UK with Exeter, Bath, Oxford and Leeds due to open in 2016. Successful evolution under Hanna, from predominantly lunch to all-day eating, plus the larger number of covers, means a three or four year cash payback on a site that is typically around 3000 square feet and has fit-out costs of around £800,000. Already nicely profitable, with trailing earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of £2.3m on £17.7m of sales to December 2015, Autogrill will take the existing concept to international airports globally with further franchising opportunities in the Middle East.
The vital ingredient
Looking beyond the numbers, Hanna believes the key to their success will be their culture. If the details matter, the staff who maintain them are everything. “The most important person to each business” professes Hanna “ is the Kitchen Porter. They make sure that there is no lipstick on the glasses – that everything is sparkling. It all starts with them”. New employees are met by Hanna or Kitous on their first day (both started their careers as porters) and there are clear rewards for meeting team profit targets. As a result, staff turnover of around 45% is way below industry averages. Comptoir Libanais may be all about the small details but the Killik & Co Special Situations team don’t expect it to be a small company for long.
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