Interview: Vishal Talreja, Property Director of itsu
Ahead of our The Retail Conference, we talk to one of our retail showcase panellists and industry expert Vishal Talreja.
The passion for retail started whist at College & University (studying law), I had a part time retail job at Dixons (as it was in those days). I really enjoyed it there especially the customers and people side of things and worked up the ranks. Before I knew it, I had been there for 16 years. I then moved to Yum Brands in operational roles, then project management roles and then joined a franchise company; part of the Yum and KFC family. It’s also where I met my now wife so that was great. I then moved to Yo!Sushi, again in an operational role.
Today I am with itsu, it is coming up six years and it’s genuinely a fantastic business. I joined itsu as an operator and then after a few years, I had an opportunity to move into the property side of the business and thought I’d give it a try (at the time I was convinced the commercial value I could add was immense). Today I know & realise this is true, the blend of my operational experience perfectly complements the Property role in our industry. I am really loving it. I feel part of the family here and am now part of the Leadership team and of course the Property Director.
Tell us about itsu and why it’s different
itsu is uniquely placed being a healthy Asian-inspired fresh food take-away and dine-in restaurant offering hot and cold food, day and night, with an average transaction value of just £7. We were founded in 1997 and today have circa 1,500 employees, 70+ shops and a growing grocery division.
Itsu means ‘whenever’ in Japanese and the word [our name] reminds us of what our customers expect: convenience, consistency, affordability and Asian-inspired goodness; it sounds dry, but it isn’t. My own and the business mission is for “itsu for everyone, everywhere”.
How is the business performing?
We have 70 + sites so really, we’re still a growing business and in relation to the size of the company our brand awareness in the market is very high. We are fortunately complimented by our itsu grocery division. If you go to the supermarket, you will see our brands on the shelves and that’s been enormously powerful for us. We are expanding, and our business is buoyant on both retail and grocery.
Over the last couple of years, we have been through quite a journey. The cycle of lockdowns and restrictions affected consumer behaviour, with more people adopting flexible working arrangements of course impacting itsu’s London worker-focused sites. But this provided us with new opportunities. We’ve been focused on the regional towns and locations where previously we were opening on mainly core city worker locations. We have now opened up in places like St Albans, Woking, Brixton, Putney, Guildford, Aberdeen and Bristol Cribbs. We will have opened 13 new UK locations this year as we accelerate locally and internationally. We also have 3 franchise partners which is something we’d never done before, and international partners – all of this happened in 2022. It’s been a busy year.
Internationally, we’ve recently opened at Brussels airport and next we will open in France with The Bertrand Group before the end of 2022.
In the UK, we’re working with Hearts with Smart (HSW) who took over the Pizza Hut Restaurant brand from Yum! years ago. They have now converted 3 Retail park ex Pizza Hut locations where we believe there is a need for offering a healthier alternative for traditional fast food and early indications are there is certainly a demand.
Have itsu had to flex their model?
What the pandemic has done is accelerate customer behaviours. All of which is happening now; the flexible working from home, the cashless options, the deliveries, the digital kiosks – all of this would have happened in due course, it just happened faster.
As a result, we look at Property differently now. Our consumers have changed and so we’re adapting our model. We were very much focused on the central London office worker at Lunch, but we’ve evolved as we reach out to a new customer base.
For example, our space efficient seating has transformed into set zones because we don’t just have lunch time trade now; its evenings also, students coming in from college and a younger generation looking for healthy food. They visit us in groups of 8 or more and want to merge tables together, so we’ve adapted our traditional layouts.
We’ve also introduced counters for delivery and collections so that if you’re dining-in, you’re not interrupted by the hustle and bustle of the food pickups especially as the demand for itsu hot food grows and the various day parts. These are just a few examples. We’ve spent a lot of time on the smaller touchpoints; everything from where our fridges are located to the comfortable lighting levels.
What are you going to talk about at The Retail Conference?
With my broad background in both Operational and Property roles, I hope to bring a unique perspective to the changing customer and the evolving commercial model.
I am keen to share our learnings and our outlook that are centred around the customer experience and how in particular the digital transformation in itsu complements the Property Strategy.
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