How Vapiano is drawing on innovation to tackle the brutal market

Food Spark speaks to UK CEO Roberto Moretti about his predictions for casual dining, upcoming food innovation and the new formats he is looking to introduce. 

21 May 2019
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The philosophy of fast-casual chain Vapiano is ‘from flour to plate.’ Every day, nine types of pasta are made in store using triple-grade semolina.

These are cooked up in one of the open kitchen stations that greet diners when they enter a Vapiano site, allowing customers to interact with and watch the chefs as they cook up various Italian foods.

“People like the informal spaces. They like the informality of sitting down and having their own table and space and going up to their own stations and ordering individually – that’s the reason that our oldest store is performing at a very high level,” Vapiano’s UK CEO, Roberto Moretti, tells Food Spark.

“It’s worth saying the USP of our business is people come along and understand the pasta we make is fresh. We are producing it in the morning, bringing it up and then cooking it in front of people, who can then bespoke those dishes with extras and changes. It really appeals to people today.”

This combination of personalisation and freshness is something Moretti believes the chain needs to advertise more, noting that the Italian food operator has no central production kitchen – along with the pastas, all the sauces are made in-store.

10% innovation

Vapiano’s recent spring menu saw the introduction of vegan cheese for the first time, as well as pasta made from spelt and the option to order fresh strips of zucchini instead of pasta, targeting those looking for a gluten-free and carb-free option.

Moretti has been shaking things up when it comes to the food development, admitting the chain –which originated in Germany – initially followed menu campaigns coming out of the central Cologne office.

“However, we have been changing it quite a lot as London is very different to the European market at the moment. We are looking around, understanding trends, asking questions and are planning now for our autumn menu,” he comments.

“We test dishes out, introduce them as specials, and twice a year we do bigger menu changes to 10% maximum of our menu, recognising that 50% of our pasta sales come down to two pastas: bolognese and carbonara. How do we make that better? And how do we introduce 10% innovation into our business, whether it’s through salads, sourdough pizzas, vegan or gluten-free?”

Moretti admits the chain does need to do more on leading food innovation in the UK.

“For example, our salads need to progress and improve, and we would like to work on a bigger change with our autumn menu. We want to leave the mixed-leaf stuff behind and have far more healthy grains, vegetables and gluten-free products. We have introduced a brilliant salad for summer: a grilled beef with salad and fresh mango. We are looking at fresh healthy products.”

More food on the go

Food tours are also crucial for inspiring innovation, according to Moretti, who took the team on one just last week.

“We came away with the idea of people being able to operate in smaller spaces with a greater use of tech and order processing and speed, and I think that’s something we are going to work on quite a lot in the next year,” he says. “It may be we take a store and go cashless, or in our pizza stations produce ready-made pizza or pasta so people can take it away over a busy period. We’re looking at things we can do in terms of value and speed.”

Lunchtimes remain busy for the brand and weekends are huge. But its Great Portland Street site serves 2,000 people a day at £11 a head on average.

The lack of service charge also adds to the winning formula of the brand, according to Moretti, but he admits that they are experimenting with another layer of customer service at their Tower Bridge site. People will be able to order drinks, coffee or dessert through a person or mobile app – adding another opportunity for more sales.

The chain crunch

With heavy competition in the casual dining market, particularly among Italian operators in the space, Moretti says its brutally tough right now. He made the decision to close the Glasgow site for Vapiano back in February after only a year of trading.

There are no plans to open more Vapiano sites this year either, with the focus for 2020 on slightly smaller formats and elevating the designs of sites in London.

Smaller players – Moretti singles out the likes Padella and Scarpetta – are driving up quality, which means all operators need to lift their game too. With a raft of CVAs, store closures, high rents and rates, the chain market is saturated and in for more big changes, predicts Moretti

“Customers now understand food a lot better and they will queue for something fantastic, but if its average it’s just not going to last in the market. I feel there will be disappearance of big staple chains for more small to medium quality businesses,” he reveals.

“That’s what attracted me to the UK with Vapiano. We only have seven sites and five in London and we don’t have plans to open 50, but will try and get to 20 in the next five years and that will be it – that’s my desire. A couple a year would be great growth and in small formats.”

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