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EXCLUSIVE Q&A with... Matt Snell, CEO at Gusto Italian

We warmly welcome Matt Snell, Gusto Italian's CEO, to our Q&As. Matt took over the running of the premium Italian casual dining group in 2018, and previously held senior commercial and operational roles at Red’s True Barbecue and Fuller’s.

Gusto Italian was founded in 2005, by Jeremy Roberts and the late Tim Bacon, from Living Ventures Group, and in 2014, gained private equity backing from Palatine.

The business has grown to 13 UK restaurants - from city centre sites to those in typical English villages, with a team of almost 600 people, many of whom have been with the company since day one.

THE BIG QUESTIONS

1. From your first bar job at 21 to being appointed CEO at 40, what are the most impactful changes you’ve seen across the hospitality industry?

I have been a paid worker in the industry since I was 18 actually and before that an unpaid glass collector in my Dad's pub!

There have been so many changes over 25 years it's difficult to answer; the smoking ban was huge and created a completely different approach to design and atmosphere, and Brexit is proving to be huge in terms of cost of goods and availability of skilled labour.

2. How are the rising fuel and food costs, as well as the cost-of-living pressures on diners, affecting the group, and how are you able to mitigate them? Also, has the hospitality staffing crisis hit the group at all?
We continue to be really pleased with our trading performance from a sales point of view, however, the inflation issues that everyone is aware of is making progress at an EBITDA level extremely challenging.

Consumer spending is being squeezed, but people still want to celebrate their special occasions. That makes it all the more vital to make sure we’re providing memorable experiences and incredible Italian food and drink every time, something our industry-leading feedback scores attest to.

Delivering a first-class guest experience and changing focus away from guest-facing discounting towards customer loyalty through our Gusto Gold Rewards programme has resulted in customer feedback scores that have reached record levels with an average Net Promoter Score in the high 80s, compared to an industry average of 55. No doubt this has been vital for us continuing to grow as a company during such as challenging period for the sector.

Our people have always been our number one priority, so retention has long been a focus for Gusto Italian although the staffing crisis has made this even more critical. A key initiative we have introduced this year to support retention is our Junior Manager apprenticeship scheme, which will enable team members to achieve a degree-level qualification.

The qualification has been undertaken by our team in a variety of different roles across Gusto from duty managers, assistant general managers, bar managers to sous chefs and events and sales managers. They all have different career goals, and we are so excited to work support them in taking steps towards these.

3. What key changes have you instigated since you began your time with the group back in 2018? How did you steer it through the highly challenging Covid restrictions?
We’ve been going through a steady process of site redesign since 2018 which has focused on introducing more experience led design elements. Wherever possible we’re going to incorporate these concepts into all our new openings and refurbishments to deliver an immersive and unique dining experience.

The Theatre Kitchen unites the kitchen and dining area to create a truly open kitchen, giving guests the opportunity to witness our skilled chefs first-hand, while the Pizza Experience, unique to Gusto Italian, provides two and a half hours of feasting and entertainment at the Chef’s Table.

It’s hugely fun, allows our guests to learn about the provenance and quality of our food, and drives great spend-per-head. It also markets itself, because so many of our bookings come from people who have been in the restaurant and seen another group having such a great time doing it.

In terms of navigating through Covid, the key to success was communication - communication with our shareholders, communication with our teams, communication with our supply partners and landlords. It was these honest and open conversations from the very start that allowed to keep everyone informed and relaunch so successfully.

4. Congratulations on the securing your first site in the south this month in Oxford… quite a landmark move! What plans are there in place for Gusto Italian for the rest of the year and beyond?
We’re going to be carrying out a major refurbishment of our Edinburgh restaurant, which will reopen just in time for the Fringe Festival, and we’re hopefully very close to finalising a deal to open our first restaurant in London. We can’t give anything away right now but hopefully we can share more news on this very soon.

We’ve been using the latest footfall mapping technology to identify exactly where our new sites need to be. By being able to pinpoint the ideal locations, we’re able to be super-targeted about the sites we pursue.

The business has been successful in the North of England, Scotland, and the Midlands, so it’s a natural next step to be able to grow in the South of England as well – watch this space!

5. What have been the proudest achievements so far in your career?
What we are doing in Gusto right now makes me really proud – I genuinely believe we are changing the face of Italian casual dining in this country. Our restaurants are immersive and different, our food is fresh and authentic and teams are not only rewarded well but looked after in a multitude of different ways that makes us great to work for.

6. What are your hopes for the restaurant industry by the end of this year and in the next 5 years?
The end of this year is very short term but over the next five years we need real, meaningful help from the government around the availability of labour, inflation and fuel and utility costs. It's never been harder to run a restaurant group and unless help is forthcoming I fear for many smaller, less well funded groups and individual operators.


THE GET-TO-KNOW-YOU QUESTIONS

1. What is your favourite on-the-go snack, lunch, and beverage in the week? Can you fit in the odd craft beer or two? Do you have a favourite craft beer?

I try really hard not to snack but if I am having breakfast on the go you can't beat the Leon Sausage Muffin with their tomato relish. Craft beer? I love Vocation, Tiny Rebel, and St Mars of the Desert.

2. Beyond your laptop and phone, what items are you never without during the week?
Everything is in my laptop and phone - I even open my car with my phone, so I don’t need much else. I always have my ear buds with me and my golf clubs are never far away!

3. What do you do to wind down after a busy work day? Do you have to leave golf until the weekend? Watch Sheffield United?!
Watching Sheffield United is definitely not a way to wind down! I say to all my team it's important to have something in your life that is just for you, something that enables you to switch off entirely for a couple of hours.

For me, that's golf. It’s the one time of the week where I don’t look at my phone and worry about what’s happening at home or work. It's sacred and important and genuinely helps me to be better person at home and at work!

4. Beyond Gusto Italian, what’s your most loved restaurant or café and pub or bar to frequent?
River Café in Hammersmith is my favourite restaurant in the country, simple ingredient-led cuisine that knocks your socks off every time you go!

My favourite pub is my old man's in a village just outside Sheffield – I know everyone there and it still feels like home.

5. What book or/and TV/Netflix etc programme currently has you gripped?
I recently read a book called Moneyland it’s a great insight into how our financial markets ended up looking like they do and how unscrupulous people take advantage of that.
I loved the Lakers TV show – Winning Time. My favourite show of all time is The Sopranos - it's an absolute masterpiece.

6. What have you learnt most about yourself in the last 12 months?
Keep trying to do the right thing every day. It often feels very hard and that there are much easier paths to tread but it always pays of in the end… always!

Great to chat with you, Matt and hear about where things are going with Gusto Italian and to find out more about you too! Look forward to hearing where your first London site will be situated, and will be sure to spread the news.