Q&A with Alan Morgan, CEO of The Big Table Group

The Big Table Group, which owns Bella Italia, Las Iguanas and Cafe Rouge, recently announced plans to open 50 new restaurants. The expansion will invest in excess of £50m and create 1,250 new jobs. CEO Alan Morgan shares with Catering Today the decision behind the expansion, how the group has recovered from the pandemic, and why the brand has gotten increasingly popular.

What is the history of the business? 

The Big Table Group was formed last summer to acquire and operate the Bella Italia, Café Rouge and Las Iguanas restaurant brands. In a process handled by AlixPartners, parts of the business formerly known as Casual Dining Group were acquired from administration, preserving more than 3,500 jobs across the UK and 150 restaurants trading as Las Iguanas, Bella Italia and Café Rouge.

The name is a nod to a deep-seated and meaningful internal culture and it was the name for a previous programme designed to celebrate our diversity and drive inclusivity and togetherness among our people. 

How did you come to the decision to expand?

There’s great demand for our brands across the country and with a supportive investor on our side, we feel like we have a clear strategy for growth.

As a business, we’ve taken great efforts to drive efficiency in everything we do across the group. As a result, we’re now a lean streamlined business that is stable, very well financed and in a great position for growth, and we are ready to proceed with new sites.

Where have you chosen the sites?  

We’re not tied to one particular type of location for our sites – for Bella Italia, for example, we’re looking at busy leisure and retail destinations, as well as town and city centres, while with Las Iguanas, we’re particularly looking at London commuter towns, but also busy city and town centre sites around the UK. 

How many of the 50 new sites are for each brand? How did you decide this?

We are aiming to almost double the current number of Las Iguanas restaurants in the next three years, opening 35 locations in major towns and city centres.

Las Iguanas is performing very well and there’s a real appetite for the brand, so it makes sense for the main focus of our expansion strategy to be on growing Las Iguanas and satisfying the demand we’re seeing, particularly in commuter towns and city centre locations. 

Will anything be different in the new restaurants? 

The new sites will still be what you would expect from our core brands and will retain elements and characters as we know this is what customers love. We will, of course, continue to evolve these brands as we open new sites. 

We want our brands to feel familiar, but we also want our brands to feel aspirational and relevant to reflect changing consumer behaviours.

Given the increase in staff shortages across the sector, is this something that poses an obstacle for the company or for the expansion plans?

We’ve been lucky because Las Iguanas, Bella Italia and Café Rouge have very loyal teams and have the ability to attract good people. 

We’ve got a great track record as an employer, with a number of awards and recognition, so whilst it’s tough in general, recruitment is unlikely to hamper our plans.

How has the Big Table Group recovered from the pandemic?

Since reopening in April this year, consumer reaction to our brands has been very positive – we have traded ahead of expectations, with strong like-for-like sales.

Las Iguanas, which was trading well pre-Covid, has exceeded all expectations on reopening, significantly outperforming its competitor set and the wider market, while Café Rouge and Bella Italia have also both traded ahead of expectations.

Why do you think Las Iguanas has gotten increasingly popular?

There are a number of factors. First and foremost is a strong proposition – people love Las Iguanas for its fun and relaxed Latin American vibes so they were initially keen to come back once lockdown was lifted. The brand appeals to an audience which is young, or young at heart, who are social and like to have a good time.

Furthermore, we sell good food, cocktails and have a hugely popular Bottomless Brunch offering. It’s different from what you can get at a lot of other restaurants in our competitor set. This, mixed with the fantastic atmosphere and vibe at our sites, means customers return time and time again.

Overall, what do you think the sector is going to be like in 5 years? 

There will continue to be demand for informal dining occasions, with businesses that can consistently deliver great food, served by well-trained teams, in friendly and warm environments, set to prosper.

What are the future goals for the company?

We feel we have a clear strategy for success, and we want to be the best run and most successful restaurant group in the UK.

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