Better Business – Spianata, London

15 August 2011 by
Better Business – Spianata, London

Italian sandwich chain Spianata has grown to six sites in London. Neil Gerrard talks to owner Stefano Nicolai, the former investment banker who launched the business in 2004

Need to know It is amazing that Stefano Nicolai even found the time to dream about starting his own business while he was working as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley. The Italian, who has a masters in mechanical engineering, was up to his eyes in telecoms mergers and acquisitions in the early 2000s, often working until midnight and taking just three weekends off in two years at the company. But all the while, he was planning to start his own business which would tap into his passion for food.

In 2004, he and his Spanish business partner - who has since left the business - quit their jobs at the bank and opened their first store in the heart of the City of London, in Watling Street. Spianata now has six sites dotted through the centre of London.

Working up a business plan Nicolai says he always knew there was an opportunity in the UK to sell the typically Roman flat bread, called pizza bianca romana. He had also noticed that there were many continental Europeans working in finance and law firms who, like him, were disappointed by the lack of variety for breakfast and lunch, especially back in the early noughties.

But getting the offer right and planning strategically for its roll-out was crucial. He took his Spanish business partner to Rome and showed him how the bread was made traditionally by the Maestri Forni (master bakers) of the city, before they trained at another bakery. Then they studied. "We worked for a year and a half on the business plan," he says.

"We studied every single competitor for about three months. We knew the prices of every single product because all our intitial brainstorming was all about where we would position ourselves." In the end, they produced a 150-page plan.

Choosing the first site Nicolai and his partner managed to convince several friends still working in the banking industry to contribute about 10% of the start-up cost they required. They made an initial investment of £150,000 in their first shop in 2004.

All the preparation led them to decide on a secondary location, Watling Street, which is near the much more expensive Bow Street, but where rents are much lower. Crucially, the site is also close to several Italian banks, which provided a sympathetic target market to introduce the business to.

"It was crazy from day one," Nicolai says. "It was a relatively small investment because the rent was not that high, which was a clever thing to do because it allowed us to play with the concept".

Future plans Since then the business has grown to six sites, with shops in Spitalfields, Blomfield Street, Leadenhall Market, More London Place near London Bridge, and Holborn Viaduct where the business has its bakery and central production kitchen. All of the sites are close to the offices of financial services or law firms, and each now serves more than 20 different types of sandwich.

Up until now, the company has resisted getting a larger investment from the likes of private equity businesses, and for the time being Nicolai is happy to grow using profits from the business to expand into areas like the West End until it reaches about 10 sites.

"We are the same company we were when we started. We are trying to wait - the question is when do you dilute yourself and go for the faster roll-out?" Coping with competition from bigger firms for prime sites is also manageable at the moment, because he claims landlords often want a premium, non-chain business involved to raise the value of their property.

Favourite supplier Fine Italian Foods is not only Nicolai's favourite supplier, it is easily his biggest. Many of the fine Italian ingredients, such as Speck, Parma ham, Punta D'Anca Bresaola and mozzarella come from the firm. "They have supplied us from day one and they have treated my business as if it was the most important business on earth," Nicolai says. "I have Italian suppliers knocking on my door all the time but as long as they don't give me any reasons to switch I won't switch."

Business advice Unsurprisingly for someone with such a strong financial background, Nicolai believes that financial rigour is the most important part of running a successful business.

"You need strong reporting, especially once you have more than one unit because you have to have visibility on what you are doing. Our profit and loss is divided so that we can see our commercial cost, and our commercial cost is divided by unit. We can understand if we are spending too much in our production centres or in one of our shops. You should try and get this visibility almost on a daily basis - your wages, costs, and so on," he says.

Spotlight on Spianata

Spianata bread
Spianata bread
Nicolai chose the name "Spianata", which literally means "flattened" in Italian, to encapsulate the pizza bianca romana, but also so that the business could register and trademark the name. The bread is generally baked to be six feet long and eleven inches wide and is light and airy in texture with a golden crust. While it is regarded as a very traditionally Roman bread, Nicolai has applied his mechanical engineering background to industrialising the process of making the bread, while still maintaining the quality. He has designed a special mobile metal trolley, which allows two bakers to work on and store the bread simultaneously for three hours. Spianata's bakery makes up 100 spianata loaves each day, with each one providing enough bread for about 100 sandwiches.

Facts and stats

Founded 2004
Sites Six
Owner Stefano Nicolai
Amount of flour used per day 200kg
Average spend per head £6 to £7

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