With itsu announcing the introduction of its franchise programme, partnerships director, Aaron Moore-Saxton, gives us the lowdown on the Asian-inspired food business
Tell us about the origins of the brand
itsu was born after our founder, Julian Metcalfe, first visited Tokyo in the winter of 1994.
Having instantly fallen in love with the harmony and precision of the chefs and their produce, Julian brought back to the UK a new dining concept. From bento boxes to sushi, each meal was a work of art.
If it was possible to produce beautiful fresh food to such a high standard in Japan, why had it not been replicated in the UK, especially when we consider how Japan has led the way for years in producing quality, healthy food that has led to the nation having tens of thousands of citizens living beyond 100 years old?
With little knowledge of how successful the brand would go on to be, the first itsu was launched in Chelsea, London in 1997.
Over 20 years later, itsu has 77 restaurants across the UK and expanded internationally. itsu’s grocery brand has become one of the fastest-growing businesses in the category in the UK and mainland Europe.
Who’s the target market?
itsu is open to everyone. While traditionally our locations have centred around providing fresh, fast and beautiful food to office workers, the landscape has changed.
Our focus has shifted to looking beyond London and the office worker market.
Our grab and go options of lunchtime and evening are available both in-store and online through delivery, so although we continue serving our traditional customers we’re also broadening our reach through owned and franchise restaurants.
Coupled with the health and financial benefits of choosing itsu over unhealthy fast food alternatives, itsu is now bidding to attract a much broader demographic.
This new approach has seen a dramatic rise in the number of university students, families and couples out on a date choosing itsu as their go-to eatery.
Tell us about the food offering
Most of our Asian-inspired menu is under 500 calories and packed with vitamins, fibre and protein; a third of our dishes are plant-based and the vast majority cost around £7. Our food is delicious and fast.
We’ve recently launched new menu items, including firecracker chicken teriyaki rice’bowl and chicken low.
The firecracker chicken teriyaki rice’bowl is a hotter twist on one of the all-time itsu customer favourites, with all the best bits of the chicken teriyaki rice’bowl, but with added spicy, smoky, sweet sriracha for an extra kick.
The chicken low is a low carb warm dish packed full of nutritious vegetables and miso-marinated chicken – perfect as a healthier grab and go lunch option during the autumnal months.
The new menu items sit alongside the much loved fresh sushi, whole grain brown rice, greens, steamed dumplings and hot noodle dishes.
Why did you decide why is now the time to franchise the business in the UK?
After many years of development, refinement and the endless pursuit of harmony in our stores, now is the time to accelerate growth through our new franchise business and beyond.
itsu has been built with the drive to go beyond the traditional fast food offering, providing healthy, made on the spot, affordable food with big flavours. We’re making the food that people want and need, whether that’s at home, the office or in our stores.
itsu is one of the best known and respected brands offering healthy menu options and offers a fantastic partnership model in the UK and internationally. We have the capability to combine a high volume of customers, mid-market pricing and the opportunity for strong returns.
We’re working on a considered and progressive expansion franchise programme, identifying the perfect partners who understand not just the operational side of the business, but also the brand.
itsu has engaged with experienced franchise operators that demonstrated an ability to operate at scale, across multiple sites, replicating the itsu customer experience and upholding our values.
How are your UK franchises performing since launch?
We’re delighted with the exceptional performance of our franchises.
They’re all performing above the predicted sales figures and it’s fantastic to see the increase in itsu’s brand awareness in these regions.
What type of partners are you looking for?
We’re working with experienced franchisees who demonstrate a passion for our mission to bring delicious healthy food to all parts of the UK and beyond.
Over the years, we’ve established incredibly high standards, from preparing fresh food in-store daily to our strict cleaning and hygiene policy. Our partners need to be fully committed to maintaining these standards as the itsu brand spreads its wings.
Is this strictly a multi-site franchise proposition or can individuals invest in single sites?
What we’re really looking to see is a clear passion and vision for the itsu brand.
We sought and will continue to seek partners who will work collaboratively with the core business and support our mission – and that’s exactly what we’ve found with our current partners in the UK.
Are there particular countries you wish to launch in?
itsu Beyond will focus upon store openings outside London, including cities in the West Country, north west and Scotland.
New openings will feature the latest in-store technology, including digital self-payment ordering screens, but will use a variety of established formats, including sit-in cafes for families and smaller grab and go format restaurants for office workers.
The itsu grocery brand has proved hugely successful across the UK, with products new and old flying off shelves into the bags of hungry shoppers.
Also, considering the huge growth in consumer demand for healthier fast food options, which continues to rise, itsu is perfectly placed to lead the clean food revolution that is taking place across the UK.
While historically most of our restaurants have been located in city centres, especially London, we’re looking to take the brand further afield both through our stores and delivery areas.
A consequence of the pandemic, which has accelerated the shift to hybrid working, has encouraged businesses like itsu to look beyond office hubs and develop a visible presence up and down the high streets across the UK.
Tell us about your international plans and your five-year plan for the global business
We’ve recently unveiled plans to build a £150-million business in Europe within the next five years across our restaurant and grocery businesses, taking fresh, fast, affordable food to more people.
The plan is part of itsu’s global ambition to become a £500 million business by 2025. The time is right for our restaurant business to expand as we create a brighter, healthier, fresher future for fast food.