TV shock for the explosive Undercover Boss Simon

By Paul Harris

THE first thing I clear up on meeting Carluccio's restaurant chain chief executive officer Simon Kossoff is that the actor David Kossoff was not his father; in fact possibly not even related.

This despite the fact that the latter coincidentally also had a son called Simon, living in Ealing, West London, as does his namesake.

And, with our meeting coming so soon after Simon's appearance last month on Channel 4's Undercover Boss, I had to ask whether it was all rehearsed.

Emphatically not, insisted the chief executive and co-founder of Carluccio's, the Italian restaurant chain.

After never having encountered Simon previously, we meet twice in a matter of 12 hours.

He's easily recognisable, holding fort at the launch of Carluccio's latest branch in Hale, Cheshire.

He's a commanding presence, all six feet four inches of him, avuncular and with the distinctive, dark-framed spectacles we eventually saw when he ditched his disguise to reveal his true identity on Undercover Boss.

Fifteen years ago, Simon chanced upon a couple running a tiny shop in London - Priscilla and Antonio Carluccio which sold the latter's food products.

She was ambitious, he seemingly happy to carry on doing what he knew best.

Her concept was to open an Italian cafe together with someone with a commercial background.

"He's not a businessman, he's a cook first and foremost," said Simon, "and an expert on Italian food."

But before that, Simon had risen through the ranks of the food industry.

Raised in Golders Green in London, his mother, a bereavement counsellor, had converted to Judaism and the family belonged to a Liberal synagogue where he was barmitzvah.

His father was a lawyer with a small practice in London's West End, but Simon chose to read economics at York before taking a post graduate course in hospitality management at Hollins College ("The Toastrack"), part of Manchester Polytechnic.

Whilst in the city, he took a variety of jobs in restaurants, pubs and kitchens.

And that's when he realised where his true vocation lay.

"I got a taste for the restaurant business and came back to London," he recalled.

He became assistant manager at the 900-room Pub of Pubs, where he was "bottom of a tall tower of management".

He lasted nine months there before joining the then fledgling Pizza Express in 1983 as a manager of one of its branches.

After three years, he moved to the restaurant group My Kinda Town, founded by Bob Payton, a larger than life character who always insisted on personally affixing mezzuzot to new premises of his massive Chicago Rib Shack and Chicago Pizza Pie eateries.

When recession hit the hospitality industry at the start of the 1990s, Simon found himself stepping into numerous roles as colleagues became victims of the financial downturn.

Eventually, as managing director, he oversaw the flotation of the company and its sale to Capital Radio.

By that stage, Simon was ready to move on and to realise his own ambitions.

Meeting the Carluccios was the perfect fit.

He realised that what Priscilla envisaged was exactly what the market had been looking for.

Rather than invest 500,000 on a single restaurant, Simon opted to seek 2m from outside investors.

The problem was that this coincided with the dotcom boom and venture capitalists just weren't impressed.

Simon persevered and raised 2m from 'angel' investors, which saw the opening of the first Carluccio's' venue in central London.

It was revolutionary - an all-day restaurant which served breakfast, coffee, lunch and dinner, allied with an authentic deli and shop.

In those days, Simon would be seen front of house, cooking pasta or making drinks, as well as, behind-the-scenes, planning for the future.

Within a year, a second outlet opened in central London and an over-subscribed rights issue secured another 2m in funding.

Less than six years after the launch, Simon floated the business on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) for 54m, at which point the Carluccio's ceased to be involved with the business, although Antonio remains a consultant.

In 2006, Carluccio's entered a regional franchise agreement in the Middle East with the Landmark group which bought the company for 90m in 2010.

Today, the small Italian store has grown to 87 branches in Britain. The aim currently is for 100 worldwide and to double the business within five years.

Simon says: "We are extremely well-funded so unlike some of my competitors, there are no issues with bank funding or debt.''

Of his appearance on Undercover Boss, he insists: "I didn't know where it was going. A member of my team did but we played it by the rules.''

And, like other leading business figures who have appeared on the TV programme, Simon was alarmed and seemingly distressed to discover not only shortfalls in service, but that staff were not always being suitably recognised or rewarded for their efforts.

He had been keen to identify problems within the group that might jeopardise Carluccio's' growth.

So before committing 50m to expansion, he agreed to appear on the TV programme.

We saw him scrubbing dishes, with his staff oblivious to the man behind the disguise.

What he found was chaotic kitchens and inefficient systems, as well as disaffected staff, with the result that he was forced to reconsider whether employee problems should be remedied before considering expansion.

You'd feel that Simon would now be content with what he has achieved, but he insists: "I think we can still double our business in the UK to up to 160 stores and we are having a crack at the US market. We've taken a lease on a building in Washington DC."

Despite the huge growth of Carluccio's, most of the chain's suppliers are still family owned as they were right at the start.

For instance, Amaretti biscuits still come from the back of a small cafe in Italy and olives and olive oil are still supplied by a family-owned business.

Simon travels considerably but surely he must have some hobby, or outside interests, I ventured.

The response was not as I anticipated: Pyrotechnics (otherwise known as fireworks) are now his passion. It all started when his son Joshua was about 12 and they were looking for things they could enjoy together.

It began with fireworks in the back garden before Joshua lost interest.

Simon, however, decided to take things further and underwent a fireworks' training course. Today he indulges his hobby for the benefit of friends.

He also finds time to ski and, as might be expected, enjoys cooking.

But he confesses: "My wife says what I do is the glory cooking, I don't like to make fussy food.''

His specialities are tarragon chicken casserole and slow roasted meat and he has a large collection of cookery books for reference.

Simon has recently bought a house in Gascony, France, where he has set up an office.

He would like to help others achieve what he has by assisting with start-ups in the restaurant business.

Perhaps we could see him mentoring the next Kossoff-Carluccio partnership.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph