Paramount serves up expansion plans

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The Independent Online

Paramount, the cash shell which acquired Groupe Chez Gerard last year, is considering a nationwide expansion after poaching a new chief operating officer from rival restaurant group ASK Central.

Phil Wickens, 44, is joining the AIM-listed Paramount from ASK's Zizzi chain, where he was managing director.

Paramount's chief executive, Nick Basing, said the company had identified two of its four brands as having "serious" potential for expansion beyond their main central London base. "We're looking at ways to make Bertorelli and Chez Gerard work without the level of demand we experience in London," he said.

"Our new team is working towards a model that can cope with lower demand in the evening and possibly opening longer during the day. Essentially, we're simplifying our current model."

Mr Basing yesterday announced first-half profits of £994,000 for the group. Shares in Paramount closed 3p higher at 29p.

Mr Basing welcomed the improvement in the London business climate, but remains cautious. "Things are encouraging but the climate is still unsettled," he said.

Groupe Chez Gerard, which also owns the Italian brand Bertorelli's and the fish outlets Live Bait and Cafe Fish, is predominately based in the capital, and was hit by the general economic downturn and a fall-off in tourism. This saw the group lose its place at the top table, and its shares sank from as high as a £1 to little more than 17p.

Since the Paramount takeover in April last year, the group has sold off five loss-making sites, revamped its menus and refurbished its restaurants. Yesterday it said the 21 restaurants made a pre-tax profit of £994,000 in the six months to December 2003, well in excess of the £400,000 profit that Groupe Chez Gerard generated from its 26 outlets in the same period last year.