• Pizza sales drive Ask Central profits in ''02

LONDON -- Ask Central has reported a 23 percent rise in pre-tax profits for the 12 weeks ended Dec. 29, 2002.

According to the Financial Times, pre-tax profits for the year to Dec. 29 rose from £13.6 million to £16.7 million (U.S. $21.9 million to U.S. $26.9 million). Sales, helped by new openings, jumped from £78.9 million to £95.8 million (U.S. $127.2 million to U.S. $154.5 million).

The company does not release comparable-store sales figures.

Sales at its 12 central London outlets remained down following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but three outlets opened in the city's West End last year were taking £20,000 (U.S. $32,258) a week.

Earnings rose from 10.27 pence to 12.03 pence (U.S. $16.56 to U.S. $19.40) per share.

Adam Kaye, chief executive of the chain of 145 pizza and pasta outlets, expects the group will continue expanding at 20 to 30 sites a year, up to about 350 across the UK.

Last year it opened 13 Ask Central sites and seven upper-end Zizzi brand units. None have opened in the first quarter, but two are due to be launched in the first week of next month.

"Ideally we like to open two or three a month through the year -- but it never works like that," said Martin Eckersley, finance director. But he was confident up to another 30 would be opened this year, all funded from cash flow.

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