• Ask Pizza's profits rise 23% for first half of '02

LONDON -- Strong sales at its restaurants outside central London helped to drive interim profits up 23 percent at Ask Central.

According to a report in the Financial Times, the pizza chain, which does not reveal comparable sales figures, opened 11 restaurants in the first half of 2002, for a total of 140. About a dozen more are planned for the second half of the year.

Martin Eckersley, Ask finance director, said comparable-store sales were down in the company's 12 restaurants in central London and the West End as tourist numbers had not recovered from the terrorist attacks on the United States a year ago. However, he said that traffic decline was more than offset by comparable-store increases in the 40 or so outlets within the M25 motorway and outside London.

"I would like to think London will recover in the coming months," said Eckersley. "There are signs that people are coming back to London from the rest of the UK and Europe, but U.S. and Japanese tourists are not coming back to the levels prevailing before the attacks."

Pre-tax profits for the six months to June 30 rose from £5.9 million (U.S. $9.2 million) to £7.6 million (U.S. $11.9 million) on sales of £45.1 million (U.S. $70 million), an increase of 25 percent.

The company has net cash of £1 million (U.S. $1.6 million) and does not expect to take on much debt when it pushes its expansion rate up to 30 openings next year.

Eckersley said check average at Ask stores was £14.30 (U.S. $22.40) and £13.50 (U.S. $21.14) at the company's more traditional Zizzi pizza outlets. Ticket averages were up outside London, where diners visited more for evenings out than quick meals.

"The perception is that we give greater value than a lot of restaurants in the same price bracket," Eckersley said.

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