That Manchester United chose to celebrate winning the Premiership last season with a meal at San in Manchester tells you an awful about the kind of atmosphere father-son team of Carlo and Marcello di Stefano try to generate in their Italian restaurants.
"We try and create a show. A theatre around food," explains Marcello. "We let people see as much as they can."
Particularly in these tricky economic times, customers want to have fun and they want to be looked after, he adds. The pair talk about creating “the whole package” in their restaurants. “I think people sometimes forget about that these days,” continues Marcello. “You have to create the right environment, you have to make it a night out for people. The more casual diner is looking for a great atmosphere and service, something that’s not too formal, somewhere to relax.”
Their approach seems to be working. If Manchester United have had a successful 12 months, the San Carlo Restaurant Group, which owns restaurants in Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester, Manchester and London, is enjoying a pretty good run of its own. Sales are up by 12% across its five restaurants, its 200 cover Manchester site is turning over as much as it was during Christmas, and a further two sites are coming on-stream, one opening now in Leeds and another in Liverpool,due to open in September. That’s in addition to the mega-franchise deal the family-owned company has done with Sheikh Marzouk Al Kharafi, chairman of the enormous Americana Group, which already owns and operates franchises for many of the best-known chains such as KFC, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday’s in the Middle East.
The sheikh had eaten many times at Signor Sassi, the Knightsbridge restaurant that San Carlo bought two years ago, and decided he wanted to add a higher-end concept to his portfolio. The deal will see 22 Signor Sassis open in the Middle East and north Africa, with the first set to launch in Kuwait City about now, and other sites already being looked at in Istanbul, Bahrain and Cairo.
“The opportunity is massive,” says Marcello. “We’re really excited about it. The first site is fantastic: 200 covers with a massive open kitchen.” The franchising agreement is straightforward. Americana pays San Carlo a fixed fee and then a percentage of gross turnover; San Carlo recruits staff and sorts out the training.
“One of the agreements with them was our involvement. We’re doing everything with the first site, using the same architects from England. We’re not the sort who sit back and say get on with it,” explains Marcello. “But it’s a learning process for us because we’ve never done this before.”
“We’ve been approached before, but the fact that this was such a large company, we felt comfortable and confident with them,” adds Carlo. “They are extremely ambitious.”
Opportunities next year
San Carlo’s own expansion in the UK will be a little more cautious, but father and son are looking for sites in London, for both the San Carlo and Signor Sassi brands. “A lot of groups rush into sites and go too fast. We wait, wait and wait till we get the right site. In Liverpool, we looked for three years,” says Marcello. “That’s the advantage of being a family business, of not having shareholders.”
Marcello thinks there will be more opportunities next year as sites become available. “I think we’ll see more fallout of restaurants next year,” he says. “Lots of people got into restaurants who weren’t restaurateurs, but they got into it because they thought it would be fun. Now they’re struggling because running restaurants has to be your life.”
Along with atmosphere, hard work is clearly a key ingredient in the success of San Carlo. Carlo himself hasn’t had a holiday in seven years. But he doesn’t care because he loves it.
“It’s a tough business to do well. You have to work day and night. But if you have a passion for it and you enjoy it, it’s great,” agrees Marcello, who admits to enjoying the odd holiday himself.
Both know how important it is to be close to the business, monitoring both service and food. “We’re on the floor all the time, we don’t sit in an office, we’re always in a site somewhere,” says Marcello, before Carlo explains one of his company rules. “From 12 o’clock to 3.30 and from 5pm till closing it’s forbidden for managers to go in the office. The money is made on the floor,” he says emphatically.
Then he offers some more advice: “If you want to succeed, be honest with yourself. Create the food you’d want to eat yourself and offer prices you’d want to pay yourself. Have passion. Don’t try and be too clever. People forget what customers really want to eat: simple food. Especially if they’re coming in three times a week.”
The San Carlo menu in particular is huge, and attracts an enormously diverse range of customers. You can have a simple plate of pasta and spend £15 pound a head or you can have lobster and Champagne and end up spending £150 a head.
“It is a very large menu,” agrees Marcello. “People say how can you do such a large menu but at the end of the day Italian food is very simple and we use a small number of ingredients in lots of different ways. They’re not fussy dishes. The key is very good, fresh produce simply cooked. Don’t take away from the natural flavours.”
Unlike some Italian chains, there’s a real emphasis on food quality. The chefs go to Italy for training and Carlo talks about instilling passion into the kitchen. “I want my chefs to believe in what they do. I want them to get involved,” he says.
“Restaurants can’t get away with blagging it like they used to,” adds Marcello. “People know so much more today. They’re obsessed with food.”
It’s simple really, but good food, atmosphere, hard work and passion are key to a restaurant staving off the effects of the downturn. That and offering value for money. “In the credit crunch people aren’t going to stop eating out and sit at home, dwelling on everything,” says Marcello.
“They still want to go out. But you have to make it affordable for them. You can price yourself out of the market, and then you’re in trouble. So keep your prices reasonable, make a little less profit, but make sure you get people through the door.”