You used to be a lawyer. What’s with the change of career?
I grew to hate my job. I’ve always been involved in disputes, latterly in the construction industry working on cases involving big commercial buildings. A lawyer friend of mine left the profession to go into wine. That was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me.
Has your previous experience as a lawyer helped?
There are some transferable skills for sure. I’ve certainly saved a lot of money on legal fees and it’s also been good for important presentations to banks and investors. If you’re going to present in court, you need to be prepared.
How did Cin Cin come about?
It started out as a street food van. I knew I eventually wanted to go into restaurants but wasn’t sure how. I’d worked in a restaurant as a waiter when I was a teenager but never really took to it. I grew up in a food-centric Italian family in Australia so food and cooking has always been a big part of my life. My family made wine and cured meats. It was normal. I was never going to open an Asian fusion place, Cin Cin is familiar territory for me.
When did the business launch?
Back in 2013 when the street food movement was really starting to get going. It was all quite macho: burgers, pulled pork, that sort of thing. I thought there was a gap in the market for something more refined, so we focused on antipasti and prosecco. The fact there were no cooking facilities in the van was also a factor. In 2014 I got Jamie Halsall involved. He’s worked in places including Roux at Parliament Square and Launceston Place. He hasn’t worked in Italian restaurants but he has the technical skills. We had a cook-off and his tiramisu recipe beat my mother’s. He now oversees the food.
Tell us about your first restaurant
Having quit my job as a lawyer in late 2015, I opened Cin Cin in 2016. The focus is on small plates, mainly antipasti dishes and pasta. The tight offer was mostly down to the restrictions at our first site in North Laine. It’s 30sq m and doesn’t have full extraction. We were very limited in what we could do there.
How does it work as a business model?
It makes us a good margin as pasta is just flour, water and eggs. However, you need to factor in a high labour cost. We make fresh pasta twice a day at each of our sites. Having a low-cost base for the main part of the plate also means we can use very high quality ingredients to lift the dish.
Why did you choose to open in an off-pitch location?
Because of my background I have a very low tolerance for risk so was very particular about sites. When I saw Vine Street, I knew it was what I wanted. We’re the sort of place people seek out, so passing trade wasn’t a big concern. It’s a very efficient space, the staff barely have to move to serve people. We only have one chef on service and we can do up to 75 covers over a whole day. It’s actually a much easier venue to work in than our Hove restaurant.
When did that open?
It opened in January 2018, roughly 18 months after Vine Street. One of our main motivations for opening a second restaurant was that people were always complaining that they could never get a table at our original site.
How does the Hove restaurant differ?
It’s an average-size restaurant but that makes it 10 times the size of our Vine Street location. The bigger site has allowed us to do a lot of things we have not been able to do at our first place, for example we make some of our own cheese and cured meat. We’re a year in and it’s going well. It’s been a massive learning curve going from a 21-cover restaurant run by myself and two others to having two restaurants with a total staff of about 20. The team has picked up some great accolades, including a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
How are you managing price rises?
It’s painful. We had a wine supplier turn around and say prices are going up by 4% because of Brexit. Wine is particularly tricky because we’re committed to Italy. We can’t switch to different countries without diluting our brand. Our strategy is to diversify and use more suppliers to find more affordable options for our different price brackets.
Are you going to open any more sites?
Five has always been the plan. But having now done two, I know that’s going to be a big challenge. We want to roll out the ethos of what we do but offer an individual experience at each restaurant. I don’t think Brighton and Hove needs another Cin Cin unless we do something very different. We’re looking closely at Market Halls-type concepts as that could be a great fit for what we do. We’re also looking at doing some sort of retail offer. We have a lot of capacity at Cin Cin Hove, and pasta, sauces and cold meats are well-suited to taking away to prepare at home.
Would you seek new investment to fund Cin Cin’s growth?
We don’t have any investors at the moment, the money and the risk is all mine – fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it. I managed to secure bank financing for Hove but more openings would probably involve taking on investors.
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