I always ask people, ‘if you were a billionaire what would you do?’”, says Victor Lugger, one half of the duo behind France-based Italian restaurant group Big Mamma. “I try to ask myself this question,” he continues. “If you ask it to a thousand people, 999 of them will tell you about a dream that they can do now and that they don’t have to be a billionaire to do. My dream is to travel around Italy and source products, try wine and spend time in restaurants. And that’s my job.”
Wearing a black cap and with headphones around his neck, the French restaurateur certainly seems happy as he sits at a table in Gloria, his group’s first London restaurant that opened in Shoreditch in February. And with good reason. The London debut has so far been a success, both commercially and critically, with the Evening Standard describing it as “pleasantly deranged” and the Guardian praising its “kitsch, orchestrated chaos”.
Admittedly, deranged and chaos are not words typically associated with a favourable review, but in Gloria’s case they are both apposite and understandable. Described by the company as a ‘0% Brexit-compatible restaurant’, in reference to the fact that it tries to employ 100% Italian staff and sources much of its food and wine directly from Italy, Gloria is a bright and extrovert 172-seat trattoria that channels a ‘Capri in the Seventies’ look and, like its creators, doesn’t take itself too seriously. In the constant pre-Brexit loop the UK currently finds itself in, two French guys opening a statement Italian restaurant in London provides a welcome distraction.
Bold and brash
Gloria is thus a bold statement, but completely in keeping with what to expect from a restaurant group that goes by the rather flippant name of Big Mamma. Founded in Paris in 2013 by Lugger and business partner Tigrane Seydoux, the company operates six brash yet stylish trattorias in Paris – East Mamma, Ober Mamma, Mamma Primi, Big Love, Pizzeria Popolare and Pink Mamma – as well as food market La Felicità, claimed to be the biggest restaurant space in Europe, and a further restaurant in Lille. The venues are known as much for their cool interiors and laid-back vibe as their reasonably priced Italian food, aspects which the pair believe will put them in good stead for trying to crack the restaurant sector this side of the Channel.
“We try to have a mix of good design, good value food and good taste, served with a smile,” says Lugger of his company’s move to London. “I’m not saying this is what we always deliver – we have people who feedback to us that something went wrong– but that’s what we try to do at least. If you do this, you’ll be packed anywhere in the world.”
It’s a view few would find fault with but, nevertheless, with Gloria Big Mamma has its work cut out. The capital’s mid-market Italian restaurant scene is already bursting at the seams, so why do they think they can succeed by adding yet another to the mix?
The answer is the same as when the pair opened their debut restaurant, insists Seydoux. “With our first restaurant everybody was looking at us and asking how two French guys can open an Italian restaurant in Paris. The Italian restaurant sector is the most competitive in Paris, there is a pizzeria almost every 100 metres – so people were saying ‘what are you going to bring’? But the market is big because so many people want to eat Italian food, which is why we want to be part of it.
“We are not afraid of the competitive landscape. If you do good food and atmosphere at a good price and there is a lot of competition it can still work. If you have bad execution and no competition then you will fail.”
With Gloria, Seydoux and Lugger are hoping that their slightly different – and tongue-in-cheek – approach will make them stand out. Open for breakfast through to late night dinner, Gloria is unlike many of its mid-market Italian counterparts, despite a broadly comparable average spend of £24 a head. Its menu of pastas and pizzas is tight, with dish names such as Filippo’s big balls and the YouPorn pizza intended if not to shock then to at least raise an eyebrow, and it serves large sharing plates of risotto and pasta. Wine is taken more seriously too, with 50 barolos on the menu, as are its cocktails, one of which is served in a rather cheeky mug.
The aim of their restaurants, they say, is to transport people to Italy (modern day or otherwise) the minute the customer – or the ‘client’ as the pair call them – crosses the threshold. “We want to create places that when you pass through the door you’re in Italy,” says Lugger. “Why? Because we’re not feeding people – there’s supermarkets and Deliveroo for that – we’re trying to create an Italian experience. It’s not putting Italian music on the speakers or a gondola in the bar, it’s more subtle and way more simple than that.”
Their solution is not just with the Italianate design of the restaurant but to have an Italian-speaking dining room through their attempt to employ 100% Italian staff – although Seydoux says there are actually 35 different nationalities within the group. “It’s the restaurant industry, all the good ideas have been taken and only the shitty ones are left,” says Lugger. “Getting 100% Italians is a shitty idea and complicated to implement but that’s what was left so we thought ’OK, let’s do that’.”
Another aspect of Big Mamma that is just as complicated is its direct sourcing policy. Big Mamma cuts out the middleman by dealing directly with producers for everything from its cheeses and olive oil to charcuterie and vegetables, with suppliers delivering to the company’s logistic hubs in Italy before it brings them into France and now the UK. It currently deals with 180 different producers for Gloria.
“Sourcing is not a problem but it is a lot of work. For some products, like fresh cheese, we need to bring it to the UK and put it on the plate within 36 hours from the moment it’s produced. That’s the challenge,” says Lugger.
Optimism around Brexit
With such a business model you’d think Brexit would be a major concern for Big Mamma, but the pair are remarkably phlegmatic about the situation. “At the bottom of my heart I think it’s going to be OK,” says Lugger. “We’ll either have no Brexit or a managed Brexit, in which case it will be fine, and if there’s a no-deal Brexit then it’s going to be complicated for a time but it will also be fine. There’s a difference between having a problem to deal with and a problem you can’t deal with. In London there will still be 10 million people, with many wanting to eat out. If they cut something out it won’t be a £24 Saturday evening meal, but an £80 Mayfair meal. If Brexit is bad for the UK, it won’t be bad for very long. And London is a very resilient city.
“I might need to adjust our logistics for mozzarella but we are still going to be able to import it to the UK, there will just be a different process and different paperwork. Six months ago we were doing nothing here and now we import 180 products so we’ve already solved a lot of logistical problems. It will add an extra layer of complexity but we’ll deal with it.”
“We’re not afraid of Brexit, we’re happy to come to London,” adds Seydoux. “We have a very vibrant group.”
This display of chutzpah goes beyond Brexit. Lugger and Seydoux have backed themselves from the get-go, opening two restaurants in quick succession just months apart when starting out. History is repeating itself in London, with the group soon to open a second in the capital in Fitzrovia, on Rathbone Square. While the pair are keeping tight-lipped about their plans – insisting that they are yet to decide on what direction it will take – it will be even bigger than the two-floor Gloria and further ramp up the Italian immersion. “It’s a big site, all on one floor, so it allows us to go even further in buying directly from producers,” says Lugger. “It will deepen the experience, so when you pass the door you are not in London any more. When you have a bigger site it allows you to delve deeper and be even more immersive.”
The pair admit that they are putting themselves under pressure but say after having spent two years trying to open their first restaurant in London, when they discovered the second site it was just too good to turn down. “We know we need to open more than one restaurant in London to have a certain volume to buy directly from suppliers, but opening two quickly is not a strategy but more an opportunity of real estate,” says Seydoux. “The second site we found was great. We would have waited longer if we didn’t find something great.”
A humbling experience
Big Mamma’s play in London is as bold as its restaurant, but the pair are keen to show that their confidence shouldn’t be confused with arrogance. Dealing with landlords disinterested in a small Paris-based restaurant group has been an eye-opening and humbling experience, they admit, but one they believe has made them stronger as a result.
“London doesn’t need us, we need London,” says Lugger. “I was going to landlords and telling them we were successful in Paris and they would say ‘where?’. It was frustrating. In Paris I get five phone calls before breakfast from people asking me to take their sites, but here my knees hurt from begging with landlords for two years.
“But it’s good from time to time to be reminded of what you are and to take nothing for granted. Start again, make your point and prove you can do something. That’s the reason we came here as a company and why I relocated here (Seydoux remains based in Paris), to put myself in danger. In Paris we are a company of 1,000 people, here we are a very small agile startup. It’s been an amazing and enjoyable experience, but also a tough one.”
They have left nothing to chance, questioning everything about their business, with nothing automatically being transferred from their Paris restaurants regardless of how successful it has been. Now that it is open, they are also aware that Gloria needs to stay at the top of its game in such a competitive marketplace as London.
“I wish I had created an asset-based business but we have no asset at all,” says Lugger. “We start again every lunch and dinner in every restaurant. You may have been 10 times to Gloria and it’s your favourite restaurant, but the 11th time the waiter who welcomes you doesn’t smile and then you have the exact same experience as the last 10 times but because of that you start to see everything that is going wrong – things that had always been going wrong but you weren’t seeing because you were in a positive mood.”
Lugger is also fastidious about his restaurants’ appearance. “They have to always look good. Over time, if you don’t maintain them they start to fade. If our places look 5% less good every year, in four years that’s 20% less good, which is a lot. If I put on 5% weight every year, when is my wife going to start being angry?”
The experience of opening in new territory also temporarily put them out of their comfort zone. “When we opened Pink Mamma (restaurant number five) over four floors I expected 800 people to come the first day because in Paris people know us,” says Lugger. “I’m the optimist of the company and quite fearless, but one hour before we opened [Gloria] on the Friday I was shitting my pants that no one was going to come.”
Adjusting to London
Two months in and the pair have had to adjust to their new environment and the differences between operating in Paris and London. “In France the restaurant scene is slightly less professional and more about authenticity,” says Seydoux. “London is the Champions League of restaurants in Europe.”
The biggest adjustment has been with its late licence, with Gloria’s downstairs space originally intended to open until 2am three nights a week. However, the pair admit they overestimated Londoners’ appetites for late-night eating.
“If it was a bar it would be crazy late night because the neighbourhood is great. The problem is it’s not a bar it’s a restaurant and we had hundreds of people coming for a bar but not wanting to eat,” says Lugger. “We don’t have many people here who want a late-night restaurant experience.”
The restaurant now stays open until 12am, still later than many of its neighbours, with the pair looking at using the downstairs space to host late-night private parties in the future.
One thing they haven’t changed, however, is their overarching philosophy to running restaurants regardless of where they are, which they attribute to their good start in London. “We are very serious about food, but really not very serious about us,” says Lugger. “The problem with really beautiful women is that no one hits on them – and when people do, they do it so seriously and ask them for marriage when they just want to have fun. London is the same. If you take London to a very polite dinner and say ‘look I’ve done my homework’, it isn’t going to find you sexy. We have tried to forget how big this city is, how hard the competition is and how amazing all our neighbours are. You don’t need to be that handsome to date an amazing women, you just need to be fun. It’s the same as opening a restaurant in London.”
And Londoners seem to have welcomed them with open arms. “The vibe in the city is stratospheric,” adds Lugger. “The people here are so open-minded, so curious, so eager to welcome the unknown and discover new things.
“I love France but Paris feels like a gentleman’s club where it takes 10 years to be fully part of. London feels like a fuck-off rave and everyone is telling you to join in.”
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the April issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.