At one point during the second national lockdown Italian mini group Cin Cin did more covers over a week through delivery than it would have done across its brace of Brighton & Hove Italian restaurants. Turnover was lower - of course - due to fewer drinks purchases and no opportunity for incremental sales, but with just a handful of staff operating costs were greatly reduced so overall profitability was comparable.
The delivery service - which is still operating out of Cin Cin’s tiny debut restaurant in central Brighton - sees the group's five-course menus boxed up for customers to finish at home, with dishes including the likes of tagliatelle with smoked haddock, samphire and lemon; and rolled pork belly with braised cannellini beans, hispi cabbage and salsa verde. Delivery is free in Brighton & Hove and £4.95 for East and West Sussex residents that live outside the city, with deliveries made by the Cin Cin team themselves.
“What started as something we were doing to save the business turned into something that was quite profitable,” says founder David Toscano. “And when we were able to open our Hove restaurant, we were pretty much booked solid because of all the pent-up demand.”
From a financial standpoint, even with one restaurant closed to eat-in customers since the pandemic began - Cin Cin’s Vine Street is too small to trade with social distancing in place - Toscano and his longstanding head chef Jamie Halsall have had a good 18 months.
Toast of the town
The delivery service filled Cin Cin’s coffers and - such was its unexpected success – has also led to the creation of a third restaurant, this time in the capital, which opened in Fitzrovia this spring.
The pair hadn’t initially been seeking a third venue but had instead been looking for a London kitchen space in which to take Cin Cin at Home nationwide through a link up with a meal kit aggregator. This then led to a serendipitous conversation regarding Bonnie Gull's Foley Street site.
“We knew we wanted to do another Cin Cin but we’d hit a bit of a brick wall in terms of places to go next as it’s hard to find cities and towns with a comparable demographic mix and feel to Brighton,” continues Toscano, a former lawyer that initially launched Cin Cin out of a 1972 Fiat 850T that served up prosecco and cured meats. “But once we saw the site and the relatively low investment required to get a central London restaurant it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
“Even if it was a ghost town the first few times we came up here. Our wives thought we were insane,” interjects Halsall. “But there was enough cash in the business to do it, we didn’t need to take on any debt at all, so we went for it.”
Making the leap from the south Coast to London is not without its risks – several of Cin Cin’s Brighton & Hove peers have come unstuck in the big smoke - and the global pandemic has only heightened it. Yet the pair have mitigated the risk by taking a cost-effective site and opening it on a relative shoestring. No structural work was carried out and most of Bonnie Gull’s furniture and fixtures and fittings have been retained, with Cin Cin Foley Street launching towards the end of April just a month after the pair received the keys.
Not blowing the budget
Getting the London site up and running has the duo reminiscing about the early days of Vine Street, which launched in 2016. “David and I were there all the time and it was also launched on a tiny budget,” recalls Halsall. “Vine Street was funded through my own savings,” adds Toscano. There was no outside cash, so we became profitable quickly and were able to put that money into the larger Hove restaurant.”
Cin Cin Hove opened in 2018 with a far more finished and premium look than its older sibling. The launch was a big success, establishing Cin Cin as one of the city’s foremost home-grown restaurant brands, but it took some time for Toscano to rebalance the books. “It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it did make us rethink what’s spent on a restaurant versus what you get back and when you get it back,” he says.
Once their Fitzrovia venture is turning a profit the pair will likely bring it more in line with Cin Cin Hove. They will look at installing some form of counter or bar seating, features of their other places, but won’t have an open kitchen as in Hove and Brighton because the site has a basement kitchen. “There are also some operational oddities that we will seek to address, such as the bar not quite being in the right place,” says Halsall.
The menu at Cin Cin Foley Street is broadly like that at Cin Cin Hove but is arranged differently due to there being less of a focus on pasta than at the original restaurant. This is partly down to the site’s small subterranean kitchen but also because the pair don’t want to be seen as yet another small plates pasta joint, even if that was the genesis of the business.
“We launched a few months after Padella, although it wasn’t really on our radar at the time,” says Toscano. “We accidentally tapped into something that was starting to happen in the wider market. Our biggest influences for Cin Cin were Polpo and - coincidentally - Trullo (the owners of the latter established Padella).”
The menu has also been dictated by the restrictions of the site’s tiny kitchen, which had three induction hubs, a domestic fryer and “the worst oven you’ve ever seen”, according to Halsall, whose CV includes working with Steve Groves at Roux at Parliament Square and for Tristan Welch at Launceston Place. “For example, I ordered in some rabbits for a stew but then realised I had no space to prepare it so I ended up using them to make croquettes that could be quickly cooked in the fryer. It’s now one of our bestselling dishes.”
Other dishes on the London menu include the likes of arancino of South Coast crab with basil emulsion and giardiniera salad; summer vegetable panzanella; and monkfish tail with cocco bianco beans, radicchio and rosemary.
“We started off doing some dishes that were nice but a bit too complex for the space,” adds Halsall. “We’ve reverted to what we’re good at and what we’re known for. We change the menu at the Brighton & Hove sites every month, so we have a solid bank of dishes to draw upon.”
Building a head office for future growth
The pair are happy with the performance of their London outpost so far and are equally positive about the wider business. Hove is performing strongly; the delivery business is trading far better than predicted and Vine Street will likely reopen soon after restrictions lift.
“It’s been a difficult time but we’re very happy to be on site running the place as that’s the bit we’re good at, plus we’re not worrying too much about what’s happening in Brighton and Hove as we have a strong team there,” says Halsall.
Cin Cin still has an appetite for further expansion but Toscano - who is heavily involved front of house as well as handling the bulk of the admin - says the business needs to become less reliant on its owner and head chef. “In the midst of managing the build I vowed I’d never do it again but now it’s gone okay I think we could do another.”
“But we need to invest in the head office brains trust. Jamie and I are now the management team for three sites and a delivery business. We’re hands on and there’s lots to do on the admin side too.
“Before we do more we’re going to have to sort that out. That will be a nice project, even it’s not as exciting as doing another opening.”