Craft work: the maths and poker whizz who swapped cards for carbs

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

Andrew Macleod on his Emilia's Crafted Pasta restaurant business

Related tags: Andrew Macleod, Emilia's Crafted Pasta, Italian cuisine

Andrew Macleod left behind a successful career in the poker business to launch Emilia's Crafted Pasta. The gamble has paid off.

Emilia’s Crafted Pasta’s third and latest restaurant marks the group’s first foray into competitive socialising, albeit in a rather lowkey way. Opened a month or so ago, the Canary Wharf venue has a bocce table in its bar area. “It’s a similar concept to shuffleboard, only played with balls,” explains Emilia’s founder Andrew Macleod, who had to rejig his pasta restaurant group’s format to create a bigger ‘flagship’ site when Canary Wharf offered him a larger space within its Wood Wharf development, which is also home to a floating Hawksmoor.

"The building was supposed to be two separate units but then they [Canary Wharf] realised that there wasn't enough power for two operators, so they offered us the whole thing,” he says. “We have opted to put in a bar area with a separate menu, which is a first for us. We had to think very hard about taking such a large space as this is not a time when one wants to increase risk (the site was first viewed by Macleod just ahead of the pandemic but was acquired during lockdown).”

Macleod knows a thing or two about risk and return having funded the inaugural Emilia’s using the proceeds from a poker business he set up while studying for a degree in mathematics. “Poker paid for university. We ran corporate events, home games and private high stakes games. It was a bit like Molly’s Game (a 2017 film about a woman who ran clandestine games for wealthy people) but on a smaller scale. And we never took a rake, so it was all above board.” 

A passion for pasta

Coming a close second to poker at university was pasta. Macleod became obsessed with cooking the dish from scratch and found himself frustrated by the gulf between what he was making at home and what was being served in casual dining restaurants.

"It just didn't do Italy justice. Sure, there was good pasta available in high-end places for £20 plus a bowl but what was being offered by the big chains and old-fashioned independents for about a tenner was awful. I wanted to do something about it.”

Macleod did just that, coming up with the lean, specialist pasta concept that would become Emilia’s in his final year of university before taking time out to travel around Italy to talk to chefs and home cooks.

“This was pre-Airbnb so I used I would ask my hosts where to eat and some of them would cook for me. In all my interactions with people, my aim was to get to the bottom of the question: ‘why is it so good the way you do it?’”

Macleod launched Emila’s in 2016 at 25 years old just east of the Tower of London in St Katherine’s Dock. The small site required a total investment of just under £150,000 with its founder putting up 25% of the capital and the remaining cash coming from a handful of his poker contacts.

Coincidentally, 2016 was also the year that Tim Siadatan and Jordan Frieda launched Padella, the Borough Market restaurant that kickstarted a trend for high-quality-yet-affordable pasta restaurants in the capital and beyond. But Emilia’s three sites – the middle child being a restaurant in Aldgate that launched in 2019 - differ from Padella and the likes of Lina Stores, Pastaio, Bancone and Cin Cin because they offer main course-size plates of pasta rather than small plates.

"This is key for us. I see it as a more traditional approach. People don't really share their pasta in Italy and would only have one plate per meal. Another difference is that we are in general focused on Italian ingredients and traditional Italian dishes, whereas some of the other specialist pasta places have more British influences and use more British ingredients.”

Despite these differences, Macleod certainly sees Emilia’s as being a key player within London’s new wave pasta scene. “The success of the wider category is good for everyone. There is a much better understanding of what is and what isn’t great pasta now.”

A pan-regional approach

Despite its name, Emilia’s takes inspiration from Italy as a whole. Macleod says he chose the name because the Northern region of Emilia-Romagna is the source of many of his group’s key ingredients – not least parmesan, balsamic vinegar, and some of its cured meats – and is also where some of Italy’s most famous pasta recipes originate from.

The offer is tight, with a total of eight pasta dishes available including casarecce with homemade pesto; pappardelle with bolognese sauce; and ravioli of lamb served with a sage and butter sauce.

There is an equally concise line of supporting dishes, with menu subcategories including antipasti, salads and sides. The styling and layout of the menu is reminiscent of national pizza chain Franco Manca, with a handwritten font and each pasta dish numbered. Menus are identical across the three sites.

Pricing is roughly in step with the big Italian chains Macleod is looking to take on; if anything he is undercutting the likes of ASK Italian and Zizzi with pasta dishes ranging from £9 to £13.95. Everything is made 'start to finish' on site in each restaurant with the only things bought in being the restaurant’s bread and gelato, which are sourced from London and Italy respectively.  

Holding prices in the face of steep increases in the cost of ingredients is tough but the maths whizz and former poker player has an ace up his sleeve: he genuinely gets a kick of making it all add up. “So far we have managed to keep prices down by playing around with the numbers. I’ve enjoyed restructuring the menu in such a way that we can largely absorb these increases.”

The group’s lean structure coupled with Macleod’s hands-on approach has also helped in this regard. The group’s head office is small for an expanding group – just an ops director, a marketing manager, an HR and finance manager, and an HR and finance assistant – and Macleod project manages as much as humanly possible himself, not least his restaurant builds.

Doing things differently

Macleod’s borderline obsessive desire to control every aspect of his business isn’t the only thing that marks out Emilia’s as a group that is doing things a little differently from its peers.

“I had never worked in a restaurant prior to launching Emilia’s,” Macleod explains. “A few days after we launched the first site one of the team suggested that it might be a good idea if we had a rota. My lack of experience means we’ve ended up taking a different approach to many aspects of the business.”

Emilia’s has never really sought to employ skilled chefs, with Macleod doing all the food development despite having no professional cooking experience. In spite of this, Emilia’s has a good rep in foodie circles and the press for its pasta (it chalked up a glowing review in the Metro shortly after it launched and features on many a ‘best of’ list).

“Pasta is something people eat at home a lot. It’s essential that we are creating something that people feel is worth going to a restaurant for,” he says.

Another thing that marks Emilia’s out is its commitment to being 100% debt free. “We’ve been very disciplined. We got the first one to work perfectly before we launched the second one. Expansion has so far been completely organic.”

Macleod would appear to have targeted a similar area and demographic thus far with all its sites currently in areas that could be broadly described as being City-driven. But this is by accident rather than design.

“I’d like to say we have a strategy, but we don’t really. I’m completely deal driven. I don’t mean that in the traditional sense, though. Clearly the financials are important but so is the relationship with the landlord.”

Given its portfolio, Emilia’s was left badly exposed by the pandemic but got through it thanks to having established a collaborative relationship with its landlord.

“We suffered hugely in the pandemic. Aldgate in particular is very dependent on the City. Everyone in the business got burned. But those that took the right sites at the right rents with the right landlords and ran their business in a measured and sensible way got burnt a bit less,” says Macleod, who has ruled out bringing Emilia’s to high-rent areas such as Soho and Covent Garden because “the numbers just don’t add up”.

With the new Canary Wharf site set to generate as much revenue as the previous two Emilia’s combined, there might not be such a big gap between site three and four, but Macleod is adamant that each new restaurant will be better than the one that came before it.

“There’s an idea in restaurants that when something is small it's good, and when it gets big it's shit. Avoiding that has been at the forefront of everything that we do.

For every site our goal is that from a brand, commercial and quality control perspective we must get better. I want expanding to improve what we do, not detract from it.” 

Related topics: Business Profile, Casual Dining

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