Valentina Fine Foods opened in 1991 as a specialty Italian deli in London, but the business has since grown to include new locations, restaurants, and an online shop. Two families — Arcari and Zoccola — founded and operate the business, which is led by co-owners Bruno Zoccola and Fabio Arcari. We talked to the two of them, along with Valentina’s Head of Marketing Tess Young, all about their growth, challenges, and what they’ve learned along the way. Here are five lessons they shared for fellow restaurateurs.
Have a contingency plan. “The biggest challenge you have when you open a business is cash flow,” says Bruno. “Make sure you do the arithmetic and find out what you need to break even.” Discover how much revenue you need to generate per week to break even, then be prepared to make less than that in the first six months to a year. Figure out how you’ll find your shortfall in case you don’t meet your target immediately.
Get the word out — quickly. Word of mouth is great, but after a big investment you need to reach customers ASAP. Bruno recommends using the Internet, local press, advertising, and other relevant partners to drum up business. And you also need to stay relevant in a competitive industry. “You need to be one step ahead all the time, reinventing yourself and making sure you have enough going on to keep people interested,” he says.
Valentina has hosted opera singers and jazz musicians in their restaurants for special events. They’ve also seen success with promotions, such as takeaway pizzas for £5. “We still owe money on £5, but we’re aware of the cost of that for a month in the hopes that when people come back for month two, they’re paying full price. Even if we manage to capture 10% of the people who come in for the £5 pizza, it’s 10% more business than we had before.”
“You’ve got to be a bit creative,” Bruno adds. “At the end of the day, anybody can cook a plate of pasta. It’s just making your plate of pasta more interesting than the guy next door.”
Educate your customers. In the deli, a huge challenge for the families is educating customers on the quality and value of their products. “People say mozzarella, but there could be at least 10 different types of mozzarella,” Bruno explains. “You have to educate people and say, this is the best. That takes time.”
An expertise in Italian food also presents a staffing challenge, as the team only hires people with extensive knowledge of the cuisine (in fact, most of the managers are family members).
Understand when less is more. In addition to selling products on their website, Valentina has opened marketplaces on other platforms, including Amazon. But the team learned quickly that focusing on fewer quality products was more valuable in the long run than going for quantity. There are countless e-commerce sites offering many of the same products carried in the Valentina delis. “We found that it wasn’t worthwhile to do the products everyone else does,” says Bruno.
Instead, they carry niche products online, such as special Italian chocolate and artisan salami. “Making that decision hurt us initially, but what we’ve found now is that the profit is the same or slightly more.”
Another thing to consider when selling online is customer service. “When you deal with groceries you have items you sell for £1.99,” says Tess. “If you get a customer complaint, your profit is so small; it doesn’t do your time justice to deal with problems like that. That’s why we decided to go into specialization.”
Use each business to grow the others. The Arcari and Zoccola families initially decided to open a restaurant because people who came into the deli wanted to sit down and eat there, glass of wine in hand. These days, the businesses continue to complement one another. The delis, restaurants, and e-commerce businesses all source from the same suppliers, so they’ve nurtured and grown those relationships over the years.
“You go into the deli to pick up a new type of pasta, and you may talk to the person at the counter and start asking about recipes,” says Tess. “They can say, we serve this at the restaurant. And vice versa: if the restaurant is trying out a certain cheese, you can say, we actually sell this in the deli.”