Remodeling a restaurant is no simple task. Edinburgh restaurateur, Carina Contini, shares the story behind Contini George Street’s transformation, the major project milestones and her advice to others looking to take on a new look.
What’s the story behind wanting to remodel?
Our family have been feeding the lovely people of Scotland for almost 100 years. Over this period we have seen dramatic shifts in the style and level of skill in delivering food to restaurant diners. Imagine opening a Scottish restaurant in Rome a generation ago and then do the same now. They would be two very different places.
A generation plus ago it would probably be a fine dining hotel restaurant with trolleys, meat and two veg, sweet puddings and a very strong slant to French cooking. Now you would have a very contemporary light meal with stunning flavours, beautiful presentation and an unmistakable sense of provenance.
The Italian food we have been serving has been a reflection of the Italian food our grandparents gave us. Lasagne, pizza, carbonara. All delicious but full of comfort and full of carbohydrate to reflect the lifestyle they led. Contini George Street is a reflection of how we eat now as a family not how our grandparents and great grandparents eat. Lots of delicious clean flavours combined in a very exciting way with a real focus on beautifully healthy ingredients. Lots of raw vegetables, proteins and far less carbohydrates. Yes, we still have pasta but in very small tasting plates that give you all the pleasure but with none of the overload. Provenance is still at the heart of what we do with all of our Italian ingredients sourced from the best Italian suppliers and supplemented with Scotland most beautiful larder.
How did you inform your customers?
We have had a very active marketing campaign that started prior to Christmas last year. The planned works date was advertised almost two months in advance through our in house marketing literature, our website, newsletters and a very active social media plan.
What were the project milestones? And who was involved both internally and externally?
Our venue has changed dramatically. We have just completed a £250,000 refurbishment of the restaurant floor. Seeing the building transform into a very modern space that enhances the room more than it did in its initial form has been so exciting. It’s wonderful seeing how our guests are responding to the space. They love it!
Our food has also changed as dramatically as our venue. We have been working together with our senior team for over six months on the current menus. We had wanted to be as bold about three years ago when we completed a light refresh of the space but we felt the market, and our customers weren’t yet ready. We are now confident and delighted to share our new way of eating Italian. Lots of smaller sharing primi piatti followed by light and fresh secondi piatti which are smaller than a normal main course and our really refreshing and super tasty raw salads are mouthwatering, surprising and very new.
What were the biggest challenges of remodeling?
Our kitchen team have been the biggest celebration. I feel as chef proprietor I have almost kept them fixed in a very tight box that wasn’t creative and was very safe. Our new menu, with all of their expertise which is far more than mine, has taken our store cupboard of Italian ingredients, most of the best that Italy has to share with us, and taken them to a very new and very exciting level. I’ve fallen in love with our food again. So the biggest challenge was the awareness that we had become bored with the safety of our own cooking and the opportunity to still be us but in a very new and very different space that our customers are really loving has been a great opportunity not a challenge.
Biggest learning along the way?
The biggest learning has been to trust and let go. Our new model holds onto nothing from the past other than our commitment to sourcing the very best produce from Italy and Scotland.
What surprised you most throughout the process?
Our team. Many guests have asked if we have a new chef. No, it’s our existing chefs, Suzanne, Exec Chef and Marcin, Senior Head Chef that have just shone.
What was the most successful thing you did to get the word out about the renovation?
We have a fantastic database list with active customers as well as great social media followers. @continibites on twitter and Instagram or Facebook Victor&CarinaContini
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received for success in the restaurant business?
Listen to your customers but follow your vision. Staying in the same place will only leave you behind the crowd. Keep innovating and keep your product and your guests excited.
What’s your best advice for other restaurateurs looking to remodel?
You’ll know when the time is right.
What excite your diners the most about your venue?
Everything. New venue, more booths, fabulous wall-hangings, new cocktails, over 55 wines by the glass and by the bottle and our new menus. So many reasons to get excited
What are the top 3 trends you predict for the restaurant industry in the coming year?
Sharing dishes, raw vegetables and more awareness of sugars
What other chef/restaurateur do you most admire and why?
Being in Scotland it’s an easy answer, but Andrew Fairlie given his 2 Michelin reputation and his huge struggles with cancer. It’s very difficult not to admire his courage, commitment to his profession and his love of provenance. He also has a kitchen garden which supplies his restaurant. We also do and it’s such a treasure to be able to spend time and harvest the beautiful produce we get from it.
Photos courtesy of Contini