Brexit isn't stopping Victor Lugger, the co-founder of the Big Mamma Group (pictured left), who imports authentic Italian produce three times a week to create an exuberant menu that matches the interiors of the latest opening, Ave Mario in Covent Garden. Caroline Baldwin talks to him.
How has trading been since the launch of your third UK site, Ave Mario, in Covent Garden?
Apart from the two nights when England were playing in the Euros, we've had hundreds of people every day. Considering we've launched in the middle of Covid and in Covent Garden – which although it drives a lot of business with people from around the world, on top of Londoners, some of these people had not yet returned – the fact that we've been so packed from the beginning is encouraging.
It's just so heart-warming because it's been such a long time coming, and we were interrupted by Covid, and we didn't know what was going to happen. But then, one day, you open. It's been amazingly intense; our only issue is managing customer expectations when we're full.
What do you believe is the secret behind your ever-popular restaurants?
We try to do four things and four things only: good, cheap, serve with a smile, and a great atmosphere and design. If you do that, you'll be packed every day. We went the extra mile on food in Ave Mario, with simplicity for some dishes and eccentricity for others. But it's still very traditional Italian food. Even our one-metre-high ice-cream is a recipe with old northern Italian traditions.
We try to do four things and four things only: good, cheap, serve with a smile, and a great atmosphere and design
It's a very intense period and we want to keep satisfying each and every guest. But we have to remember, we are only as good as the last meal we served, and I take a humble stance because there are so many great restaurants in London and in Covent Garden. We need to have a nice menu and great design, but that's not even the beginning – 99% of it is in the execution, day in and day out. You can have the best pasta recipe, but if you cook it one minute too long, it's not OK.
Why did you choose Covent Garden? Do you have plans to expand further across the UK?
People know us in London now. And Covent Garden is an interesting venue. It's not every day an almost-300-seat restaurant opens in Covent Garden with smiley service and quality, cheap food. The Ave Mario site is unique, we're a destination and we can attract people. There's not one Londoner who wouldn't meet in Covent Garden, as it's central and easy to get there and you can have a drink before and after you come to us, which was one of the reasons we were so excited to go to such a vibrant space with other bars and restaurants.
As for opening elsewhere, right now we're very focused on reopening and developing new menus. We see sites all the time, because we're curious – I'm teaching my five-year-old daughter that curiosity is a great thing to have. We may see two sites [that are interesting] in every 200, but I'm not saying we're going to see those two next week, because we're not actively looking at the moment and we don't have a roadmap.
Can you tell me about menu development?
We like creating menus. If you're not creating a new menu, then what are you doing? Every restaurant and every menu is an opportunity to tell stories, create atmospheres, recreate emotions and share memories we have from Italy. This is what is truly beautiful about our job.
With our Ave Mario menu we were excited because we had so much time on our hands because of Covid, and we were able to source new products and improve our logistics so we can get fresher products from Italy even more regularly. This enables us to cook food that is authentic and that captures that Italian taste we love.
What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in opening a new restaurant and reopening your other sites?
In the UK, the biggest challenge everyone is facing is not Covid, it's Brexit. Everyone has said it a hundred times, but we're not being heard when we say the legislation for employing people from Europe in the UK is not going to work. And there are not enough people in this country right now willing to do those jobs.
Wages will have to go up and hospitality will feel a squeeze between rents and wages. Rents won't go down overnight, so the prices customers have to pay will go up and all hospitality will be 10%-20% more expensive. I'm not sure that's what the government wanted to achieve for the everyday Londoner. Their intention may be noble, to give work to people in this country who want to work, but we can't find them.
How is Brexit affecting your imports from Italy?
We import our products fresh three times a week – all the Italian cheese, hams, lemons, oranges, basil, tomatoes, these all taste different in Italy. But with Brexit the issues have been around the amount of paperwork, which is way more complicated, and finding logistics partners and building reliability and consistency.
Some of our suppliers in Italy are very small, family-driven companies who weren't even exporting before we started buying their products, so they are not equipped to manage the paperwork, and so we've had to help them. If there are delays, products like Parmesan can keep, but it gets complicated with mozzarella, basil and oranges from Sicily.
But these problems are temporary, life changes and people are either in or out of Europe. This is not a political judgement, it was Britain's choice, and our choice – because I live here – so it is normal that there are adjustments. But every time you do something that is difficult, you're creating value. Guests can tell the difference.
Every time you do something that is difficult, you're creating value
How are you finding your staff?
I only have three restaurants and they work well, there's a lot of service charge, lots of tips, we can pay very well. Luckily, I can't complain compared to other restaurateur friends – many of my friends can't open a full restaurant. I'm finding the staff I need, but it's fucking hard and it doesn't feel sustainable.
Tell me about the Sunday app, which you launched during lockdown.
Sunday is the fastest way to pay your bill in a restaurant. You scan a QR code, you don't have to log in or register, and you see your bill. You can split it and add service charge and pay in two clicks. For Apple Pay or Google Pay users, which is 80% of Londoners right now, you can pay in seven seconds, instead of a process that usually takes 12 minutes.
Speeding up the payment using Sunday means staff are focused on attending to guests; they can bring you a limoncello, or ask if you have time for coffee, which now you do, because how many times did you say ‘no' to coffee or dessert because you didn't have time? Ten years ago you'd wait 10 minutes to hail a cab and now you order one on your phone, so there is no way this is not going to be happening in hospitality. Five years from now, no one will ask for a bill and a credit card machine: it's an ancient, useless, expensive and annoying remaining piece of technology in our lives.
And why did you call the app Sunday?
Because that whole project at the beginning was about re-empowering people with time for them to do whatever they want with it. Everybody likes to go fast, and what I hate about waiting for the bill is that it takes 12 minutes. During those 12 minutes I'm waiting and I'm not doing anything else; you can't wait and have a deep and meaningful chat. So I called it Sunday because it's Sundays that I use all the time I've gained in my week and I spend it how I like.
Would you consider using technology for ordering food at your restaurants?
There is ordering and there is payment. As far as the menu is concerned, you can look on your phone via a QR code, but I love a paper menu, and we love that our guests order with our waiters.
I'm not a huge fan of adding technology to restaurants because restaurants are a very good refuge away from technology. They're all about people, people, people. So, for me, it's about replacing existing technology in a way that's more seamless, cheaper and easier.
It's a little unusual to find a restaurateur who is also a technologist. How did this come about?
Before I co-founded Big Mamma Group I was chief executive of a technology platform. I was very passionate about hospitality and food, and I met my business partner around our passion for hospitality. We've partnered with the best technology people and we're doing this very seriously – but it's about restaurateurs doing stuff for restaurants.
So it's food first and technology second?
What keeps you up at night?
I'm as enthusiastic as I've ever been. It's a good time, we're reopening, and we're full of guests, and our team has been so frustrated by staying at home they're excited to be back taking care of guests. To be honest, it's been a worrying 18 months, but right now, it's summertime, and we're enjoying every moment.
Big numbers from Big Mamma
- Big Mamma Group has 17 sites: three in the UK, 12 in France and two in Spain. It employs 1,000 staff, 400 of which are based across the three London restaurants.
- 3,500 bottles of spirits line the walls at the 7,500 sq ft site Ave Mario.
- Every week, Ave Mario imports 620kg of burrata from Italy and sells 500 portions of its one-metre-tall Gelato Tower.
- 50,000 people pay with the Sunday app every week.
- Sunday app clients number into the thousands across the US, France, Spain and the UK. Businesses using it include the Hoxton, the JKS Group, Hoppers, Brigadiers, Gymkhana, Flor and Corbin & King restaurants the Wolseley, Belanger, Colbert, Brasserie Zédel and more.
Ave Mario's top dishes
From the new menu developed by head chef Andrea Zambrano
- Burrata al tartufo £14
- Giant ravioli alla carbonara £15
- Mean & Green £12
- La gran scallopina alla Milanese £15pp
- Giant stracciatella gelato £9
Photography: Food - lateef.photography; portraits - Guillaume Blot; interiors - Jérôme Galland
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