The owner of Melbourne’s Matteo’s knows it’s value, not price, that drives custom in tough economic times.
When I was growing up in the fish and chips shop my parents said, ‘See how hard it is to have a family business?’ They encouraged me to do accounting.
I worked as a waiter for three years. I hated it. There were no highs and lows. I kept working as a waiter. One day I was at a staff party and reality hit. The average age of the waiters was 45 years. I did not want to be a waiter when I was 45 years old.
I believe you can’t run a restaurant if you can’t do all the parts: what’s happening in the kitchen, how to carry a plate, how to balance the books. I love hospitality, but I need to make money. I believe accounting is the secret to my success.
Attending William Angliss College was like an apprenticeship. You need schooling and on-the-job training. With my apprentices, I’m all about doing the training. On the job I can teach you how to peel a carrot or how to carry a plate. But a lot of things I can’t teach—food sizes, how to write up a recipe, psychology.
I needed on-the-job experience. I rang Tansy’s and worked for nothing. Then Jacques Reymond opened. From him, I learnt how to deliver a quality product and make a profit. He taught me about lowering expectations, then exceeding them.
When I finished training a couple of guys approached me and said, ‘We want you to open a restaurant.’ I said, ‘There’s a recession coming, you have to go to the ’burbs. In the ’burbs, most people have paid off their homes, but want to stay local. They want parking rather than paying for a taxi.’
After the first month at Fedele’s, we put the prices up a bit, put on some professional waiters, put some real chefs in the kitchen, and it’s still going 20 years later.
I kept asking, ‘Am I making money? Where am I losing money?’ and taking action. It’s about timeliness. All the time I’ve been in business, I’ve operated from a cost-control point of view. Control your costs: look at your wastage, look at labour, look at food storage.
My wife was head chef at Fedele’s, I was front-of-house, so we had a good package. Starting again, we went from a tidy combined income to a negative. But I never thought we were making a mistake. Right from the start, I had an exit plan. While I had a 20-year lease, I broke it up so the rent was covered. All the furniture there was still the old Mietta’s furniture. I knew it was good. I knew I’d get back what I paid.
This recession is different. I started preparing six months ago. People who are dining in a recession don’t want cheap, they want value—and they have a cellar. A year ago, we said, ‘Bring your wine in any time you want’. It was
Christmas time so I’m fore-going a sale, but they’re thinking, ‘This place encourages you to bring your own wine, so you’ll get good food’.
When it came time for a natural price increase we didn’t put prices up. Instead we rejigged the menu. It took two per cent off the bottom line which I put down to marketing for future business. I don’t want you to come one night a year. I want you to come every 10 weeks and spend $100 a head. My customers are regulars. It’s the perception of value. We serve tap water but say ‘would you prefer mineral water?’ rather than customers feeling a bit cheated by having to pay extra at the end.
There’s a theory that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But in the restaurant industry, I think if it’s broken, you can’t fix it. Every four years I change chefs—it used to be every two years. The restaurant needs to evolve. But because it’s about regulars I try to change the waiters as little as possible. When a customer says, ‘I heard you have a new head chef’, the waiter can say, ‘I know what you like, why don’t you
try this?’ If you treat customers well, they act as your advertising—and it’s all word-of-mouth in our industry.