Wisdom: George Belperio

The Fasta Pasta founder and Restaurant & Catering South Australia’s Lifetime Achiever on growing queues, being the boss and listening to staff

George-Fasta-PastaRT_webIt dawned on me once I finished law that I would be a glorified social worker for the rest of my life. But as a waiter people would come with problems but all they wanted was food, a joke and your knowledge. I was fortunate to have a mentor, Vittorio Ventura. He had owned three restaurants already. He’d build them up, sell them, go to Europe. Come back, open another. He said, “I’ll run the kitchen, you run the floor.” We pooled our resources and opened La Mensa in 1979. It ran away from us.

Italian restaurants then all had white rendered walls, chianti bottles, a pizza section in front, bar at the back. Instead, we made the bar a central feature, opened up the kitchen so people could see, had blue walls, Bruegel prints and not an Air Italia poster in sight. We stumbled on a chef who had just arrived from Italy so we had spaghetti with crab in the shell, fried pasta as well as spaghetti Bolognese. The food was good and everything was great value. We always had a queue.

We opened a gelato bar with 80 seats across the road: Al Fresco. We thought it could take the overlap: once people had eaten I’d say, “Take the family over the road; the food is on me” and free up a table. After six months that too was packed.

We bought a building as an investment in the future, so we could be our own landlords and in 1982 we opened Marco Polo. That ran away too. It was different decor, a different menu, but similar feel. We kept the gelato bar as insurance. Once Marco Polo was off and running we sold Al Fresco.

We had queues but we knew how to handle that. People love to be in a busy place because of its atmosphere. Concierges would send us people. We had a basement in Marco Polo on the ground floor, which had 180 seats in it. The Al Fresco experiment allowed us to try something new again. So we spent $120,000—a fair bit in those days—and created a pasta bar. The idea behind it was that we’d sell it in a couple of years.

It was the combination of a lot of the things we knew. We had three machines extruding pasta in public on view, so there’s a show. People don’t go out to eat—the food has to be good—but people go out for the dining experience.

In 1990 we did our second Fasta Pasta. I wasn’t blown away with the turnover, which was huge, but that we had this system we’d created. People came to the counter, ordered food, bought their own drinks at the bar. We didn’t give them a number—that’s part of the service—but we bought food to their table. I worked the first fortnight in the second place and I remember when someone came, handed me $20, gave their order, bought a carafe and sat down. It dawned on me we’d created a system. No-one asked ‘how do you know where I’ll be?’ The word franchise wasn’t used, but we were getting friends, a couple of reps asking. We went into partnership. Before we knew it we had eight or nine. I had to go back to school to learn about franchising.

When you own half a restaurant you can still be the boss. When you franchise, you own the name but they own the restaurant. Picking the right franchisees is a key to the success. There are now 39 Fasta Pastas in Australia.

You have to start with rules. We have one marketing agency Australia-wide. What works in one state won’t necessarily work in another—you have to be flexible. Never become store blind. So many people walk in the back door of their restaurant. They miss the basic things, don’t see the cobwebs, the smeared windows. Never park out the front or let the staff use the best car parks—leave the good things for your customers.

I don’t mind dissent. Involve people in decision-making. The people at the coal face, they know what’s going on. They know what works. You have to listen.

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