Restaurant business

Andrew Macleod on his restaurant business Emilia’s Crafted Pasta

Emilia’s Crafted Pasta’s third and final restaurant marks the group’s first foray into competitive socializing, albeit in a rather low-key way. Opened about a month ago, the Canary Wharf site has a pétanque table in its bar area. “It’s a concept similar to shuffleboard, which is only played with balls,” says Emilia founder Andrew Macleod, who had to revamp the format of his pasta restaurant group to create a site bigger “lighthouse” when Canary Wharf offered it more space in its Wood Wharf development. , which is also home to a floating Hawksmoor.

“The building was supposed to be two separate units, but then they [Canary Wharf] realized that there was not enough power for two operators, so they offered the whole thing to us,” he says. “We have chosen to set up a bar area with a separate menu, which is a first for us. We had to think very seriously before taking such a big space because it’s not a time when you want to increase the risks (the site was first seen by Macleod just before the pandemic but was acquired during locking).

Macleod knows a thing or two about risk and return, having funded the first Emilia’s using proceeds from a poker business he started while studying for a math degree. “Poker paid for college. We have hosted corporate events, home games and high stakes private games. It was kind of like Molly’s Game (a 2017 movie about a woman who ran underground games for the rich) but on a smaller scale. And we never took a rake so it was all above board.

A passion for pasta

Second only to college poker is pasta. Macleod became obsessed with cooking the dish from scratch and found himself frustrated with the gap between what he made at home and what was served in casual restaurants.

“It just didn’t do Italy justice. Sure there was good pasta available in upmarket places for £20 plus a bowl, but what was on offer from the big chains and independents the old way for about a decade was horrible.I wanted to do something about it.

That’s exactly what Macleod did, coming up with the lean, specialty pasta concept that would become Emilia’s in her final year of college before she took the time to travel around Italy to talk to chefs. and home cooks.

“This was before Airbnb, so I used www.couchsurfing.com. I would ask my hosts where to eat and some would cook for me. In all my interactions with people, my goal was to get to the bottom of the matter “Why is it so good the way you do it?”

Macleod launched Emila’s in 2016 aged 25 just east of the Tower of London at St Katherine’s Dock. The small site required a total investment of just under £150,000, with its founder contributing 25% of the capital and the remaining money coming from a handful of his poker contacts.

Coincidentally, 2016 was also the year Tim Siadatan and Jordan Frieda launched Padella, the Borough Market restaurant that started a trend for high-quality yet affordable pasta restaurants in the capital and beyond. But Emilia’s three locations – the middle child being a restaurant in Aldgate launched in 2019 – differ from Padella and the Lina Stores, Pastaio, Bancone and Cin Cin stores in that they offer platters of pasta the size of a main course rather than small plates.

“That’s key for us. I see it as a more traditional approach. People don’t really share their pasta in Italy and would only have one plate per meal. Another difference is that we generally focus on Italian ingredients and traditional Italian dishes, while some of the other pasta restaurants have more British influences and use more British ingredients.

Despite these differences, Macleod certainly sees Emilia’s as a key player in London’s new wave pasta scene. “The success of the expanded category is good for everyone. There is a much better understanding of what is and what is not good pasta now.

Feast

A pan-regional approach

Despite its name, Emilia’s draws inspiration from Italy as a whole. Macleod says he chose the name because the northern region of Emilia-Romagna is the source of many of his group’s key ingredients – including Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar and some of his cured meats – and is also where some of Italy’s most famous pasta recipes hail from.

The offer is tight, with a total of eight pasta dishes available including casarecce with homemade pesto; pappardelle with Bolognese sauce; and lamb ravioli served with a sage and butter sauce.

There is an equally concise range of side dishes, with menu subcategories including antipasti, salads and sides. The style and layout of the menu is reminiscent of the national pizza chain Franco Manca, with handwritten font and each pasta dish numbered. The menus are identical on the three sites.

Prices are roughly in line with the big Italian chains that Macleod is looking to take on; if anything, it undercuts the likes of ASK Italian and Zizzi with pasta dishes ranging from £9 to £13.95. Everything is prepared from start to finish on site in each restaurant, with the only things purchased being the restaurant’s bread and ice cream, which come from London and Italy respectively.

It’s hard to maintain prices in the face of steep increases in the cost of ingredients, but the math expert and former poker player has a trick up his sleeve: he really has a kick at making it all add up. . “So far we have managed to keep prices low by playing with the numbers. I appreciated restructuring the menu in such a way that we could more than absorb these increases.

The lean group structure coupled with Macleod’s hands-on approach also helped in this regard. The group’s head office is small for a growing group – just an operations director, marketing manager, HR and finance manager and HR and finance assistant – and the Macleod project manages as much as humanly possible on its own. itself, in particular its restaurant constructions.

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Do things differently

Macleod’s borderline obsessive desire to control every aspect of his business isn’t the only thing that sets Emilia’s apart as a group that does things a little differently from its peers.

“I had never worked in a restaurant before starting Emilia’s,” explains Macleod. “A few days after the first site launched, a member of the team suggested that it might be a good idea to have a rotation. My lack of experience meant that we ended up taking a different approach to many aspects of the business.

Emilia’s never really sought to employ skilled chefs, with Macleod taking care of all food development despite having no professional kitchen experience. Despite this, Emilia’s has a good reputation in food circles and the press for its pasta (it received a rave review on the Metro shortly after its launch and is on many “best” lists). .

“Pasta is something that people eat a lot at home. It’s critical that we create something that people think is worth dining out for,” he says.

Another thing that sets Emilia apart is her commitment to being 100% debt free. “We were very disciplined. We managed to make the first work perfectly before launching the second. So far, the expansion has been completely organic.

Macleod would seem to have targeted a similar area and demographic so far, with all of its sites currently in areas that could broadly be described as city-focused. But that’s by accident rather than design.

“I would like to say that we have a strategy, but that’s not really the case. I am completely business oriented. I don’t mean that in the traditional sense, though. Obviously, finances are important, but so is the relationship with the owner.

Given its portfolio, Emilia’s has been badly exposed by the pandemic but has pulled through thanks to having established a collaborative relationship with its owner.

“We have suffered enormously from the pandemic. Aldgate in particular is very dependent on the City. Everyone in the company got burned. But those who took the right locations at the right rents with the right landlords and ran their businesses in a measured and reasonable way got a little less burnt out,” says Macleod, who ruled out bringing Emilia to high-rent areas such than Soho and Covent Garden because “the numbers just don’t match”.

With the new Canary Wharf site expected to generate as much revenue as the previous two Emilias combined, there might not be such a big gap between site three and site four, but Macleod is adamant that each new restaurant will be better than the one before it. this.

“There’s an idea in restaurants that when something’s small it’s good, and when it gets big it’s crap. Avoiding this has been at the forefront of everything we do.

For each site, our goal is that from a brand, trade and quality control point of view, we must improve. I want to grow to improve what we do, not to turn away from it.