“We try to get all our fresh tomatoes from Pachino,” says Carlo Distefano, in near-perfect English, although with a heavy Italian accent. Pachino is a location I later look up and find is a small town in the province of Syracuse, Sicily.
“They’re much sweeter from there, really tasty,” he adds, wistfully. “And I insist that all our tinned tomatoes come from Gerardo Di Nola [a brand] because they come from Naples, in southern Italy – where the sun shines.
"They cost more, of course, but they’re delicious, and I get a good deal when I tell them ‘I buy the lot!’, and that’s what I do for all my restaurants. Yes, the profit is less, but I want the very best.”
It may seem strange to be talking tomatoes for BQ, but I did ask Carlo, the founder and chairman of the San Carlo Group of restaurants, for the secret behind his company’s success, and an expansion that has defied the recession. As far as the 69-year-old is concerned, it’s all about quality ingredients.
“The aubergines and peppers from Ragusa,” he says, referring to another province in Sicily, the island of his birth. “The artichokes from Rome, and the chianini beef from Tuscany.
“And the truffles from Alba,” he continues, now talking up the reputation of produce from a town in the province of Cuneo, in Italy’s Piedmont region.
After reeling off the list of ingredients and origins, Carlo pauses, seemingly for effect, and then adds with passion: “To be a successful restaurateur, you have to believe in what you do. Do you want only profit? Ha, then you will have failure!
“Instead, you have to imagine how you would like to eat yourself, and what you are prepared to spend on creating the perfect dish. The answer is always quality ingredients and yes, the profit is not so great, but the originality, you keep that special.
“So my approach is very different in that I bring the products I love for Italian cooking to England from Italy, and we have huge shipments twice a week to make this happen. For me, it’s important that the customer has real, original Italian. No imitations.”
At this point, Carlo takes a quick call on his mobile and Marcello, his eldest son and a group director, tells me more: “At one point competition was really hard, with many Italian food imitators, but at every stage, every decision we made was to be even more Italian.
“Dad’s always insisted that to grow we need to retain the quality of our ingredients, and therefore build and keep honesty with customers. Good Italian food is down to the simplicity of cooking, so the ingredients have to be very good, the best. Without this it can’t be a success.”
Carlo hangs up and continues as if he’s never paused: “We never, ever give ‘two-for-one’ offers like other restaurants – we have no discounts. Others have so many discounts customers end up not really valuing their food. But here, they know the price, they know the quality and they keep on coming.
“Instead of discounts, we concentrate on the food to improve it. I send all my chefs to Italy five times a year to keep them fresh, to keep their skills.”
Then he’s off on another phone call, leaving Marcello to add: “People want to eat out in 2013, it’s part of their daily lives in a way that it never used to be. And they want value – in terms of great food for a good price – rather than discounts. Rather than thinking about he high costs of a dish, we think: ‘does the price of the dish sound fair?
“Restaurants, I’ve learned, can become greedy. You can make much bigger profits with cheaper ingredients, and by offering discounts, but once you start doing either it’s not very good for the business.”
Carlo’s back again: “I want people to come out and say ‘fantastic’... the atmosphere, the service, the quality of food. I don’t want them to say just ‘OK’. My restaurants are making classic Italian food. People may think it’s expensive, but customers keep coming because they know what they want, and what they are prepared to pay.”
Trying to explain his father’s passion, Marcello says: “When I decided I wanted to come into the business, he said this is a lifestyle not just a job.”
And Carlo immediately picks up the theme: “I still work seven days a week. I drive around 1,200 miles a week to visit all my restaurants. Well, I have a driver, but I’m working all the time on the phone.”
He tells me somewhat sheepishly that his car is a Rolls Royce Ghost. “It’s his only pleasure in life,” Marcello points out.
“Ha,” agrees Carlo, “Pleasure? I have had no holidays – except when my daughter was married – in ten years. Do you know why? This is my holiday! My pleasure.” Carlo then explains how he runs his business hands on, either face-to-face or on his constantly ringing mobile phone.
“No email,” he declares, “I don’t do that. Phone, or one-to-one, that’s how I do business. I’m always at one of the restaurants, and my car is my office, and I phone each manager at least ten times a day."
Really? “Yes, ten times a day!” Carlo’s suddenly remembered something and so, once again, he picks up the phone, this time dialling himself to bark away pleasantly but firmly in Italian to one of his managers in London, Manchester, Leeds or another city.
He makes another point as soon as he hangs up, as if the phone call was simply a punctuation mark: “I pay my staff wages, not by the hour, whether it’s quiet or not they get paid. We treat them properly. And that makes another difference in our quality – staff loyalty.”
The San Carlo Group has twelve restaurants around the UK and four in the Middle and Far East, with more on the way. But it all started in Temple Street, Birmingham.
“Birmingham is the one in my heart,” Carlo says, “because it’s the first one I opened on my own. My biggest success. With this one comes a lot of emotion. Birmingham has been very good to me. Most people are very friendly.”
Carlo still lives near the city, in the plush village of Barnt Green, where former Aston Villa boss Ron Atkinson is his neighbour – “and one of my first and best customers”.
But his phone is vibrating again, and other members of staff are waiting to speak to him, probably about the next tomato deal... I get up to go and he wants to add something: “I’m a restaurateur – not a chef.
“I hire the chefs. I’m front of house, I create the atmosphere, the quality service.” I press on this point to confirm his meaning: “So, to be successful in this business you need to be a pure restaurateur, not a famous chef?”
And Carlo responds with what I now see is his typical short, decision-making style: “Si, that’s the secret.”
Then, as I’m on my way out, he speaks again, not even telling his latest caller to hold the line, but simply putting a hand over the receiver: “Hey, I open on Christmas Day! Do you know why? I was bored one Christmas Day and so I opened the restaurant. Then I did it the next year. Now all my restaurants open Christmas Day. All of them, except London, but who knows this year...”
Working every Christmas, taking no holidays... as a friendly, parting question I ask 69-year-old Carlo whether he’ll ever retire? He produces an Italian shrug and says: “I’ve no intention of retiring. If I find an alternative, I’ll stop.
“But I haven’t!” And then he’s back on the phone, and I’m off, quickly transcribing my shorthand to make sure I remember who was speaking when during this fast and furious conversation.