You quietly took over Sale e Pepe in 2022. What attracted you to the place?
I used to go there with my parents as a kid, I have lots of great memories. It was such an institution back then, attracting A-listers, business tycoons and royalty. And they continue to come. Sale e Pepe has amazing DNA but it is tired and needs love. It launched in 1974 and hasn’t changed much since. The owner (Toni Corricelli) knew it needed to change but he didn't have the energy or knowhow to move it into the 21st century. Despite this, the business is in super financial shape. For a restaurant of its size (the Knightsbridge venue is just 1,300sq ft) the numbers are insane.
How did the deal come about?
I have been interested in acquiring an Italian restaurant for a while. I was having lunch there and Toni and I just got chatting. He had a bunch of offers on the table from the big names, some of which had bid more than I did. But he has done very well for himself over the years. For Toni, it was about legacy and finding someone that could carry on the restaurant’s traditions while also bringing something new. So far we have taken a softly-softly approach – including improving the existing menu, tightening the service, putting in proper back of house systems and installing a sound system for the first time - but that will all change when we relaunch next month.
Tell us about your vision for Sale e Pepe 2.0
The space hasn’t been touched since the 1970s. It was a total relic. We’ve worked with a luxury residential agency called Hamilford Design because I didn’t want it to be a copy-and-paste job from other restaurant designs. The key inspirations are coming from Puglia (where Corricelli was born) and Milan. We will marry together the rusticness of southern Italy with the aesthetic of a luxury Milanese townhouse. It will be sophisticated, comfortable and homely. We are reducing the number of covers from 77 to around 72. Before, people were practically sitting on each other’s laps. We are expecting to launch mid next month, we’re not doing anything structural so the fit out will only take five weeks or so.
What about the food?
There will be classics from the restaurant’s original iteration intermixed with some lighter options, including a big selection of crudo dishes. We will also shift from individual portions to more of a family-style approach. I like to graze when I eat out. But the old Sale e Pepe will be a big inspiration - we are keeping 30 to 40% of the old menu. It’s just the size and presentation that are being reimagined. And, to be honest, when we came in some shortcuts were being taken in the kitchen, we have put the emphasis back on fresh ingredients. Italian food is about great produce.
How many staff have you retained?
We have tried to keep as many of the staff we inherited as possible but some of them simply could not keep up with us. Others didn’t want to change their ways. We needed consistency. Before we took over, a guest's experience was dictated by which server or manager they had looking after their table. To try and compensate, poor Toni was having to work very long hours. There was also a hardcore hierarchy system when we came in. The way the restaurant was run was old school, there wasn’t much of a focus on looking after the team, which often impacted on the guest experience.
Is it fair to say that Sale e Pepe attracts an older crowd at the moment?
Yes. When we took it on most of the customers were late 40s and above. We are gradually bringing the age down by ensuring there is energy in the room but we don’t want to take it too low. At the moment, the average spend on wine is very high. The problem with people in their 20s is that in general they are not that interested in great wine. At the moment, it is not at all unusual to see lots of tables with £400 plus bottles of wine. When I first took it on I thought that the majority of customers would be Middle Eastern, but our biggest demographic is Americans, closely followed by locals. We want to attract a sophisticated, food-orientated crowd that understands what it wants.
Los Mochis City was originally set to launch in autumn last year. Why is it so delayed?
There have been infrastructure issues in the building (100 Liverpool Street) that we have no control over. We will now launch in March with the omakase restaurant set to follow in the summer. It’s going to be mega. The site is 14,000sq ft and we have a huge roof terrace. The fit out is costing £9m.
How do you fund your projects?
We are very blessed with our backers. I can draw upon some of the biggest names in finance both here and in the US. All of our stakeholders are high net worth individuals. We have not taken any institutional money, although we have had offers. We are investing heavily at a time when a lot of people are freaking out about the economy. But all the success I have had in this business have been launched during tough times. When things are good, any muppet can do well.
You made your name in the Middle East with restaurants including OKKU and CLAW. Do you still have any restaurants over there?
No. I have divested from them. Everybody is trying to go East right now, but I'm going West. There are some very successful operations in the Middle East but there are also a lot of restaurants that are doing poorly. There are big challenges with profitability and staffing. We are finding that a lot of people that swapped London for places like Dubai are now looking to return. It’s difficult to find a good employer out there.
What’s the plan once Sale e Pepe and Los Mochis City are up and running?
We will grow both Los Mochis and Sale e Pepe internationally while looking at more acquisitions and brand partnerships. We have an exceptional team and a great deal of bandwidth. Our first priority will be the US. I’m not sure if any independent UK-based operator has ever done it properly. We are deep in discussions on a site in Miami. We want to open in New York at some point and I also like the look of Dallas.