Umberto Tinelli is preparing to wind-up his career in the hospitality sector ... again. Russell Quinn reports.
KNOWING when to walk away from a successful business or entertainment career can often be as difficult as making that first million. Often, work is such a major part of a person’s identity, it’s hard to know when to say ‘enough’s enough’.
Just think of all the sports stars who have come back from injury one time too many, or played one season past their prime.
And what about Australia’s own ‘Whispering Jack’, John Farnham, who’s still belting out a tune despite having (apparently) wound up his career with the 2002 album ‘The Last Time’.
Choosing the right moment to pull the pin has also been a challenge for famed Perth restaurateur Umberto Tinelli, who has twice hinted at ending his lengthy career in the hospitality profession, only to have it resurrected by another opportunity he “couldn’t pass up”.
Renowned for his hands-on approach to work and jovial, talkative manner, Mr Tinelli made his first tilt at retirement in 2000 when he sold Campo di Fiore in Applecross due to family reasons (after selling Chianti on Colin in 1992).
The next year he bought a West Perth building at the corner of Colin and Richardson streets that was to become his next venture, Il Principe Gran Caffe.
Il Principe was intended to keep him on site to manage the redevelopment of the property into a 14-storey apartment block and secure a slight return on his investment, but the restaurant quickly became a favourite among West Perth’s largely corporate clientele.
“When I was there (Il Principe) I said ‘when I sell this, then never again’,” Mr Tinelli told Gusto.
In 2004, however, a liquidator approached him regarding the purchase of JoJo’s Restaurant in Nedlands, which was in receivership.
Considering West Perth’s redevelopment plans didn’t include a restaurant, Mr Tinelli saw JoJo’s as an opportunity to maintain a foothold in the industry.
A man of strong religious faith, Mr Tinelli suggests it was divine intervention that saved him from leaving the industry on both occasions.
He says he plans to sell JoJo’s Cafe towards the end of the year and wind-up a career he maintains he ‘fell into’ after arriving in Perth in 1976 with limited English, formal qualifications as a teacher, a background in sales and marketing, and a Perth-born wife.
“Now I’m saying the same (retirement) and people say ‘you always say that’,” he says.
“And I tell them, I said he (God) helped me twice and … after the third one I know I will have no chance.”
During 2005 he refurbished the old JoJo’s, turning the front into a small, simple cafe while converting the back into a 190-seat function room with an adjoining lounge bar.
Mr Tinelli says he invested about $2.3 million buying and refurbishing the property, which now includes the Acqua Viva function centre.
But the increasing popularity of the cafe meant existing kitchen facilities needed improvement, so he spent a further $200,000 updating cooking equipment in 2008.
Mr Tinelli says he personally hosts about 200 private and corporate events a year at the Acqua Viva function centre as a way of maintaining direct contact with his customers.
And although he wouldn’t detail turnover figures (beyond saying “it’s very good”), the business shows no sign of slowing with at least 70 forward bookings scheduled between now and December 2011 following consistent patronage during the past 12-18 months despite the economic downturn.
He says the value of hosting functions and events of all sizes far outshines any sort of cafe or restaurant offering he has overseen in years gone by.
“If I knew before what I know now (about the events business) I would’ve been retired a long time ago,” Mr Tinelli says.
Focusing on the events business has also helped to overcome staffing difficulties he experienced at his other high-end restaurants.
He can now largely employ students as wait-staff because serving at events is much easier than fine dining.
Central to all of his operations is a belief that hospitality is a philosophy, not simply a job or service, and Mr Tinelli insists he treats his customers as he would a guest in his own home.
As such, relationships with customers remain paramount, maintained with acts of generosity ranging from unsolicited (and often unacknowledged) bottles of wine with dinner to hosting three or four functions each year at no charge (usually worth $5,000-$10,000) for charities usually linked to key patrons with whom he has established strong relations.