A LEANING towards perfectionism has served Umberto Tinelli well during his many years in the Perth restaurant scene. He is aware of the smallest aspect of his business and if something is out of place he wants to set it right.
The man who developed Tinelli’s, Chianti on Colin, and Campo de Fiori is distracted by a mark on a couch adjacent to where he is seated during our interview at his West Perth restaurant, Il Principe Gran Caffe. But, ever the impeccable host, Mr Tinelli will wait until the interview has finished before tending to the imperfection.
It is his eye for detail, his passion, his intensity and a keen sense of the industry that has helped him create some of Perth’s most cherished restaurants.
“The formula is easy,” he said. “You have to be there 17 hours a day and you have to be serious. That is the important part.”
Mr Tinelli “stumbled” into the restaurant business in the mid 1980s, taking up a job offer from Harry Ferrante, and he has since mastered the art of attracting the punters.
He is now in the enviable situation where clients travel to him, no matter where he sets up next.
Mr Tinelli believes that creating a successful venue requires long days, attention to detail and maintaining a consistent product offering.
“They will all tell you the same thing. Good prices, fresh ingredients, good service; that is the secret,” he said.
“The problem is to maintain that. What something starts as today, doesn’t end up being the same way.
“The real secret is how to keep the consistency.”
Mr Tinelli manages and maintains the consistency by being very hands-on. He is an impeccable maitre’d who insists on taking the orders of his diners and thanking them for their custom.
“We all have the same food, the same prices, we have to be above the rest and we do that with service,” Mr Tinelli said.
And while acknowledging the good service staff he worked with, Mr Tinelli said he took orders to manage the product.
“If I am selling something to someone I don’t want them to have the wrong meal,” he said. “Because I know that if they get the wrong dish they won’t be happy. If they start asking questions about what is in this and what is in that, then I ask them questions and suggest something that I know they will like, and 90 per cent of the time I am right.
“I always thank them one by one, table by table, and I know what is happening on all the tables.
“My people tell me if they have left more than what we think is normal on the plate and I find out why.”
Success and celebrity – or at least the celebrity that comes with the recognition of the individual as the focal point for a restaurant’s image – can have a down side, however.
How does the food-loving public separate Umberto Tinelli from his restaurants? Are potential buyers wary of buying in to such successful operations?
“There will always be someone who thinks they are smarter and there are people who are smarter than me,” he said.
“Some people think they can do a good job. The classic example is Chianti (on Colin). I sold that and it kept going for eight to 10 years under Brian Greenwood.”
Mr Greenwood has since sold the restaurant.
Campo de Fiori, however, was a different story and its new owners struggled after purchasing the lease from Mr Tinelli in 2000.
Mr Tinelli opened the restaurant in 1993 and it was a trading success. Yet the new owners, South African couple Yvette and Duncan Barker, managed a little over a year before going into administration in February 2001.
The restaurant was then sold to Hans Lang and Marianne Kempf, who, aware of the Tinelli association, renamed it Gala Restaurant.
In his long history of building and selling restaurants Mr Tinelli has never actively put one on the market. His most recent sale was Applecross restaurant, Rigoletto, which opened earlier this year.
“I saw this place closed for months and months and I like to revive restaurants. I was approached to buy it and so I bought it.”
Mr Tinelli believes his “people” are important in helping to maintain his secret success ingredient – consistency.
“My staff are motivated by the success of the restaurant itself. I tend to have two categories of staff. The ones who have been with me for years and I know their families and their needs,” he said.
“I employ family people and, yes, they become my family. The young ones also become my family but some stay and some don’t.
“I can’t look after everyone so I have someone like Vincenzo [head chef] oversee them and if they don’t do it our way he informs me.”
Mr Tinelli also believes restaurateurs should not be all things to all people.
“If you know your market you can give them what they want. If you are everything to everyone you lose control,” he said.
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