Family-friendly hospitality and fresh food are essential ingredients behind the longevity of an Applecross favourite. Carolyn Herbert reports.
IT’S common to see il Ciao Ristorante Pizzeria co-owner Sar Perruzza offering complimentary slices of pizza to the loyal customers queueing for a table.
With its traditional Italian cuisine, il Ciao has become something of an Applecross institution, with its first-come-first-serve and BYO approach appealing to locals and customers from as far as the Perth hills.
“There is a no-booking policy for fewer than ten people and this is because it’s not fair for people to miss out. We have so many people coming through, it’s about giving everyone a chance to enjoy the food,” Mr Perruzza told Gusto.
il Ciao opened its doors in 1989, with Mr Perruzza, his brother Rob and their parents buying the business in 1997.
“We knew we wanted to run our own restaurant, but at that time Leederville was very expensive and Fremantle was oversaturated,” Mr Perruzza says.
While Mr Perruzza’s mother had worked as a restaurant cook for most of her life, Mr Perruzza had no experience in the hospitality industry.
“I came from a debt collection and finance background, but mum has been cooking her entire life,” he says.
Mr Perruzza says running a restaurant with no previous experience was challenging on a number of fronts.
“In the first six months I worked over 100 hours a week. I would be not only serving, and cooking but painting and fixing windows,” he says.
“We found the whole administration part of running a restaurant quite hard, particularly with regard to looking after staff and doing the books.”
The Perruzzas learned how to deal with these issues as they went, with their decision to offer discounts through the ‘Entertainment Book’ providing a real fillip for the business.
“It just exploded here when we put il Ciao in the Entertainment Book for the first time,” Mr Perruzza says.
“And in 2001 and 2002 we won the award for ‘best family restaurant in Perth’ and I value that award so much because it is awarded by the people.”
Mr Perruzza believes maintaining a family focus and providing quality, value-for-money food is the key to keeping il Ciao competitive.
“I feel like compared to previous owners we have more of a family focus and Italian culture is about kids, eating and looking after people,” he says.
“When we purchased this business there were probably around six restaurants around us; now there are 42 in the area, so we have kept up with the competition and even gotten busier over the years.”
While his mother has added her own signature dishes to the menu, Mr Perruzza found some customers resisting the changes made to the original menu.
“We kept a few of the dishes that the locals really liked, but the problem that we have is that I’ve thought about changing certain dishes, but you can’t, because people come in and often want the same thing each time,” he says.
However, Mr Perruzza says it’s important to be flexible to accommodate customer requests.
“Everything we make is cooked fresh, so we can tailor meals to suit everyone. I think that sets us apart because a lot of restaurants don’t accept menu changes,” he says.
The BYO model of il Ciao is another element of the dining experience that has proven popular with its patrons.
“In 2006, 49 per cent of all restaurants were BYO and now only around 11 per cent are BYO,” Mr Perruzza says. “A lot of people in the area have big wine cellars, so they can feel free to bring a $100 bottle of wine that would normally cost them $300 in a licensed restaurant.”
Despite il Ciao’s customer base continuing to grow, Mr Perruzza says finding qualified staff is becoming more of an issue for the hospitality industry.
“With the next boom we might have to start looking at getting skilled workers from overseas, because we are finding that chefs are going up north to work on the mines and get paid $180,000,” he says.
“Also, wages account for about 42 per cent of our turnover when it should be more like 30 to 33 percent; the government has made changes to penalty rates and we have had to be competitive.”
The Perruzzas have no plans to expand the il Ciao name, but are focused on continuing to provide value-for-money meals in a hospitable environment.
“We love families and we look after the kids very well and when you are nice to people, the business will flow from there,” Mr Perruzza says.