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Reaching the heights

RESTAURANTS worldwide seem to be here one day and gone the next. What enables a restaurant to survive and keep introducing new customers over its life, and what draws customers to become clients and return on a regular basis?

The basic question is: What makes a restaurant successful? I sat down with Steve Scafidi over a glass of wine and asked his thoughts on why his restaurant, Altos, has become one of Perth’s ultimate dining experiences.

The first thing you have to understand about Steve is that he is seriously passionate about food and wine. He trained as a chef and has worked in the hospitality industry abroad and here in Australia, spending a number of years in Melbourne at various places, including the infamous Walters Wine Bar.

Steve returned home to Perth in 1996 and began to create Altos.

There’s always a degree of risk when you decide to start a restaurant that is innovative in a city like Perth.

Steve, however, believed that Perth was ready for the style of dining he was planing.

“It wouldn’t have happened without the enormous support of not only family and friends, but also the trade,” he said.

“We had plenty of knockers who suggested that the restaurant would become just another statistic.”

Steve drew on the experience of working with Phil Sexton. When he moved out of the dining scene and sold a number of the very successful restaurants he helped create – such as Oriole, King Street in the late 1990s – Mr Sexton left behind a legacy, which showed that hospitality is a professional and serious business.

Service staff particularly benefited from what Mr Sexton began. The hospitality industry was now an acceptable career choice.

Steve remembers Mr Sexton talking about trying not to allow passion and aesthetics get in the way of building a serious business. The ultimate aim in surviving is consistency, he said.

The great restaurants all over the world have one thing in common, consistency, and standards that are never compromised.

So the concept of Altos was created around providing a great dining experience. Steve wanted to share his passion for food and wine in a relaxed ‘bistro’ type of environment.

“(We wanted) savvy, relaxed dining, we didn’t want to invent dishes for punters to dissect,” he said.

“We were looking to capitalise on traditional dishes.”

The first menus at Altos were created from traditional Italian dishes, made-to-order risotto, hand-made pasta dishes and the like. It is simple food but uncompromising on the quality of produce used in the dishes.

“When we sit down to put together a new dish it has to be the sort of meal that, when you sit down and eat it you think ‘that was really good,’” Steve said.

“More importantly when you wake up the next morning you think, I want to have that dish again. You do not need fancy sauces and exotic ingredients to produce interesting and tasty food.”

Getting the food right is only one of the ingredients for successful restaurant. Front-of-house management is another ingredient that distinguishes the good from the bad.

Steve is sensitive to the climate of customer service. He searches for staff who are professionals, people who share his passion for what Altos is trying to provide. The staff are well informed, well trained and obviously enjoy what they are doing.

Altos has a very low turnover of staff, retaining their staff for an average of three years – a sign that they are treated as professions and enjoy the environment in which they work. There would be only a small number of other restaurants in Perth that would maintain the standards that Altos expects from its team.

It is a culture of service that probably started in the 1990s but, unfortunately, it seems Perth hasn’t moved much further on. We still don’t respect service staff as professionals in Perth.

Perhaps if we introduced a culture of tipping staff, customers and owners would be forced to change the attitude and lift the bar to a new level. You have to question if the award wage system works in hospitality, when you travel to parts of the world which have career service staff.

In recent years, Altos has created a culture of enjoyable and relaxed dining – a quality food and wine experience. Testament to having all the right ingredients in place is the fact that numbers through the restaurant are not declining.

Steve agrees that he and his team are always learning and always making small changes.

“We have even, over the past few months, made the restaurant brighter,” he said.

“We are not giving in to those who have questioned the lighting in the past, it is just another part of the changes you need to keep making to stay in touch with what is happening around you.

“We are all passionate about what we are doing and realise you can’t get complacent. We have a great lifestyle in Perth and eating out is now a very important part of that life style,

“I am thankful that people have embraced Altos as part of that lifestyle.”

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