Any other business

Filling Britain's bellies has dished up a £60m payday for this Italian restaurateur

6 min read

13 July 2016

Former deputy editor

Carlo Distefano’s first experience of the working world saw him work in a barbershop, but fast forward to the present day and his family-owned San Carlo restaurant group is generating a turnover of £60m.

In the latest of our Business Class profiles, Distefano details his love of the food industry. Of course, he has every reason to love it – his empire of Italian restaurants now comprises 16 restaurants across the UK.

With three in the capital, including locations such as Piccadilly, Covent Garden and Knightsbridge, a fourth restaurant is on the way to the city, which will build on the firm’s overall annual turnover of £60m.

In addition to London, San Carlo also has venues in Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool, Leicester and Birmingham, while international growth has resulted in launches in Qatar and Bangkok, adding up to an employee count of 1,000 people.

Having refused numerous acquisition offers, Distefano still sits on the board as chairman and is incredibly active, driving some 1,200 miles a week, while his son Marcello Distefano is the MD.

(1) Were you born into wealth or has your success been self-made?

I certainly wasn’t born into wealth, I was born and raised in Sicily, in a tiny house, we couldn’t afford to eat meat very often but we grew our own produce and my mama could make very basic ingredients taste good.

(2) How much did your first job pay?

My first job in 1962 paid £7 a week, I was a hairdresser in Leeds.

(3) You have achieved business success with the restaurant industry. How lucrative has the marketplace been for you, and what excites you most about what you do?

The food and the people are my passion. It’s my life and what’s driven me to keep working six days a week, travelling 1,200 miles a week to see visit our teams and see how our restaurants are performing.

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(4) How have you managed to keep the business family-owned all this time, and why did you decide to reject acquisition offers?

I’ve turned down so many offers to buy the business, but what would I do then? This is my life and my passion, almost all my children now work in the business, sharing the pride and passion I have for it and we continue to grow the business together, retaining the values that are important to us.

There are so many restaurants out there, we stick to our principle values – we don’t believe in portion control or using centralised kitchens, we believe in having great, talented chefs who work with the best ingredients. I’m happy when I see an empty plate, the loyalty of our diners means we must be doing something right.

(5) What has business ownership taught you about money management?

I’m very careful with my money, I always have been, but if I really want or believe in something, I will go for it. I’ve learned my instincts are usually good.

(6) Tell us about your smartest investments

The acquisition of Signor Sassi on Knightsbridge Green near Harrods; because we nurtured it and it opened the door to the rest of the world for us. From that restaurant we signed a multi-site deal to open across the Middle East and beyond.

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(7) Do you get more satisfaction from spending or saving your money?

Money is not what drives me, my passion for food and this business is what drives me.

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(8) What are your most expensive hobbies?

Even when I earned very little I would save and eat at the best restaurants – from the Dorchester to Simpsons and the Savoy. That’s when I realised this would be my life, I still enjoy it today.

(9) Most prized possession?

I would have to say my car; I have a Rolls Royce. I travel 1,200 miles a week to my restaurants so I want to be comfortable in the car.

(10) What are your favourite luxury brands?

Histoires de Parfum 1725 and Hublot.

(11) Where has your most luxurious holiday take you?

I haven’t had a holiday in years, I’m too busy working! But I have enjoyed staying at some beautiful places in Italy, includingThe Regina Hotel in Rome.

(12) Excluding property, what has been your most expensive purchase?

My Rolls Royce.

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