You are one of the most successful restaurateurs in Düsseldorf. How did your success story begin?
My family comes from near Palermo. In the 1960s, my father moved to Düsseldorf and worked for Mannesmann in Reisholz. When an earthquake rocked Sicily in 1968, he brought my mother and us children to Germany. It was originally planned that we would only stay in Germany for a few months to escape the chaos in Sicily. But as you know, things turned out differently and a few months have turned into more than 50 years. The path to the restaurant trade became clearer over time. After an accident at work, my father was unable to continue working and opened a small Italian grocery store in the mid-1970s. Later, my younger brother joined the business and the concept was expanded and refined by adding good Italian wine and other specialities to the product range.
And that’s how the first restaurant came to be?
Yes, pretty much. During this time, I completed my commercial training at the car dealership Moll and worked in my father’s shop on weekends. In our family, we always had lunch together, my father usually cooked pasta. At some point we noticed that curiously enough at lunchtime there were always more people shopping than at other times. In Italian hospitality it was and still is common to share and eat together – following the motto “Ciao, would you like some pasta as well?” So, more and more customers came at lunchtime, because word got out that we offered “good” pasta and often a glass of wine for lunch. Then the idea was born to enter the restaurant business. In 1982 we went to Düsseldorf-Oberkassel to Barbarossaplatz and opened an Italian standing restaurant that offered Italian delicacies – it has been in operation for 37 years now.
So, would you say that the restaurant trade has shaped the rest of your life?
You could say that. The first restaurant was our Salumeria (Italian grocery store) with a standing restaurant. And in 1990 we opened the Osteria Saitta in Düsseldorf-Niederkassel, which still exists today, and so we went into the classic restaurant trade. Then there were more restaurants within the family, for example those opened by my brother. Retailing has also always been a mainstay of our family.
What motivated you to enter the restaurant business yourself? The trade is not exactly known for its simplicity.
I’d say it’s in my blood. Of course, it was also because of my family. You have to imagine how it was at home: You woke up on Sunday morning and the whole house smelled of freshly cooked sugo (ital. tomato sauce) for the pasta prepared for lunch by the “mamma”. In addition, there was the passion for good food and drink, which I have always had, cooking with fresh ingredients and the joy of working with people. Because of all this, the road ahead was clear for me.
Did your children follow you into the world of gastronomy?
My daughter Rosa has completed an apprenticeship as a confectioner and is still working on a commercial apprenticeship before she will join our family business.
You are very active both in politics and voluntary work. Which political offices do you hold and in which other organisations are you active?
Among other posts, I am a councillor for Heerdt-Handweiser and chairman of DEHOGA Düsseldorf/Neuss. I am also a member of various supervisory boards such as Düsseldorf Tourism, Düsseldorf Marketing, Düsseldorf Congress and many more
Do you have a different approach to politics because of your professional career as a business owner?
Being business owners, we have a different point of view on certain issues because we are much more goal-oriented and practical. We get straight to the point and bring this abstract world of politics into “real” life.
In this context, do you see yourself as a mediator between politics and the restaurant and catering trade?
Yes, because I think that we business people, because of our practical approach, can build bridges between the often abstract world of politics and the practical world of the restaurant and catering trade. And that is true on many levels.
Do you think that if more politicians were independent business owners, things would change or be different?
I do believe that there would be differences with regard to regulation or legislation. Of course, there is a need for organisation and administration, but if you work in the business, you often find that some regulations are simply unnecessary or that some things could be regulated in a more straightforward way.
What are the biggest problems affecting the restaurant trade at the moment, and where do you see possible solutions?
The biggest challenge I currently see in the restaurant trade is the excess of red tape and the resulting documentation requirements. Depending on the size of the business, it may be necessary to hire additional staff just to take care of this. Things like that can sometimes lead to cost explosions, which of course we cannot and do not want to pass on to the customer. It’s getting harder and harder for the industry. I think we should talk in politics about how we can reduce red tape and thus make life easier for restaurateurs. I feel that policymakers do not always understand our industry.
What do you mean? Do you have an example?
The question is whether the person who is supposed to take care of my concern actually even understands my concern correctly. Does the person know, for example, about the problems of inflexible working hours or temporary agency work? I think that there should be greater awareness so that the respective industry can be understood with its concerns and needs.
If you had the opportunity to make three wishes as to what should be improved politically for the restaurant trade, what would they be?
Firstly: Very clearly, the reduction of excessive red tape. Secondly: More trust in restaurateurs. And thirdly: the adjustment of the VAT rate! We buy at 7 percent and have to sell at 19 percent. I’d like to see more fairness here.
You have been awarded the Federal Cross of Merit for outstanding social services. What was the impetus behind your commitment?
Social commitment has always been very important to me, especially for children. We collected DM 7,000 at the first summer party in 1992. I was so impressed with the response that I started to organise an annual summer party, the proceeds of which are donated to the children’s hospice Regenbogenland – Lichtblicke and the outpatient children’s hospice every year. I also support the DSC 99 Düsseldorf, which does a lot for youth work and children’s sports. It also gives me great pleasure to support social projects in my district wherever I can.
And, there are still customers from that time who come to me today and who didn’t always have a lot of money to eat out in their student days, and so they got a plate of spaghetti and a glass of wine in my restaurant, things have always been that way. Today, many of my former customers have become very good friends of mine and visit us here regularly.
What would you have done if you hadn’t become a restaurant owner? Would that even have been an option for you, not to become a restaurateur?
So, at the very beginning I really had the idea to study fine arts. That was actually the idea after school – to do something creative. But I decided to do a commercial apprenticeship, which helped pave my way into the restaurant business. And: I didn’t regret it!