Interview with Carmela De Stefano and Simone Amendola

[This is the full interview with Carmela De Stefano and Simone Amendola which was published in our Kaizen newsletter.]

Carmela De Stefano and Simone Amendola on Entrepreneurship in Italy

Carmela De Stefano and Simone Amendola are both entrepreneurs based in Praiano, Italy, which is located in the Amalfi coast. Carmela runs La Bacheca, a ceramics studio, and Simone is the founder of Ristorante Il Pino, a classic Italian restaurant.

Kaizen:  Young people can work for someone else or become entrepreneurs. What made entrepreneurship attractive for you?

Carmela:  My father had his own business, and I saw it was always so busy. He didn’t have time for his family, so when I was younger I was sure I didn’t want to do the same thing.

Kaizen:  You’re part of Italy’s tourism business here on the Amalfi coast. How did you come to it?

Carmela:  My sister started this ceramics business, La Bacheca, and I realized I was very good in this kind of job. When I was a student in university, I was good in economics and in writing. I didn’t know I had talking and selling skills until after, thanks to my job in hotels.

Kaizen:  You worked in a hotel in Positano?

Carmela:  My university was in the north of Italy, and I came back to the south because it was the beginning of the international economic crisis in 2009. I tried to have a different job that was not with my father, in hotels in Praiano and Positano.

I started to realize my other skills and to improve my skills in selling and in building relationships with clients. I found it was hard to work for somebody else, especially if you have good skills, but you don’t receive enough credit for your skills.

Kaizen:  So that pushed you in a more independent direction?

Carmela:  Yes. Now I can appreciate my job more because I receive what I give.

Kaizen [to Simone]: You’re in the restaurant business. You started your own, but you also have a family history in the restaurants.

Simone:  Yes. I was born in a restaurant. Since I was five or six years old, I didn’t want to stay home with my mom, so she would bring me to my father while he was working in the restaurant.

Kaizen:  Did you like the food side or the business side or was it a combination of both?

Simone:  To be honest, I’m good with the people. . I love the guests. Maybe restaurant work could be very easy, but for me it’s hard because I give all of myself to my guest—I want to them to enjoy the dinner, a good wine, and a good atmosphere. I give 90% of my time to the guest.

I never have time for administration, and the administration is always telling me that I’m overlooking many things. It’s always been a big problem for me.

Kaizen:  Can you solve that problem by having partners?

Simone  No, I do it alone.

Kaizen:  You family restaurant was in Amalfi, but you moved to Praiano to start Il Pino. Why independent and why Praiano?

Simone:  I loved to be there working with them. My family, father, brothers, mom—we work well together. But with cousins and uncles, there were problems. I was the youngest of everybody. My cousins are all at least fifteen years older than I am, but I traveled and worked a lot. I did university, and I worked in Naples and Rome, while they just worked in that restaurant in Amalfi. Once I worked abroad, so I had different ideas about food, social networks, menus, tablecloths, and how to give the guests a good experience.

Kaizen:  Similar to what Carmella: you have fresh ideas and you want to do it your way, but if you’re working for someone else you don’t get that appreciation or freedom. And in your case, you are the youngest in the family, so you don’t have the respect as easily.

Simone:  Yeah.

Kaizen:  How did you choose Praiano?

Carmela:  I was born here. But to be honest, it’s almost impossible to find a restaurant to buy or to rent now. If you want to start a new one, you need a lot of money for refurbishments and furniture.

Kaizen:  It’s a large capital investment.

Simone:  Yes, because it’s very expensive in the Amalfi coast. And it’s a busy place, so it’s not easy to find a shop closed and start a restaurant or another business. Sometimes it happens, but usually it’s not in a good place or it’s expensive. This restaurant started because when I coming back from Rome one day, I heard about this restaurant that was possible to rent. My best friend and I leased it and got started.

Kaizen [to Carmela]:  How are you with the administration side of things? You’re good with people skills.

Carmela:  I think I’m better with administration than he is because I don’t mind being alone and I like economics and accounting.

Simone:  I just hate it. I feel like I’m losing my time when I sit down with a laptop or papers and bank accounts. For me it’s harder than climbing up and down a mountain.

Kaizen:  Another challenge is that Amalfi coast is driven by the tourism trade, and that is only seven or eight months of the year.

Simone:  Yeah. The Amalfi coast is different based on what month it is.

Kaizen:  So, you are essentially busy with tourists for seven months? And then you have five months for rest and renovations and so on?

Simone:  Yeah, for renovations.

Carmela:  It seems that we are at the beginning. In these four months, we are working hard because we have a lot of things to do. Right now there is no rest for us.

Kaizen:  You need to hire people, get your inventory in order, do your marketing, and so forth.

Simone:  Yeah, marketing is important because if you’re not on a main street or on a big square it can be difficult to attract guests. Word of mouth as well as social networks like Trip Advisor, Instagram, and Facebook are helpful.

Kaizen:  How important are good reviews on social media.

Simone:  This is a must for a restaurant. 90% of the job is the amount of the guests that come for dinner in a restaurant. In Amalfi square, millions of people arrive every year. It’s the guests who make the difference. You need them to go back to their hotel, talk with other guests or the receptionist and recommend your restaurant.

Kaizen:  What do you do to make your restaurant distinctive? You have a beautiful view. The physical setting is gorgeous, but there are other beautiful places along Amalfi. What makes you stand out?

Simone:  My idea is like many good restaurants—it’s to give the perfect combination of good food, good atmosphere, a beautiful view, and a good relation with the guest. You want to be very friendly to make them trust you. If they trust you, they don’t have to know what they are having for dinner.

Kaizen:  They needn’t worry about it.

Simone:  Right. They might just say that they want some fish or meat or freshly made pasta. And that’s the best thing because they trust you a lot. To make our restaurant different from others, we give value to everything—the wine, the waiters, the tablecloths, the service.

We do also do pickup service in Praiano. We have a car because they’ve been walking all day, and they don’t want to walk 300 steps and stairs to go to the restaurant.

Kaizen  So customer service is important. They trust and like you, so it’s a good experience.

Simone:  Yes. Praiano has a higher percentage of good restaurants than Amalfi, Positano, and Lavello.

Carmela:  Since Praiano is not as famous as Amalfi and Positano, we must invest more on quality.

Simone:  This is very important because usually if you go in Amalfi you can have good food or you can have very bad food that is frozen or pre-cooked.

We are along the Amalfi coast, but we aren’t as well known as Amalfi or Positano. We get fewer tourists, so we have to invest in the quality, or we will go out of business quickly. People have to know that if they come here they will find quality food. In Amalfi, there are thousands and thousands of tourists going around, so quality doesn’t matter as much to many of the restaurants there. They’ll get more business even if they aren’t as high quality.

Kaizen [to Carmela]: Your ceramic shop is directly across the street from the restaurant. That was a coincidence, but now you have some co-branding that goes on. Here in Il Pino restaurant, some of the decorations are ceramics from La Bacheca shop.

Carmela:  Yes.

Kaizen:  And when customers come into your ceramics shop, you can recommend the restaurant. That’s conscious partnership between your two businesses.

Simone:  Yeah.

Carmela:  It’s great because I think dinner is an experience. Simone doesn’t just sell food. He sells an experience—an evening relaxing and enjoying time with people and enjoying the view with glass of wine. Sometimes, part of this experience is a piece of ceramics. Guests may like to buy that piece of ceramics because it’s a nice way to remember an experience.

I like to sell ceramics made in Italy. The quality is better than ceramics made by industrial companies. But I also know that I’m selling an emotion for people. They are happy when they come inside my shop and meet me and my mother. They are looking for a family-run Italian business when they come to a small village like this. When they realize we are the classical Italian family, they want to buy more because this piece of ceramics reminds them of a nice moment in their life. Our cooporation is working because it’s part of an experience.

Kaizen [to Simone]: You mentioned the pickup service for the customers. You can have the meeting place be at the ceramic shop, so while they’re waiting they can see the ceramics and also the restaurant.

Simone:  Sometimes when I’m too busy to drive the car, her father drives my guests around. It’s a way to let people come in the shop. I think people appreciate it because they spend all day walking around and they don’t always know their way around.

Carmela:  Simone usually tells the guests to go to the shop and ask for the pickup service. I have to be very careful because people are not stupid. Sometimes I can tell by the look on their faces that they are to completely happy to do that. Sometimes they don’t want to come inside the shop.

Simone:  They can understand that we are sending them in the ceramic shop so that we can sell them more things.

Kaizen:  You don’t want to be pushy.

Carmela:  Absolutely, but it’s easy for me to see when they don’t want to come inside. I always ask them. Sometimes the car is busy, so they might have to wait inside the shop for ten or twenty minutes. I try to make them understand they don’t have to buy. They can just wait and have a limoncello after dinner, and then as soon as possible the car will pick them up. Sometimes the car is very late, so I would like for them to have a look around the shop, but maybe they don’t want to. I’m not pushy.

Kaizen:  You just want them to have a good experience.

Carmela:  Exactly.

Simone:  Sometimes they go inside and they buy something, sometimes not. It’s okay wither way. It’s a very nice service for a small restaurant to have a car that drives the guests. It’s a big cost for a small restaurant, but it’s part of the experience.

Kaizen:  Your restaurant and shop are distinctive. It’s a traditional Italian restaurant, but it has a very clean and contemporary design. Also many ceramic shops are traditional, but yours has much with a strong modern and contemporary feel. It’s still recognizably an Italian restaurant—but not a cliché.

Simone:  Naturally.

Carmela:  We are not in 1950s. Sometimes people have an idea of Italy from the movies. But, like everybody, we change. I try to hold on to the positive things about Italy, like our handmade quality and our personality, but the style is changing. Some people still want to have the traditional Italian taste, but I love modern shapes, modern art, and modern taste. That makes us distinctive. I was shocked because people told us this is the first shop they’d been in with a good touch of modern taste. We still have some traditional elements, but I think people also appreciate the modern Italian style.

Kaizen:  Is that part of your thinking and your aesthetic at the restaurant as well?

Simone:  I started wanting a traditional style of restaurant. Two years ago we started making it more modern.

Kaizen:  So it was an evolution?

Simone:  Yeah. We wanted to make the restaurant more white and clean and modern. In traditional restaurants in Italy, there are usually many colors. People tend to prefer either the traditional style or modern style. It’s hard to find the perfect balance, but we’re trying.

Kaizen:  You have your capital invested, particularly at this time of the year. For example, wine is expensive, and you will be making commitments for thousands of euros worth of wine for the coming season.

Simone:  Yes.

Kaizen:  And you’re buying thousands of euros worth of ceramics?

Carmela:  It’s a bad moment to think about that. It’s the end of low season.

Kaizen:  You’ve had no income several months now because it’s the off-season.

Carmela:  We are at the bottom.

Kaizen:  At the same time, you have to commit a lot of money.

Simone:  In my case, I have a rental agreement. I decided to do a higher rental in summer period and a much lower rental in the winter.

Kaizen:  So, the fee is the same?

Simone:  I pay a total amount in the year, but I just wanted the year to have a higher rental in summer when it’s busy. I don’t mind spending 2,000 euros when it’s very busy. But in winter, you should be very careful. So I prefer to divide the rental amount.

Kaizen:  So, it’s just cashflow management because you know when it’s going to go up and down.

Simone:  Yeah.

Carmela:  I think for the next years we have to count how much we spend in winter because you never realize what’s coming up that you have to pay. Sometimes you don’t know about taxes, processes, or fees. There are a lot of things that you don’t expect that you must pay in the winter.

Simone:  Every restaurant is different. In my case, it’s not easy. It’s quite hard to do all the things I have to do to give it a good quality. Sometimes you would like one more waiter, but you think maybe you can’t afford it so you have to work more. I know it’s hard. I know for seven months I cannot be sick.

Kaizen:  And you have to be going twelve hours a day.

Simone:  Yeah, twelve to fourteen hours. I actually prefer fourteen because it means that it’s busy. You have to give everything you have in these are six to seven months. It’s a way of life. In a big town, you can work all the year. You have more time or income for many months. Here it’s only that six to seven months, so in that period you should do the work for twelve months.

Carmela:  You have to do your best.

Kaizen:  You’re both relatively young still.

Simone:  Quite young.

Carmela:  I don’t agree. We are not young anymore.

Kaizen:  I think it depends where one is standing. Do you think in five years you want to be doing the same thing?

Carmela:  If my business is not doing well, I know that I have possibilities to find a job in a hotel as a receptionist or somewhere else. It’s beautiful to be independent, but I need money to live my life. If money is not coming in, I will find another job. I will keep doing this only if my business is going very well because I work harder as an entrepreneur than if I worked for somebody else. There are a lot of negative things about being an entrepreneur.

Kaizen:  You’ll hard work but you want the high reward?

Carmela:  Yes. I think in five years I imagine myself with a better income, because we are investing a lot of money now. So if I’m doing well enough in five years, I will continue. Otherwise, I consider all the other options.

Since I’m a woman, I want have a family. So now I work hard, but in the future I would like somebody who helps me because I will want time for family or time for myself to spend my money. Because if I have money but I don’t have time, there is no sense in doing this. Maybe for Simone it’s different.

Kaizen:  Simone, in ten years do you still want to be in restaurants?

Simone:  Yeah. The idea is always to have a bigger, busier restaurant. I’d also like to try to do a different kind of business that is easier than this one. My idea is to have a restaurant and a smaller business here in Praiano. I can produce in this restaurant and I can sell different things also in a smaller place where maybe I need only one employee, and someone from my family can help me. If one or the other one is not working, there is always another one that maybe can be working better.

Carmela:  In any case, he doesn’t want to be an employee. That’s the difference.

Simone:  Yeah. I have been an employer all my life. I know that I can do better things.

Carmela:  By yourself.

Simone:  We never know what is going to happen tomorrow, but my focus is to improve every year. Right now I’m working maybe fourteen hours per day, but if the business is going well, I can have another employee that can work maybe ten hours per day. If I improve my income, I can hire more employees and have a little more free time.

Carmela:  I think the difference between us is that I take in consideration the idea to work for somebody else. He will insist on staying independent.

Simone:  Yeah. I worked in Positano as a waiter. I speak French and a little German and I have a lot of experience, so I’m sure I could find a job in Positano as a waiter in a good place with good tips and a good salary, but it would be hard for me to go back to working for someone else.

Kaizen:  So the downside is not terrible if things don’t work out.

Carmela:  Right.

Kaizen:  Many young people want to be entrepreneurs. Some of them might like the idea of having their own shop or a restaurant. What advice would you give them?

Carmela:  From my experience, it’s important to try both being an employee and an entrepreneur. If you don’t try to work for somebody else, you cannot appreciate a hundred percent of what you’re doing because you don’t know how hard it is to work for someone else. For me was very, very hard to work for somebody else. I did a lot for other people, and sometimes I didn’t get enough in return.

Kaizen:  So do both of them because, as difficult as the entrepreneurship can be, you can appreciate what it’s doing for you by contrasting entrepreneurship with working for someone else.

Carmela:  Yes, exactly. Also, if you have a family who has a company, try to work for somebody else before working for them so that you can understand the difference.

Kaizen:  Each has its own challenges.

Carmela:  Exactly. And you’ll also know what it’s like for the people who work for you. Rich people can be sometimes very bad to their employees. I am a sensitive person, and sometimes I worked so hard for my employers because I wanted the best for them too, but they didn’t give me the same in return.

Kaizen:  Which is demoralizing.

Carmela:  It is, yes.

Simone:  For me, the first important thing is to follow your dream. You should love what you do. The second thing is to respect your employees. In a restaurant you have the chef, the sous-chef, the waiter, the bar man, and the cleaner. It’s important you know how they work. So you should try gain experience on every level. That’s important because if you know how the chef works, you will know why the dishes arrived so late on the table or why, at the end of the month, the costs are so high.

Carmela:  There is an interesting television program from the United States about the boss of big companies working in the companies. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this.

Kaizen:  The one where the boss goes incognito?

Carmela:  Exactly. I don’t know if it’s true or just fiction. In any case, it should be like that.

Kaizen:  Right.

Simone:  You should know how they work because a good manager not only gets the employees to work hard but understands how get the best performance out of them. A boss has to help every employee to do their best.

Carmela:  And you have to be a good example.

Simone:  Right. And you should also you should organize your employees in the best way possible. If a chef takes three hours to cook one dish, you should be able to help him figure out how to cook in two-and-a-half hours. For him it will be easier, and the result will be better. If you know every job in the restaurant, you will respect all of them and help all of them do their best.

Carmela:  I spent one day with an artisan we buy ceramics from. I painted with him, because when I sell something I want know what I’m selling. I like seeing what and how they paint. It was a very interesting experience also to understand better when there is a problem with ceramics.

Kaizen:  As you were saying, if it’s a passion that you have for your business, then you want to help your employees.

Simone:  Yeah. If you see them that they need help, you should give them help because it’s always your business. If they are good, you should praise them. If they do something bad, you talk in a lower voice and tell them what they did wrong.

Kaizen:  Correct the problem in a civilized way.

Simone:  The problem is always from within. You should try to organize a good team where everyone feels important. If they feel important and respected, they do a good work.

Carmela:  I think it’s all about people—the people who work for the company and the people who are customers.

Simone:  That’s true, at least in the small business. In bigger businesses, there are so many other ways to do good business.

Carmela:  Another piece of advice that I’d give is that everything is about psychology, so when you have an interview, for example, it’s very important to understand the other person and what they are expecting …

Simone:  A job interview you mean?

Carmela:  Yeah. To give another example: when you have a client who is a tourist and maybe he is stressed because he had a bad day or a long journey, maybe that’s not the best moment to explain some things about the room. It’s best to let him relax for a moment.

Simone:  People are complicated psychologically.

Carmela:  Exactly. I think that studying psychology at school should be important for every kind of job, because I’ve learned it’s all about my experience.

Kaizen:  Great advice.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks.

More Kaizen interviews with leading entrepreneurs are here at our site.

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