10 September 2012

Roberto De Carvalho: Get out of the kitchen to see your clients

Roberto De Carvalho, Roberto's
Signature Restaurant

Photo: Peter Unsworth 
Since he was nine years old, Roberto De Carvalho dreamed of being a chef and owning his own restaurant. So, after gaining valuable experience at some world-famous eateries like Nobu and Reuben’s, both at the One&Only in Cape Town, De Carvalho opened Roberto’s Signature Restaurant at 44 Long Street, in July 2011 with 12 staff.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
For 16 years I worked for other people, but the last three years, I would probably say, is when I started to formulate how I would go about starting my own restaurant.

What were you doing before starting your business?
Prior to this I was the resort Executive Chef at the One&Only Hotel. Being in charge of world-renowned restaurants such as Nobu and Reuben’s at the One&Only also made me realise that I was capable of opening and running a successful restaurant of my own.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
I would say that an elaborate business plan is necessary, especially if you are opening a restaurant with many facets to think about (décor, food style, pricing, location, etc.). It gives you a good place to start from and I think that when you write a business plan for your own restaurant, you want your business to be the best it can be. It’s a great reminder too if you try and keep what you are doing on a daily basis, in line with what you thought of when you first did your business plan.

What was your start up capital and where did you work from?
My capital came from 10 years of saving and some investment from my father – I contacted letting agents and then started to view premises for my restaurant until I found the one which I thought had the best location, as well as the best rental payment that I could afford.

What was your big dream for this venture?
To be the best Mediterranean-style restaurant in Cape Town, offering five-star quality food and service at affordable prices.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Every possible angle has to be utilised – in my line of business it means staying in touch with the concierges of the surrounding hotels, so that they send their guests to us for at least one meal while they’re in Cape Town. This brings many new feet into the restaurant – people who would probably never have known about us had the concierge not informed them about us.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
By seeking out weaknesses in other businesses like yours and implementing better ways of doing things in your own business – I have found that not many restaurants in Cape Town cater to the vegetarian population, so I’ve implemented a vegetarian menu with new and different items on it to bring the vegetarians back and get them talking about it to their friends who are also vegetarian.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
For me, I did price comparisons between the other restaurants around me. To start off, I pegged our prices somewhere in the middle of the competition because I didn’t want to be the cheapest, but I also didn’t want to be the most expensive and scare potential customers away when they saw the menu. From there, after a few months, I became aware of items that customers said they couldn’t get better in other restaurants, which meant I could then start to adjust the prices slightly to balance with the demand for those dishes.

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
Hiring the wrong staff – I eventually re-hired and became more stringent in the hiring process.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make in their first three years of business?
Over-capitalising and not sticking to budgets.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
By remembering a little 9-year-old boy who was adamant that he wanted to be a chef and make people happy by providing them with the food that they like to eat.

Did you have a mentor?
I have three major mentors in my life: my father, who taught me to either do something properly or not at all; the second is Rudi Liebenberg who, I believe, pushed me in the right direction to make me the chef that I am today. My third mentor is Clive Bennett, who taught me the finer details of running a business from the financial aspect and forced me to rethink ideas I had about how to try and run a business with as little costs as possible.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
In the restaurant business, I think it takes at least three years to get your name out to as many people as possible and that action plan should be tweaked as many times as needed during this time to make the business a viable entity. After that period, if you’re still not succeeding, I think it would be a good idea to shut shop.

In your opinion, is it ever alright to give up on a dream?
No it isn’t, as long as it is not to the detriment of your health or financial stability!

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Save more money in summer to cover the winter months.
* Make sure to count stock more regularly to ensure that all is accounted for.
* Put more Portuguese items on the menu from the get-go as there’s a lack of good Portuguese food in Cape Town.
* Train staff more thoroughly. Show them how you want things to be done and triple check that they understand how you want the “ship” to be steered.
* Get out of the kitchen and speak to your customers every chance that you get.

Get in touch with Roberto De Carvalho from Roberto’s Signature Restaurant via email: info@robertodecarvalho.co.za, visit: www.robertodecarvalho.co.za or find him on Facebook or Twitter: @chefdecarvalho

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