Martin Kajo manages 2 Mamma Oliva restaurants in Milan and handles the finances of other businesses. As a friend of the owner’s, he runs the Mamma Oliva restaurants with their rustic Neapolitan cuisine, a trend from the south that has been holding its own in northern Italian cities for many years. Kajo took on casual work in the hospitality industry during his legal studies and grew to love the sector. ‘Hospitality means people sharing something with one another. The food is just one component. I was fascinated by making connections with people by eating and cooking with them and talking about food. This applies both to the people I work with and to the customers I serve,’ explains Kajo. The 37-year-old has been running the 2 restaurants in Milan for almost 11 years.
From the very start, METRO was an important partner and ultimately became their main supplier. ‘The company is flexible and solution-oriented, and it has helped us tremendously – especially during the pandemic – with generous payment terms. Currently, METRO is our only supplier, in fact,’ says the restaurant manager frankly. ‘Because we have so few customers, it’s not only the sales that have declined. Our consumption of products is also so low that it’s no longer worth it for manufacturers of things like mozzarella to supply us directly. METRO continues to provide for us and has helped us more than anyone to survive the pandemic.’
Small problems are our daily bread
In Kajo’s view, serious financial difficulties in the hospitality industry were practically unknown before the coronavirus pandemic. ‘There have always been small problems but also opportunities to solve them, usually with human interaction with suppliers and employees playing the crucial role. Ultimately, problems are our daily bread,’ he says.
In times of economic prosperity, he adds, it is not hard to establish and run a successful hospitality business. In his experience, if you make a business plan at the beginning and bargain well with suppliers, you’ll have no difficulties. You have to be aware, though, that it’s a labour-intensive and staff-intensive sector. ‘Restaurant sales are usually steady with only slight seasonal fluctuations,’ says Kajo. As long as the business is running, takings should cover the regular expenses for suppliers and staff. ‘It depends on this consistent cash flow,’ the restaurant manager says. ‘You quickly come to the point where you can build up reserves and slowly but surely expand the business.’
When the manager helps out in the kitchen
But what if – like in the pandemic – sales don’t just break off temporarily, and instead everything you rely on becomes unclear in the long term? Then cash flow dries up. ‘Actually, I see no other way to survive at the moment than to downsize the business,’ replies Kajo. ‘We had to decrease the number of employees in our restaurants from 70 to 12. When it comes to the crunch, even the manager has to help out in the kitchen. We also had to talk about wages and working hours. So that we can pay people at all, we are now offering our customers a delivery service too. Which of course doesn’t help large restaurants with huge dining rooms in good locations to pay the rent. We’ve gone into debt without knowing where the sales will come from to pay it back. And we’ve repositioned ourselves with one strong major supplier: METRO.’
In a crisis – and perhaps because of it – it also becomes clear where the key to commercial success lies for a restaurant, says Kajo. ‘It’s in collaboration. In the human interaction between employees, suppliers and everyone involved. As long as you manage to balance their interests so that everyone gets something out of it, the collaboration will succeed. The currency for this isn’t just money; it’s primarily respect and the trust you have in each other because of a long shared history.’
There have always been small problems but also opportunities to solve them, usually with human interaction with suppliers and employees playing the crucial role.Martin Kajo, Manager Mamma Oliva
METRO helps in the pandemic
Elena Vailati is also maintaining close supplier relations with METRO. She, too, was able to rely on this steadfast relationship during the pandemic. ‘During lockdown, I was able to defer payment twice. That was crucial to the survival of my company,’ says the restaurateur. She is the owner of Caffè Nazionale in Lodi, a historically rich city in Lombardy, around 30 km southeast of Milan. For 16 years, the business economist worked as a manager in various small businesses. Then suddenly, 7 1/2 years ago, the opportunity arose to take over a historic café when the previous owner had to close because of economic difficulties. So Vailati set off on her ‘last entrepreneurial adventure’, as the 56-year-old herself refers to it, tongue in cheek.
‘Originally, it was actually just a café, but in recent years I’ve expanded its range,’ explains the restaurateur. ‘We offer breakfast with freshly baked products, homemade ice cream, brunch, lunch and dinner with varying menus – and we’re a pizzeria,’ she says. A typical Italian eatery that fulfils the culinary wishes of every customer that comes through its doors, with traditional cuisine ranging from meat to fish. ‘And we’re always looking for creative ways to put a new spin on our dishes.’
Trust is everything. Thanks to our good business relationship, METRO has been a great support.Elena Vailati, owner of Caffé Nazionale
Advice from a business consultant
Since she was taking over an existing café, there was no need for Vailati to build up her own business. But having to come up with the purchase price very shortly after buying the place at auction was not exactly easy. ‘Today our greatest challenge lies in procuring modern appliances and high-performance machinery for the kitchen and café to help improve the experience for our guests.’ In 2021, she invested a total of €30,000 in the technology to create new refrigeration for ice cream and cakes. ‘The greatest challenge is approaching in 2022, when we will have to buy new appliances for our kitchen.’
Vailati recommends always staying well informed about opportunities for financing and public subsidies that can help with investments. ‘I give this topic a lot of my attention and I get support from a business consultant,’ she says. Advice from suppliers should also be taken into consideration, she adds.
‘Trust is everything’
Basically, every small business faces financial challenges. Good cash flow is essential to keep the business humming and to have day-to-day funds in hand for purchasing, staff, new machinery and renovations. ‘It is important to deal promptly with financial matters yourself,’ says the businesswoman. ‘Because in many cases, banks are not especially flexible.’
She agrees with Martin Kajo that the most helpful thing is having a sound relationship with business partners, including in matters of finance. ‘Trust is everything. These things only work when you have been able to build a good business relationship beforehand.’ Honesty and seriousness in financial transactions form the basis for this kind of trust. ‘They are indispensable, both between partners and also towards employees.’