With regulations significantly reducing demand and changing consumer behaviour, nothing could have prepared restaurateurs for a crisis such as COVID-19. Yet, for an Italian restaurateur in Singapore, his wealth of experience in the fast-paced world of F&B has whipped him into shape.
“We’ve been prepared all along to handle a crisis,” shared Beppe de Vito of il Lido Group in our video interview. “Whether it’s a small crisis involving a single customer who is annoyed we don’t have their favourite pasta, or a waiter who spilt something, or a fire… there’s a crisis all the time.”
Starting his career in restaurants at a catering school in Bari, Italy, when he was just 14, de Vito has amassed experience as a maître d’, manager, chef, and restaurateur over 25 years. He’s worked in some of hospitality’s best establishments, such as The Savoy Hotel in London, Le Fouquet’s and The Restaurant at Plaza Athénée in Paris.
Today, he helms il Lido, a restaurant group in Singapore that specialises in Italian cuisine. The group boasts high-end concepts such as Aura, Michelin starred Braci, and Art, as well as mid-range restaurants such as Amò and Southbridge. Their latest effort is Grammi, an e-commerce restaurant and grocer touted as providing “100% comfort” in ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat meals and bentos, fresh produce and pantry staples, as well as artisanal cocktails and spirits.
While it’s a notable departure from what de Vito is known for, it’s been a culinary homecoming of sorts for the Puglia native, who hails from the small town of Bitonto, known for its olive oil. “I’ve always worked in very fancy restaurants, so this is more personal,” recalled de Vito, who is also a father of four. “This (Grammi) is the way I eat at home, the way I want my kids to eat.”
Grammi’s ready-to-eat and pantry staples
The restaurant industry is notoriously cutthroat. Having experienced restaurant closures, leasing issues, and the like, how was COVID-19 different than other crises you’ve faced?
When you have a problem with a customer, you cannot run away. In many ways, it’s ingrained in us F&B people to look at solutions. But when you have no more customers, what do you do next?
Obviously, nobody in the world was prepared to deal with COVID-19. We did not have a plan, to be honest. We are not organised, but we are very capable of thinking on our feet, and out of the box.
How did your team put things into gear with the announcement of the circuit breaker?
We needed to try to retain as many people as possible, but we couldn’t just pay people to sit in the room. For Amò, it was easier to push delivery which was already present, so we shifted our efforts into what was previously a minor revenue source for us. We had to learn very quickly, and we realised that where we failed was when we took things for granted.
It was in the way we prepared food for delivery. Instead of putting the food on a plate, we just transferred it in delivery — it shouldn’t have happened that way. We should have separated the pasta from the sauces, and so on. We were taken aback by the first negative comments we received. We thought customers would understand, but what we learned was that people don’t care about your struggles. They’re paying for that experience, so we shouldn’t spoil it. That was a major learning curve.
Across the globe, we’ve seen Michelin starred restaurants pivoting. From moving into soup kitchens, going into e-commerce, and the like. What was your own journey like when it came to looking for alternative sources of revenue, and how did this lead you to start Grammi?
We were naive. We thought that the circuit breaker was going to last a month, so we wanted to take this time to think about how we were going to come back. When it was obvious that the circuit breaker was going to be extended, we decided that we couldn’t spend seven weeks doing nothing.
Some people had the guts to come up with a completely different concept. Hats off to them! I was still of the idea that whatever we do, we could change up to a point where a car is still a car — we’re not going to sell bicycles even though it has wheels. We were in this box.
But then I gained the confidence from Art, where we have more space and room to try something different. We already had plans to work on a casual concept, so we brought that forward and adapted to the current situation, and made it different from what Art is about. We went from being afraid to changing to just going for it.
While il Lido Group had worked on casual concepts before at Changi Airport, this was an entirely new era in a casual e-commerce delivery setting. What did you bring to the table from your existing concepts?
We knew who our customers were. We’ve got over 50,000 people on our mailing list. We asked ourselves, who were these people? They are affluent, have families, and they want value and good food. At the end of the day, we have a certain value as a brand, so we can’t undersell ourselves. We envisioned what our customers would buy. We couldn’t offer customers the Art or Braci experience online, but we wanted to offer them something else that adds value and uniquely showcases what we can do.
How did you engineer your menu for Grammi? We see specialities such as Home Cured Guanciale, sauces and bases like Truffle Mushroom Pesto, and homemade pastas such as Egg Tagliatelle and Caserecce.
I wanted things we used to eat at home. You have fine dining food once a month, but with Grammi, we wanted people to keep re-ordering the food. There are a lot of three-generational families in Singapore living in one household, so we prepared packages good for kids, parents, and grandparents. Our order basket size was always quite high, as families would buy a whole meal for the day or something to keep for the next day.
Grammi’s Baked Caserecce
Tell us about the Baked Caserecce, which is one of your favourites. What memories from home does it bring up for you?
Growing up, my mom would bake pasta like that every Sunday. My sister and I would always pull at the burnt bits before she served it, and there would be holes inside. When we did the first taste tests here, I had to explain to the guys why it’s better to burn a few bits. My kids love it as well. I wanted to share something I would be proud of and want to order as well.
The nature of the restaurant industry is always one of evolution — in embracing new technologies, techniques, and even ingredients. How has COVID-19 brought digitisation to the forefront for il Lido?
What COVID-19 has done is sped things up, and in many ways, I’m glad people have embraced new technology. When we went cashless years ago, people complained, but now it’s a norm.
The online delivery market was much smaller, but now we have boomers and pensioners ordering online. This wider market allows us to go out there and study what else we can do with virtual brands. We’re thinking of extracting brands from Grammi, maybe a salad or pasta concept.
I used to open a restaurant every 10 months. Although that can’t happen now, we may be able to open one virtual restaurant every three months!
Grammi’s ready-to-eat selections
What were the challenges you faced in bringing your team on board in adopting to e-commerce and digitisation, from offline to online?
Ironically, we work with people who are comfortable with doing the same thing every day — consistency is what makes everything work. When you have to change, of course people get uncomfortable. “Why this?”, “Why that?” But mostly, they were positive, and they were grateful that their jobs were being kept.
What about your diners? How do you think they are adapting to digitisation?
Like any change, it’s frustrating at first. Let’s look at payment, which happens at the end of every meal. It was the single most painful aspect of dining out. You’d have to reach out for your bag, figure out who pays what… but now, it’s prepaid or cashless, so digitisation has been useful. When we go back to dining liberally in restaurants, people would already be used to scanning QR codes and mobile reminders. They don’t have to touch anything else.
While certain people might still find digitisation annoying, sooner than later, it’s going to be ingrained in our habits. I believe there’s a lot of positivity that comes out of it.
Want to read more stories from restaurateurs and their experiences with COVID-19? Check out the interview with Pang Su Yi of Bao Makers.