From Monday, pubs and restaurants will be allowed to serve alcohol indoors in all areas of Scotland, apart from Moray and Glasgow, until 10.30pm. Cate Devine finds out how the pandemic has helped some independent family restaurants seize the initiative from the big chain restaurants

RESTAURANT chains come and go in normal times but the effects of Covid-19 have been exceptionally devastating for hospitality. Some of the best-known restaurant groups are feeling the pinch or facing closures and redundancies.

As more people worked from home in a bid to contain the spread of the virus and many offices, galleries, libraries, cinemas, theatres and concert halls remained empty or operated at vastly reduced capacity, city centre chains suffered from lack of footfall – while local or neighbourhood independents appear to have a better chance of thriving now lockdown restrictions are easing.

Even before the pandemic, the big chains were set to be outpaced by independent restaurants: before Covid-19 their growth rate was predicted to be 3% compared to 5% for independents.

HeraldScotland: Cafe GandolfiCafe Gandolfi

There’s evidence to suggest that established family-run restaurants’ time has come. The recent opening – in the height of the pandemic - of Luccio’s, the first restaurant of celebrity chef Marco Pierre White’s son Luccio, marked the start of another restaurant dynasty alongside those of the Roux and Rick Stein families.

In Scotland, too, younger family members are taking up the reins of businesses established by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, suggesting that the sector may be able to effect a renaissance resilient enough to see it through the pandemic and beyond. For many, lockdown has been an opportunity to plan for longevity.

Mary and Philip Contini of Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh – Scotland’s oldest delicatessen and restaurant – had long been thinking of how to ensure its future into the fourth generation. The couple took over the running of the business founded in 1934 by Alfonso Crolla, Philip’s grandfather, 34 years ago. Mary is also a cook, writer, author and Herald Magazine chef. They have always resisted expansion of V&C into other cities. “We can only maintain the standards of quality in an area that’s controllable by one of the members of the family,” Philip says. “We like that relationship between the small producer and the customer.”

They say they are “delighted” that their daughter Francesca, who has a pharmacy degree, took over the reins as managing director from Philip on the company’s 85th birthday in 2019. After steering it through the first lockdown in March last year – an experience she describes as a “baptism of fire” – followed by the second, she is now ready to look to the future.

Before being forced to close she undertook the refurbishment of the original premises – a massive undertaking that’s already proved to be prescient: the new fridge counters in the shop make more space for customers to circulate while observing social distancing regulations.

She moved trade online and personally did home deliveries of products, speaking to customers and hearing their stories of social isolation and front-line working. "We became embroiled in people’s troubles and that period really was a distillation of what it means to be human,” she says. “Everybody got stuck in together and a real sense of shared humanity emerged.

“Doctors and nurses were calling us after doing 12-hour shifts asking for food. When I saw their faces, I thought, ‘My God, what are you going through?’ They were numb with hardship. Others were crying down the phone asking us to send food to their parents because they couldn’t visit them.

“It became clear to me that it was important for people to experience the smells and tastes of fresh ingredients, as if they had a heightened sensation of being able to enjoy that again. They just wanted good ingredients to cook for themselves. We saw that in younger customers too.”

HeraldScotland: Mary Contini Mary Contini

Through this experience she gained a renewed conviction that conviviality – social contact and good food – is essential to human health, both physical and mental. This is the ethos on which Valvona & Crolla has operated for over eight decades.

With her reduced staff now off furlough, Francesca has introduced an on-trend environmental management policy: even the bubble wrap is made in the shop from recycled plastic delivered in flat rolls and inflated on site to reduce transport costs. The new fridges are the same design as the originals from the 1950s, but with energy-efficient external pumped compressors. “We’re already seeing energy savings,” Francesca says.

Her mother says: “Francesca’s scientific training has proved invaluable and she is way ahead of me.” Mary remains the non-executive chef in the Caffe Bar and is writing her eighth book, entitled Oh Florence! in which she addresses Francesca’s young daughter. “She has a well-trained palate and sound business instinct for what our customers want.”

Food miles are a key part of the environment-friendly ethos. How does this fit with the vast majority of V&C’s offer being sourced from Italy?

“Food miles won’t change, but we buy from small farms and artisan producers in Italy where high-welfare, low-pesticide, low-fertiliser methods are used – something that can’t be guaranteed at some UK supermarkets and restaurants who source from producers where bad and unsustainable farming practices are rife,” replies Francesca, a mother of two.

“I feel it’s important to keep on supporting the small Italian farmers and producers we’ve been trading with for decades, and who were devastated by Covid before it arrived here – in addition to our network of small European and Scottish producers.”

Delays or price hikes on imported produce due to Brexit was the big worry before Covid hit. But the family has managed to keep supplies coming from Italy and they are absorbing increased costs rather than passing them onto customers. “Everybody on both sides wants to keep trading, so everybody is pulling out the stops,” she says.

“The millennials coming in to Valvona & Crolla are Scots as well as Italian-born Scots and Scots-born Italians. They are much more knowledgeable about provenance, animal welfare and sustainability.

“Customers have always bought our Italian tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, and Nduja, Guanciale and Alfonso Crolla’s famous Fonteluna pork sausage. But now the younger ones are also interested in discussing precise details of the farms and the farmers that produce them. It’s like we’ve come full circle.”

HeraldScotland: Caffe ParmaCaffe Parma

She recently sourced a 6th generation family-run Umbrian grain supplier of stone-milled chickpea, rice and spelt flour for pasta, as an alternative to conventional wheat flour pasta. She also sells “alternative” spices such as sumac and za’atar to meet demand created by the “Ottolenghi effect” – named after the London chef Yotam who popularised exotic Middle Eastern ingredients. All ingredients are used in the restaurant menu.

Francesca says: “I thought I should really try it,” she explains. “I just felt like it was where I was supposed to be.

“When I was younger I always felt a bit in mum and dad’s shadow. But now I feel I can be myself. I just felt like it was where I was supposed to be."

Try the Valvona & Crolla taste at home. See Mary Contini's recipe on page xx

CAFÉ GANDOLFI

For Seumas MacInnes, having his 26-year-old twin sons Alasdair and Donald join the family business Café Gandolfi is about regenerating the Glasgow stalwart while retaining its unique feel. “They’ve grown up with this place and live and breathe its ethos,” he says.

Their presence is a double-whammy boost for the 41-year-old restaurant. Alasdair is sous-chef, working with head chef Jamie McDonald, while Donald is general manager and sommelier, working alongside familiar front-of-house faces Stuart Lamont and Annmarie McClymont who have worked with MacInnes for over 30 years (he refers to them fondly as his second family).

Both boys started helping out at age 14 and are lifelong foodies. “Alasdair is an intuitive and innovative chef whose mind is always on food, and Donald is very personable and organised,” says their father. “They’re bringing innovation and new ideas, while keeping our Hebridean vibe alive.”

Café Gandolfi was one of the first restaurants to open in the 18th-century Merchant City in 1983, when the area was run-down and neglected. Its original wood panelling and distinctive pine furniture by the late Glasgow School of Art graduate Tim Stead, together with beautiful stained glass plate windows depicting the fruits of the sea, remain unchanged and have helped create Café Gandolfi’s warm and convivial ambience. The charismatic owner himself has rarely been absent from the floor.

MacInnes’ Hebridean roots have influenced his steadfast belief that eating good, honest food together strengthens the bonds of family and friends. His menus have long showcased classic Scottish ingredients such as Isle of Barra scallops and Stornoway black pudding. Some dishes have stayed on the menu throughout his 37-year tenure.

Having his sons on board to help steer the business through both Covid-19 lockdowns saw the MacInnes clan use the time to focus on the main restaurant plus takeaway. Together they looked again at what Gandolfi means to regulars and how to attract new diners. Being a close-knit family group allowed them to adapt faster than being a franchise of a large restaurant chain would have allowed.

“Sometimes being forced into a situation helps you to look to what’s ahead, we were able to do that relatively swiftly,” says Seumas. “The boys are bringing fresh ideas to the table, so to speak. There is strength in change. The younger generation is so brave and so resilient.”

Contemporary additions to the streamlined main menu – including traditional-on-trend techniques such as pickling and fermenting, and plant-based dishes – are in development, as is a Gandolfi At Home takeaway service. A pop-up event with the Isle of Harris Distillery, postponed during lockdown, will see the upstairs bar reopen for gin cocktails served with a selection of Alasdair’s small bites such as seabream ceviche with grapefruit and quince and beetroot and apple sushi with black garlic and sorrel glaze.

It’s about keeping the Hebridean vibe alive for a new generation say the twins.

“I do think there’s a need for nostalgia and familiarity right now,” says their father. “People seem to be coming back to our original story and what it means – a sort of ‘Remember Me’ movement.

“They are coming back to relive moments they had here, and to remind themselves of how unique Gandolfi is in this ever-changing world. For the younger generation who’ve never known us, we hope we fit the desire for reassurance.

“I do believe in my boys and that they can do this. I can take a step back while always being there for them.” He and his wife Donalda have moved from Glasgow to Alloway, and he will commute from there.

“At one point we will take over the business,” says Donald. “We’re very fortunate to be in this position, to be part of something that’s so unique and important to Glasgow.”

TIMBERYARD

Andrew Radford, founder of Timberyard restaurant in Edinburgh, agrees that being a small family business is a “huge advantage” when it comes to planning for the future – especially crucial during the pandemic. His eldest son Ben, 36, is head chef, younger son Joe is sommelier and general manager, and his daughter Abi is in charge of social media, interior design and events. Lisa looks after the office and organises weddings.

“If we’d been part of a restaurant chain we’d have been cut by now,” he asserts. “But we’re still here because being a family business we can take a pay cut, be nimble and adapt really quickly – from talking something through on Wednesday to implementing it by Saturday.

“Big chains can’t make sudden decisions. For them, change is too slow. You need a bigger runway to land a jumbo jet than you do for a Twin Otter.”

Radford and his wife Lisa have long established foodie credentials. Andrew was the first head chef on the Royal Scotsman train before Andrew Fairlie and Neil Forbes. The couple opened the award-winning Atrium in 1993 and Blue at the Traverse Theatre in 1997 before opening Timberyard in 2012. Ben worked with Blue's head chef and was head chef at Café St Honore before taking over the reins at his parents’ restaurant when it opened.

“We opened Atrium when our kids were three, five and six years old – the same ages as our grandchildren are now,” says Andrew. “Ben was serving water to diners from age three, and helping in the kitchen at school age.”

During the first lockdown, Joe pivoted online to sell wine and provisions, and Andrew and Lisa delivered Ben’s At Home meals to an “amazing” response from regulars that saw increasing levels of income. “As a family we could cut our cloth to suit the circumstances. The big guys could not have contemplated doing that.”

Before Covid, most popular on the restaurant menu was the eight-course dinner. Now they will re-open for four days a week with a simplified five-course menu. “Even with reduced number of tables, we were actually doing as many covers as we did before. Diners who couldn’t have alcohol with their meal tended to buy a couple of bottles of wine from us to drink at home. That helped enormously. Advance bookings for when we re-open after lockdown two are very encouraging,” says Andrew.

Ben, 36, reckons social media plays a “huge part” in keeping Timberyard’s reputation for high-welfare, sustainable, ethical and local sourcing of ingredients and drinks out there among the increasingly discerning younger demographic. “Social media helped nurture a sense of community and loyalty, while keeping general awareness of the restaurant alive,” he says.

CAFFE PARMA

Like Francesca Contini in Edinburgh, Matteo Giovanazzi spent his first months at his uncle’s popular Caffe Parma in Glasgow’s west end on sorting out the fundamentals. Appointed head chef of the family restaurant in October 2019, his uncle Stefano advised him “to go ahead and do what I had to do”. For Matteo, 33, that meant creating his own brigade of six chefs. He retained two and recruited four, including John Bagley, who had worked with his father Sandro at La Parmigiana – the famous Glasgow restaurant founded by his grandparents. “So our family history is still going strong,” he says.

Matteo is the fourth generation of the family business. His great-grandfather opened the Philadelphia fish and chip shop in the west end on arrival from Italy in 1930 (although he had first come over before the First World War). In 1978, his grandparents Angelo and Maria opened La Parmigiana in Great Western Road, where their son Sandro, Matteo’s father, became head chef and Stefano general manager, and Matteo started cooking there at age 16.

La Parmigiana became the city’s oldest Italian fine-dining restaurant still in the hands of the original owners until it was sold in 2017.

His uncle Stefano went on to launch Paperino’s restaurants where Matteo worked while studying for his hotel and hospitality degree at Strathclyde University. Stefano sold Paperino’s and opened Caffe Parma in 2015.

“My being here is a natural progression,” says Matteo. “Caffe Parma is very different from La Parmigiana – we do 160 covers a night compared to 60 at the old place – but in many ways I’m taking it back to the same ethos. My dad was head chef at La Parmigiana for a long time and had a very refined style of cooking. I learned so much from him.

“I’m going right back to basics using what I learned from my family, and using all the oldest family recipes such as proper slow-cooked ragu and good stocks.

“But it’s not just recipes; it’s loads of things, like techniques and ways of doing things that were instilled in me. Although my dad’s retired I can still call him if I need anything. It’s fantastic. You won’t get that personal touch in many of the big Italian chains.”

During the second lockdown, he started takeaway and home delivery, gave him the opportunity to refine the menu – and to put his new staff’s commitment to the test.

“Everyone was furloughed but we did takeaway boxes for special events like Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, Easter Sunday. It was a whole new discipline. You had to be extremely organised, and sourcing and preparing just the right amount of ingredients so you didn’t have leftovers was a real challenge. It was also strange not to see the final dish on the plate. I reckon it’s been a good way for my brigade to find their feet. It’s brought us closer together.”

The menu has been reduced for reopening. He reckons this flexibility is one of the advantages independent family restaurants have over the Italian restaurant chains.

“There’s also a huge trust factor. People eat here at Caffe Parma who know each other from La Parmigiana. A kind of ‘I kent your faither’ thing. And younger diners want provenance of ingredients and authenticity of cooking. They’ve been able to travel to Italy freely and know what’s real and what’s not.”

Looks like the secret to longevity after lockdown is to keep it in the family.