Old Town Italy: it's a winner

Old Town Italy in Menlyn Maine recently picked up the award for Best Restaurant Design in the SACSC Retail Design and Development Awards. Design Partnership worked with the owners to fashion the design of the restaurant, which is so much more than a restaurant. Shopping SA spoke to Renzo Scribante of Rembrothers, owners of the restaurant, in the wake of their win.

How do you feel about your RDDA win?

We are extremely happy. It’s not too often that people are recognised for their work. There is certainly a lot of time and effort that goes into the designing of a store. This is especially true with Old Town Italy. We don’t just design a restaurant or retail space – we consciously combine passion and vision to create a unique space. It is important for us that our customers can experience this energy when they enter our stores, and have an unforgettable experience. We live true to our vision of “making memories.”

What elements of the design do you think convinced the judges that you should receive the award?

Our design vision for the store was to transport the customer to a bygone era and to capture the essence of the Slow Food Movement. We wanted the customer to be “transported” to an old Italian village with a strong sense of community and there is much attention to detail, authenticity and simply good quality offerings. If the judges felt this when entering the store, then I believe the design elements played their part and the goal was achieved.

Italy is such a big, beautiful place, with so many different styles that have been emulated all over the world. Does the store embrace Tuscany? The Amalfi Coast? Old working-class Rome? A traditional Italian trattoria?

Italy is such a big beautiful place and with several regions, as you said, but it’s also filled with so many different regional cultures. No area in Italy is the same and they would never want to be. I don’t think we emulated any one city in Italy in particular. I believe we drew on European culture as a whole and embraced the traditions and heritage that come with it. This allows us to remain loyal to one of our core values as a business: authenticity.

What are some of the more interesting elements of the design of the new Menlyn Maine establishment?

Many of the elements are consistent with our Durban Old Town Italy – the original store, for example, the look and feel of the bakery, the butchery, the cheese counter. This ensures that our customers recognise the Old Town brand and feel familiar in the space. Where the design differed was certainly the addition of the wine cellar, which works so well for tastings and is a unique dining space, along with the Sofia Room which is intimate and homely. These design elements have created two unique spaces for us within our store that allow for a different type of interaction with the customer.

Are there treatments/concepts that are completely new in SA, and totally unique to Old Town Italy?

While we feel we are the pioneers of this type of design in South Africa, we are aware that the concept of markets and restaurants combined is not new, especially in Europe and America, where you will find several examples of these. What makes you unique is the slight differences in the design elements that are personal to your core values, and then how you execute the operation within the given space. This is what makes you stand out in your field.

Did your design require new trips to Italy, or are you drawing on your Italian background and heritage quite extensively?

No, we didn’t embark on any trips for the design of the store. We had a clear vision of how we wanted the store to look. It was already in our heads! We live and work every day in a business that is fueled by a passion for all things authentically Italian and of the past, therefore the design and flow comes naturally to us. This allows us to convey with absolute commitment and confidence the look and feel for the stores during the design process.

Please tell us about the use of lighting in the store.

The lighting in our store is comforting and homely, yet ensures we create the market feel. When you walk down a market street in Europe you certainly don’t see too many bright lights. The emphasis is on warm lighting, while maintaining the authentic look.

Any green elements included in the design?

No, but the position of our store is within a Green Precinct.

Have you noticed any specific movements/trends in terms of contemporary design? Did you include these, or did you employ a more “retro” feel because it’s OLD Town Italy?

We have not used a contemporary design within the store, as this is not us. We use materials that have been around for thousands of years. I have a love of ancient architecture, which can be seen throughout Europe and has stood the test of time. It remains modern in its classic approach, so I like to draw on this when putting a store together.

Is there a continuity between your Durban and Pretoria branches, or have you employed newer techniques and designs for Menlyn Maine?

There are elements that are consistent but each store is also different and unique. Pretoria is bigger in size, on reflection perhaps too big. Durban for me is just the right size as it allows a slightly more “bustling vibe” on busy weekends. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.

How have customers responded to the concept?

I think people have enjoyed the experience in-store. For us, Old Town is a challenging structure and model to operate. It has many elements which allow room for error, and which people are not overtly forgiving about. A small 100-seater restaurant has time to reshuffle and rescue any potential situations if they happen. Old Town is slightly different due to the several sections such as the bakery, pastry room, butchery, cold meat and cheese section, and the gelateria, plus retail and gifting sections. Each element is manned with sales staff, with a GM overseeing the operation. Nothing is pre-wrapped or taken from the shelf; you need to be served, and this can sometimes cause frustrations for many used to the pace of modern times.

When can we expect branches in Johannesburg and Cape Town?

The designing and building is the easy part. It’s finding the people that buy into the brand and the culture of our company that is the hard, and most important, part. Cape Town is certainly an area we are looking into intensely right now, but the operating partner for us is key. We are looking for franchise partners that hold the same set of values as us, or it simply won’t work. We hope to open an Old Town Italy in Johannesburg in 2018. It will not have all the components of the larger stores, but it will still be uniquely Old Town, so that is exciting for us.

We love your concept of “eschewing mass consumerism”. We interpret this as walking away from the fast life and the cookie cutter vibe. Care to elaborate?

Yes, this is what Old Town represents for us. As a company, we place extreme value on authenticity. The consumer nowadays is so misled. We wanted to offer products that are what they say they are. You will only find organic produce in our stores, sourced from farmers that respect the Slow Food Movement and are loyal to the regional ecosystems. We don’t use anything in our store that isn’t made on-site. We do not provide shop-bought tomato sauce, we make our own, for example. In order to stay loyal to this, we are committed to finding and training individuals who are artisans in their field, which is not always easy. Money and turnover of course play a part in the business, but this is not our sole motivation. We believe wholeheartedly that our society today is moving too quickly, and in our own way we hope to slow it down!

Does this not mean that you are cutting yourself off from potentially a bigger mass market?

We have learnt that you cannot be everything to everybody. We have accepted this and refuse to compromise on our values. We simply want to be able to make sure that whatever we do, we do it as best we can.

What has worked and what hasn’t worked for you?

The feeling of the store has worked. People speak about it with me and it’s something you can’t describe, but I knew I wanted to create it at Old Town. I believe we have. People just love being in this space. You feel comfortable to come at any time of the day, and you just fit into Old Town and its way of life. What hasn’t worked as well is the store layout in terms of servicing each area. The store flow is critical when it comes to ensuring that you run an effective labour model, and we have yet to achieve that in terms of our design. We have learnt this now, and going forward have a strategy in place that will solve some of the issues.

Have you seen tough trading in light of the slow economic growth? If so, do you have a strategy to counter this?

We have certainly, and I think the entire restaurant and retail industry would be lying if they said they hadn’t. It’s a hard one, because our whole model and philosophy is one that is about direct customer service and counter service combined, which is one of our biggest costs. However, to compromise here would be detrimental to our business. With more malls and increased competition, there is added pressure on the turnover. Like most, we certainly are concerned about the current trading trends in South Africa. Strategy-wise, we have stayed true to who we are and we strive to keep delivering authenticity, quality and great service in order to keep our customers loyal to us and visiting regularly.

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