Forty years of Ponti's

15 December 2003 by
Forty years of Ponti's

For many first- and second-generation Italians in the UK, this will be a familiar tale. In 1957, 15-year old Giuseppe Ispani is dispatched to England from Emilia Romagna in Italy to earn money for his family. Through relatives, he gets a job in an Italian-run London café, where he works hard, posting back part of his earnings to Italy.

After six years, Giuseppe, who, to make life easier, changed his name to Peter, sets up his own café with help from his uncle, Johnny, going into competition with other Italian cafés around him and bringing his passion for food and service to an embryonic hospitality industry that could, frankly, do with it. He settles down, has a family and diligently grows his business. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Considering its humble beginnings as a steamy café in Belgravia, selling cappuccinos and sandwiches to local coach drivers, Peter Ispani's counter-service restaurant concept, Ponti's, has done rather well since it was established 40 years ago. The familiar (if low-profile) brand, now has 31 stores, with four more in the pipeline. There's a coffee shop division, plus an outside catering company that supplies meals to the Tory Party conference and House of Commons, among others. The company employs 600 staff and brings in an aggregate turnover of £26m a year. Last year, pre-tax profits were £2.4m.

"It's a typical immigrant story," says Peter Ispani's son, Stefano, who is operations director of the company. "Eggs and bacon was not Italian food, but I think the immigrants then did typical English food better than the English. They pioneered the bread and butter pudding, the Yorkshire pudding and roasts and did it better because Italians take their food seriously.

"My father had a strong Italian work ethic and a love of food, but there was also a combination of arrogance and fear that made him successful. You had to be very competitive because your livelihood and everyone at home depended on you. The arrogance was about being better than everyone else and the fear was about failing."

Peter Ispani expanded carefully but successfully throughout the 1970s and 1980s, selling a basic Italian menu that included all-day breakfasts, Italian classics, salads, pastas and sandwiches either made on the premises or at the company's central kitchen.

The original idea for Ponti's was to bring "la cultura del mangier bene" (the culture of good eating) based on the best of the Italian family kitchen. The menu is Anglo-Italian, but stores also specialise in traditional Italian dishes while keeping an eye on contemporary eating habits. A number of ingredients are sourced from the region of Emilia Romagna, such as the Parma ham, salami, pancetta, cheese and pasta. The ciabatta is part-baked in Milan and flown over daily.

And the menu has changed little over the years. It continues to offer Italian and English comfort food, sandwiches and cappuccinos at a cost of about £5 a head. "The reality is that the menu we have today goes back to 1972 and three-quarters of it hasn't changed," Stefano says. "There have been tweaks and variations along the way but our style isn't avant-garde or ground-breaking. It is stuff that Mum makes for you. It's about home-style and comfort."

By the 1980s, the company had 16 stores and was beginning to diversify. A microwave division, supplying microwaves to Shell and setting up their forecourts was registered in 1993. Then recession hit, the microwave division was sold and some restaurants closed.

"It was a tough time, but we survived it," remembers Stefano. "My father was a human motor. We just worked through it, streamlined a great deal, then started building again. After the recession we were down to about 12 stores."

The business got back on track soon afterwards, but, sadly, Peter died in 2001. The company had been doing well, despite 2001 being a tough year economically, and his death came as a shock. "It was just before 11 September so for us, as well as the rest of the planet, our security appeared to have been swept away," Stefano remembers. "We had three stores pending but we put our heads down and got on with it. There was a lot of angst as to what we should do but we pulled together very well as a team."

There's a lot of talk about family atmosphere within the company (although the only other blood relative in the business these days is Stefano's aunt, Gabriella Bassi, who is Ponti's buyer) much of which is the legacy of Peter's core values, Stefano says.

"When we say ‘family' we use the word in a generic sense. We are referring to the team and we gel together really well. My father's core values were about respect and treating customers and staff well, and I like to think everyone here shares those values. I like to impress that upon our staff. Our manager turnover is less than 10%. People stay with us for a very long time.

Director Richard Tate, who started at Ponti's two years ago, believes this is partly why Ponti's succeeds where others fail. "This is one of the most fascinating environments. It's not just about the spread of the things we do, but the family atmosphere that's so different from a corporate one. I'm not saying the drive for success is different but you aren't removed from what's going on in this company. We all help out and spend time in the stores, so you get a good feel for the issues, but more importantly you see the customers and what their reaction is. It's very intimate."

After 40 years in business, Ponti's is now beginning to see change, according to Stefano, with new brands and a new design image. Two coffee shop brands have been introduced to the business: a partnership company, Caffe Alba, is a five-strong coffee-shop concept set up with Lavazza coffee, while Caffe Italia now has six stores. Three years ago, Ponti's opened its first airport store and is hoping to open more outlets in airports in the future.

A refurbishment programme is in place to go through all the stores, revamping them and creating continuity between them. A new colour palette and logo have been chosen, and a budget of £1m has been put aside for refurbishment and marketing. In addition, the outside catering division, Ponti's Party Service, was formalised three years ago.

As for the future, there are four more sites opening next year and more being sought. Yet Stefano isn't keen to call it an expansion programme. "The only thing expanding round here is our waistlines and the only thing we like to roll out is the pizza dough," he jokes. "It's very fashionable in this industry to talk about having an expansion. Everyone talks about turnover but no one talks about profits. For us, we'd like to expand the business but if we do we'll do it in a modest and considerate way.

"We haven't diversified again and have stuck to our knitting. Our system has proved to work over the years and continues to work. A lot of people have five-year plans; we have a 40-year plan. Our top line has grown by almost 50% over the past two years and our bottom line will be substantially more than 50% so we're not dissatisfied with what we have achieved. We'll just get on with what we do."

factfile

Head office: 17-21 Wenlock Road, London N1 7SL, Tel: 020 7250 1414

  • Established: 1963 by Peter Ispani

  • Ponti's: 20

  • Caffe Italia: 6

  • Caffe Alba: 5

  • Ponti's outside catering division: established 2000

  • Covers per year: seven million

  • Average spend: £4 to £5

  • Staff: 600

  • Turnover: £26m

  • Generating profit before interest and tax: £2.4m

  • Chairman: Charles Morris

  • Director: Richard Tate

  • Managing director: Peter Featherman

  • Operations director: Stefano Ispani

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