Within the space of four months, Big Mamma Group, founded by Victor Lugger and Tigrane Seydoux, launched two of London's most talked-about restaurants. Emma Lake discovers the group's dedication to Italy, unusual methods forstaff retention and their philosophy that Instagram is only half the battle.
The Big Mamma Group made the loudest of entrances to the London restaurant scene in February, when it opened Gloria, its Italian trattoria in Shoreditch, which is OTT in every way imaginable.
Four months on, and with queues to enter the brightly festooned doorway to the restaurant still snaking round the block, the group topped its own efforts when it opened Circolo Popolare in Fitzrovia.
The 280-cover site in Rathbone Place takes inspiration from the Sicilian coastline, with fresh flowers dripping from every inch of the cavernous ceiling, walls adorned with tens of thousands of bottles of spirits and kitsch mementos peeking out at every step. While it may sound suspiciously like style over substance, authenticity lies at the heart of the Big Mamma Group. It has relationships with more than 180 small, artisan producers in Italy, 70% of its staff are Italian and the vast majority of those design features are imported.
Co-founder Victor Lugger explains: "The big picture of Big Mamma is that when you pass through the door, you're in Italy, so we try to source all the materials in Italy. So many things you can buy here, but we just buy them in Italy. In the end it's the sum of small parts that feels Italian. It's not that it's better, it just feels Italian."
Lugger established Big Mamma with business partner Tigrane Seydoux in France, opening their first restaurant in Paris in 2015. The group now has six restaurants, a bar and a food market in the French capital and another restaurant in Lille.
The latest site in Fitzrovia came about, as Lugger said all the group's venues have, because "we found a space that coincides with one of the many dreams we have as a team".
"This place here is so big, so unique, with the terrace at the back. It takes some imagination, but we thought, OK, this is what we want to do. When it's mid-winter in London, everyone is complaining that they don't see the sun, blah, blah, blah, so grumpy; then you see that place and you think, OK, that's what we need."
"We really try to elaborate on a common memory; it's very important that we all agree on a common story. We spend hours discussing it: we go for dinner, we drink some wine and we just discuss memories. Everyone gets out their phones and says; look at this, look at that. We take all sorts of stupid notes and the next morning we do it. That is what we do: we get drunk, we take notes about all the crazy ideas we have and the next morning we do it.
An Italian job
Design may be the first thing that delights Big Mamma's diners, and it is probably what enticed them through the door in the first place, but Lugger also spends a quarter of every year in Italy ensuring that the food lives up to the atmosphere.
The company was built on this desire for authenticity and, prior to launching their first restaurant, Lugger and Seydoux toured small artisan producers, following recommendations gathered during previous visits, as well as dropping in on various chefs.
When they learned of culatello producer Lorenzo Bagatto; only for him to turn down a meeting because he did not have the capacity to supply them with his prized salami the pair drove to his home, leaving more than a day later with a relationship that now sees the ham listed on all menus.
Among more than 150 suppliers are artisans producing burrata in Puglia, wild fennel in Sicily, ricotta di bufala in Naples and green olives in Apulia. Big Mamma doesn't work with intermediaries; it organises its own transport systems to deliver produce from Italy to its restaurants, a decision that allows it to buy at lower prices and work with those who don't have access to distribution systems.
Lugger adds: "Everything that is better in Italy, we buy in Italy, direct from the producer. Everything that is not, we buy locally. We buy from small producers, all of whom sign our charter. We have a very strong commitment to suppliers about how we work with them, so they can build a lasting relationship with us because they are very small. I'm happy to say I'm proud of 100% of the products we have; it's probably the only KPI where the only acceptable metric is 100%.
When it comes to the menus themselves, Lugger, Seydoux and their staff have some fun. Dishes listed at Gloria include Filippo's big balls; a meatball dish named after the site's head chef Filippo La Gattuta, and the Brexitalia (strikethrough included) truffle pizza.
For the most part, the dishes are traditional, hearty Italian fare. Lugger explains: "Every time we've tried to cook something that was not 100% traditional Italian, like a fusion idea, it's always gone wrong because the guys don't feel it.
"It's an intellectual idea that it might be cool to do this, but they just don't have it in their guts. In the kitchen, 98% of the people are Italian and everybody is very young we're talking just out of school. Most of them had never left Italy until they came to work with us. So, if you tell them to do an Italian taco, they just don't get it. They don't enjoy doing it and it doesn't feel good. You get them to cook any food from their childhood and it's amazing.
"All the menus change every month. People think we do that so as the diners don't get bored. No, we do that for us, so as we don't get bored."
A growing famiglia
Having grown to 1,000 staff, Big Mamma has a full-time, four-person team in Italy focused on recruitment. The average age of chefs and managers across the group is 23. The sous chef at Gloria, a restaurant that serves 1,000 covers on a Saturday, is a 21-year-old who leads the team through service for half the week.
With restaurants that are known for their vibes, it's crucial for Lugger and Seydoux to keep their workforce engaged and smiling. Lugger says he doesn't have a definitive answer to how this is done, but he thinks of what motivates him and tries to ensure the staff feel the same way.
The teams write the menus, choose the playlists for the restaurants and change jobs regularly. He explains: "People in the company want to change jobs every six months. The restaurant business is hard, so six months in hospitality feels like three years in an office. By changing roles, my staff are growing organically in competency. There are always more people who can be restaurant managers."
As well as vibes, Big Mamma sets its stall on relatively low price points. In London, pizza and pasta dishes start at £11 for a margherita or £12 for a carmina burrata. Lugger says that when the group was formed, he and Seydoux had agreed that one of their favourite things about eating in Italy was that whatever you ordered, the bill was €30.
Lugger explains: "We thought, let us not forget that this is actually part of what is great is this sense that you're not being robbed and you can indulge and enjoy. The day before the opening of that first restaurant we did the pricing, I looked at the menu and I said, 'what do I want to pay?'. It was easy because I was not a restaurateur yet, I was a client.
"That's how we started. Then, at the end of the first month, we realised, oh boy, we had four times more people than we expected and the margins were low. But in the end the maths worked, because we had such a small rent and we had smashed the fixed costs."
To maintain volume, Big Mamma needs customers to return; it has to live up to the Instagram hype and deliver a dining experience that will see guests re-book.
Lugger says: "The reason they come is because it looks good on Instagram. We try hard to make restaurants that look good and food that looks good. Then they need to say the food was delicious; that's why they come back. Then the reason they'll come back again is because they'll say the best thing is your staff."
So far the model is working just as well in London as it has in France: "It's been crazy, we opened Gloria on a Friday at 4.45pm. At 5pm people started queueing; at 5.45pm there was a queue around the block. It's gone on since then for three months. I think the clients are happy; they are coming back. The press have been very nice to us. Over time it feels exactly as in Paris.
"It comforts me that people are not that different. I think people across the world like the same four things: good food, cheap prices, great design, big smile. If you do that, I think you're going to be OK in every place."
Big Mamma London
54-56 Great Eastern Street, London EC2A 3QR
Opened February 2019
Head chef Filippo La Gattuta
General manager Daniele Figus
40-41 Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia, London W1T 1HX
Opened June 2019
Covers 280, plus 60 on the terrace
Head chef Salvatore Moscato
General manager Constance Lugger
On the menu
Make bruschetta red again
Bruschetta with cuore del vesuvio tomatoes and smoky heart of burrata £6
Burrata with pesto heart
250g burrata with pesto heart and pane carasau £12
Light, crunchy crust, carpaccio, salad and giant Parmesan flakes £14
Fior di latte, Gorgonzola, peach, speck, honey and lavender £14
Dalla griglia (from the grill)
Seppie e limoni
Cuttlefish marinated with garlic and orange zest, grilled with confit lemon, with gazpacho coulis £15
Hand-made linguine, San Marzano tomato and aubergine sauce, creamy burrata heart and extra virgin olive oil al basilico £12
Mafaldine al tartufo
House special fresh mafalda, black Molise truffle, mascarpone, button mushrooms £18
Whipped cream and meringue with chocolate flakes £7
Growing Big Mamma
Big Mamma has grown to nine restaurants worldwide, with a bar and a food market in France, and it has plans to continue its expansion.
It is not private equity backed, but supported by a number of private investors, which Lugger says has allowed it to grow at its own pace.
He says: "We don't know how to make 10 restaurants in a year in 10 different cities and have those restaurants be as great as what we have today.
"I don't know how to do that, so I don't do that. The problem with private equity is they have to get out and it's not their money. So when they double the money, most goes to the guy who gave them the money and they just get the crust, so it has to be a big crust.
"You have to triple the money in four years - to do that you have to go into a lot of volume and that is hard to sustain."
Having staff move through roles to become the general managers and head chefs of the future is a contributor to how fast the group grows, along with, it seems, gut feeling and a sense of adventure.
Lugger says the move to London may not have been the most appealing on paper, particularly as Brexit looms ever larger, but it was something he and Seydoux wanted to do and, to make it work, he has moved with his family to the city.
As for the next move, he says there are no new sites in the pipeline, before adding "we keep dreaming and keep looking and sometimes those things match"
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