The Dammone brothers don't rest on their laurels when it comes to keeping up with the times. Their Salvo's restaurant in Leeds has expanded and created a family atmosphere, turning customers into fans. Neil Gerrard report
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The late Salvatore Dammone, a native of southern Italy, opened Salvo's in Headingley near Leeds in 1976, at a time when the eating-out landscape in the UK was very different. Salvo's son John Dammone (pictured right), who now co-owns the business with elder brother Gip (left), explains that a neighbourhood trattoria like Salvo's was a "breath of fresh air" compared with their more staid counterparts. Since then, the business has grown significantly - the main restaurant now covers three retail units, in addition to a nearby delicatessen, the Café & Salumeria.
The fact that Salvo's sits in a suburb of Leeds means it does well with the family market, but it also benefits from the trade brought in by local offices, as well as the rugby crowd from nearby Headingley stadium.
But John Dammone jokingly laments the fact that Leeds United Football Club is languishing in the Championship - Premier League status makes a huge difference to business. Even so, the diverse customer base allows the business to turn tables throughout the evening, particularly on Friday and Saturday when it is open for dinner from 5.30pm.
"We are full with families by 6pm and that is great because that is your difficult period. Anyone can fill a restaurant up at 8pm and that's the time we get older people out celebrating," John says.
Despite the reputation Salvo's has built up in the local area, the Dammone brothers do not believe they can ever rest on their laurels when it comes to marketing.
"Our objective is to turn customers into fans," John says. "Word of mouth is the best form of publicity."
As a result, a lot of the business's activity revolves around getting coverage in the local press, as well as working with local charities. Recent activity includes a partnership with Caring For Life, which supports homeless and vulnerable people, and runs a nearby farm. The Salumeria hosts a 40-cover dinner which is created entirely from the farm's produce and hands over the proceeds to the charity. But the biggest marketing success for Salvo's in recent years was its 2009 appearance on the Channel 4 TV series The F-Word, with Gordon Ramsay.
"It has two million viewers on Channel 4. You cannot buy that," John says. In the year following the restaurant's apperance, turnover was up 30% on the previous year.
Trading during the recession
John has noticed a drop in consumer confidence since the start of the recession, with customers worried about job security. But he has not been tempted down the discounting route that some of the bigger players have chosen.
"Our philosophy of quality is remembered long after price is forgotten." He argues that the quality of the produce the business uses, much of it flown in weekly from Milan market, is so high, that customers are getting real value for money. He has also examined the menu to make sure it offers attractive alternatives to pricier options, with dishes like braised beef at £14-£15, rather than a fillet steak, which would cost £20-£30.
John's favourite supplier is wine merchant Enotria, which helps him source house wine from the Sicilian co-operative Settesoli, the same supplier he has used since 1976. But it also helps him source wines that differentiate the offer, keep the wine list on-trend, and helps him train his staff.
"A small independent restaurant can't normally afford to employ someone full time to source wine like a D&D London can, so we are really reliant on getting the right supplier. Enotria dilligently sources undiscovered gems from Italy for me. My job is also to inspire my staff with that same amount of passion and confidence about wine that I have and Enotria are fantastic for that," says John.
The Dammones made the decision some time ago not to make Salvo's into a chain, despite offers from potential backers to do so, growing instead in the same location. "This is a lot more cost effective because it is in one location and we can keep an eye on the business. One of our USPs is that we are a real family business and we have heritage. People walk in and they like to see me, or my brother, or other members of the family in the restaurant. We have to work on that to survive in today's climate," John explains.
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The key question for John when running a restaurant business is: "How are you going to differentiate yourself from the rest of the marketplace?" He adds: "Why is the customer going through our door rather than through the door of another business half a mile down the road? You have to work on what your USP is and engage with your customers, with the local community and make yourself visible. Don't open the doors and expect that the customers are going to come to you. Reach out and get them to come in."
Spotlight on moving with the times
Salvo's has constantly had to adapt to the shifting dining-out landscape in Britain. "When a restaurant has been running a very long time it can be a bit of a double-edged sword," says John. "On the one hand I would like to think that over 35 years we have built a substantial amount of loyalty from our customers. However, that cannot be deemed to be an excuse for not moving with the times. If we were still the same restaurant we were when we opened in 1976, we wouldn't be in business."
The Dammones opened the Salumeria alongside the main restaurant six years ago, which has allowed them to offer a different, less formal customer experience without cannibalising their existing restaurant revenue. The Salumeria sells specialist produce direct to customers and serves coffee and snacks during the day. But for four nights a week, the site offers a foodie experience. Three nights are devoted to "cenare con amici" (dining with friends), where there is a menu of the day offering just one choice. The fourth night, on Saturdays, offers a 10-course regional dining experience, with the regions changed three times a year.
FACTS AND STATS
Owners Gip & John Dammone
Capacity 85 (restaurant)
Average spend per head £25 (inc VAT and alcohol)
Covers per week 1,750 (restaurant only)