Q What made you go into the pasta business?
A I was a deep-sea diver working for oil companies in Asia, Africa and Europe. I used to dive up to 150m, working on oil rigs and pipelines. I did that for more than 12 years and when my first son, Luigi, was born in Singapore in 1988, I decided to make a career switch.
I was 35 years old then. I was starting a family with my wife, Jessamine, who is Singaporean, and it was important for me to be around - on land, instead of being underwater.
So I decided to sell pasta. It was something I was familiar with. I could offer Singaporeans and visitors the real taste of Italy. There were also people from my part of the world who might be living, working or visiting Singapore and who might want to have a taste of home. So they could come to Pasta Fresca Da Salvatore, which translates into Fresh Pasta, from Salvatore.
Q How did you go about starting the business?
A I noticed that you could get dried pasta from supermarkets but not fresh pasta and, particularly, freshly-made ones without additives or preservatives.
I wanted to use my mother's recipe and include the finest and freshest ingredients. So I imported five pasta-making machines from Italy and that started me off on my business, making ravioli, penne, fettuccine, linguine, fusilli, conchiglie, spaghetti, the whole range of pasta. It was a small outfit. We operated from a shop at Royalville in Bukit Timah. Then in 1990, we moved to larger premises in Pandan Loop. We're still there today.
We can produce up to 60kg of ravioli, 20kg of tortellini in an hour, and up to 200kg of spaghetti a day.
Q When did you move into the restaurant business?
A I started making and selling pasta in 1988, and I would cook different dishes with the pasta for my customers to try. My customers told me that they enjoyed my cooking and so I was encouraged to start a restaurant. At our shop in Bukit Timah, we started by laying out three tables, and then, when more customers turned up, we added additional tables at the front of the shop while we moved the pasta-making machines to the back. We grew from there.
Q How was business at the start?
A It was very encouraging as our clientele started to build up. There were not so many Italian restaurants around, especially those which produced their own pasta. So our customers had a wide choice of pasta to go with different sauces which we produced from imported ingredients. They could mix and match whatever pleased them.
Q What were the challenges you faced?
A We expanded to nine outlets across the island in the mid-1990s, and then there was the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and we had to close six outlets over the next few years. At that time, we had also expanded into Malaysia with the establishment of a pasta factory in Kuala Lumpur. But we had to close that down as well. We needed to consolidate the business and focus on strengthening our brand and offering good food with value for money, and good service.
Since 2014, we have scaled down to three outlets in Singapore - the Bukit Timah outlet we have had since 1988, the one at Boat Quay which we opened in 1992, and one in Siglap in 1995. Together with our pasta factory, we have 60 people on our staff. We pay attention to costing and staffing, and operational efficiency. I oversee accounting, and I am also a waiter and a runner.
Q What are your business plans?
A Our clientele has grown over the years and we supply to other restaurants, hotels and to airlines via an airline catering company. We do this through Carecci & Figli, which means Carecci and Sons, a company set up in 1990 to handle online wholesale orders for our food and beverage.
We hope to continue growing this line of business, apart from drawing new customers to our outlets and to our catering business for corporate and private events. We are also keen to attract younger customers to our online ordering business.
We are looking to open a bistro by the end of the year if we can find a good location to cater to a younger, busier group of customers. We have to be strategic in our expansion plans, taking into account labour issues and footfall - high volume of traffic. So we need to have a good catchment area for strong custom.
I am keen on branching out into Malaysia again. But that will be some time in the future.
Q What steps have you taken to ensure a smooth transition of leadership from yourself to your sons?
A I share my passion for the business with them. We discuss things, and I get them interested in the potential of the business and welcome their ideas and inputs. Each of my two sons brings something to the business. Luigi, who is 28, handles business development, while Vittorio, who is 26, does online marketing to help promote e-commerce. So we complement each other. They bring new ideas on board. They study market trends and what young people want, such as fusion food and events management. This is the new set of clients we would like to attract.
Q What are you most proud of in terms of your achievements?
A I enjoy what I am doing. There have been ups and downs, but if you have faith and can steer yourself across stormy seas, things are manageable. The other thing that I am proud of is that we have developed our own brand of wines, including Don Luigi and Donna Adelina - red and white wines, respectively - which have been named after my parents. Our business is growing again, slowly but strategically.
Q What are your next steps?
A I would like to go into farming next - time for a career change, to have a different challenge. I am looking to grow vegetables. I want to look at the farm and think which food I would like to have for my lunch or dinner. Perhaps the vegetables can be supplied to our restaurants. But of course it would be difficult to find farmland in Singapore. So I will have to look further afield. That would be something that I would be happy to do. I'm 63 and I don't believe in retirement.