Evening business at Ristorante I Toscanini, Peterborough, has built up rapidly, to the point where owners Paolo Bianchi and Libero Calitri have put a ceiling of 90 covers on reservations for any evening. Regular customers are coming back, some from a wide area.
The restaurant is now fully staffed, both in the kitchen and front of house. Waitresses are now distributed two to each station, with another server bringing food out from the kitchen.
Just 15 weeks after the opening of I Toscanini, Paolo Bianchi reflects: "Sometimes it's frightening. The quicker you achieve a certain level, the harder it is to maintain. I Toscanini now has a reputation in Peterborough and it has to be protected."
While there is room to grow, Paolo is already delighted with the level of trade. "The centre of Peterborough is dead in the midweek evenings. Many other people in the trade would cut off their arms to have the business we are getting.
"I'm convinced that as soon as a customer walks in, we are halfway there: we've already scored points with the interior design, the atmosphere, warmth of welcome and so on."
Paolo and partner Libero Calitri are now getting on top of the flow of business. "We are starting to get a pattern established. We know now how to arrange the furniture for different combinations of table sizes, and if we get a booking for a party of 18, say, I can rattle off the menu and know what the cost per head and the profit will be," says Paolo.
The staff, too, have settled well into their routine. The kitchen staff all come in for lunch service and the preparation of mise en place for the evening, then take a break until the dinner shift.
All the staff are working split shifts - 9am to 3pm and 6.30pm to midnight. They take it in turns to come on earlier or later, and all work just over 40 hours a week - "a bit longer in the kitchen," admits Paolo. Either he or Libero is on duty for dinner service, but not necessarily at lunchtime, and the two proprietors are each working about 55 hours a week.
Lunchtimes can be quiet, but the evenings build up to fever pitch for about an hour from 8.30 to 9.30 on Fridays and Saturdays, and to a lesser extent during the week.
Paolo is full of praise for the team: "The customer may not realise the staff are under pressure, but I can see it. They've got five or six things on the go at once. When you're doing coffee on one table, there's the main course to go out for another, someone else asks for the bill and then the phone goes - wow! But we're all workers here and it gets done."
To boost lunchtime trade, Paolo wants to add a set-price menu at about £10.50 for two courses and coffee. "We had one before, but it was the previous chef's menu. We need to promote I Toscanini for business lunches in the New Year," he says. "It will be a choice of two starters, two main courses, with vegetables of the day, and coffee. That will push up the lunchtime bookings - but 95% of the revenue comes from the evening trade, so we've concentrated on getting that right."
Paolo will promote lunch at I Toscanini through the local press and direct mail shots to local companies. He now has a list of about 2,000 business contacts, gained over about seven years. At present, I Toscanini has no computer and the information is all handwritten on several sheets of paper.
Paolo and Libero have just taken delivery of a minimised version of the colour drawing of I Toscanini by designer Enzo Campanella. It could be reproduced on postcards, creating a ready-made direct mail campaign. There is even a post box just outside the restaurant.
But Paolo says: "Some people are asking us: 'Why don't you put it into action straight away?' But we're not ready yet - we've got to get the dinner shift right. If we were doing 40 to 50 covers at lunchtimes and the same or more in the evenings, it would be too much for us to handle."
I Toscanini has done little advertising so far: it appeared in an advertisement feature in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph at the time of the opening, and later took an entry in the paper's eating-out guide. Paolo is instead relying on his reputation among former customers from the Stamford area - many of whom travel to I Toscanini.
A letter from the publisher of a regional guidebook of hotels and restaurants, asking £250 for an entry, gets rejected. "We won't go in that," says Paolo, decisively.
All the trading data from the restaurant is going to the accountant each month, but Paolo and Libero have not yet been able to complete the first quarter's books. Stocktaking has been done regularly since the end of August, so the first quarter's stock report will be put together about now.
Asked for his predictions about the results, Paolo says: "We're making a profit but we haven't seen any of it. We are still paying so much each month to Enzo and Phil (the designer and carpenter) and we still owe the electricians and the plumber. Any profit will be absorbed in paying them."
One thing he does know: the first VAT bill will be due in January - and that could be about £5,000.
The business has applied for planning permission to use some of the upper floor for storage, part of which will include a walk-in fridge. But this is proving to be a costly exercise. An external fire escape staircase must be installed before people can work upstairs, and Paolo has been quoted more than £2,500 for a cast-iron staircase. "I'm looking around to see if there's a cheaper alternative. We've got to do it properly, but we won't necessarily take the most expensive option."
Current jobs include confirming all the table arrangements and menus for office Christmas parties. This means a nightmare set of permutations of table layouts, finding alternative choices for vegetarians, different drinks - and the decorations. While all this takes a lot of advanced organisation, it's good business, and I Toscanini is getting plenty of it. Friday and Saturday nights are fully booked from now until the second week of January.