by Amy Parker
Michele Molinari is a passionate guy. Especially when it comes to coffee. If you’ve ever wondered what its like to own your own caffe or wondered anything about coffee for that matter, this is one of the people you should talk to. He doesn’t hold back. His business, Caffe Piccolo is coming up on
its 10th Anniversary in May and a lot has changed since this kid from Italy moved to Vancouver, full of ideas. I sat down with Michele this past weekend and we talked about the joys and heartache of having your own business, the skill that is involved in making coffee and the history of change at his caffe. He had a lot to say on the subject.
Michele grew up in Verona Italy, a small town of about 20,000 people in the north, made famous to many of us as the home of Romeo and Juliet. His father, Giuseppe Molinari was an architect and real estate developer, his mom stayed home to raise Michele and his sister, Francesca. Both of his parents are amazing cooks so it’s no surprise that Michele takes his food seriously. At the ripe old age of 14, Michele attended the Istituto Alberghiero Provinciale Boscochiesanvova, a school to learn how to be a professional waiter – a well respected career in Europe. After completing a university prep course and passing his state exam, he moved to Texas and attended Baylor University graduating with a double business major in finance and entrepreneurialism. Upon graduation, he returned to Italy to serve his mandatory year of service with the Italian Army. During that year, his father was retiring and the family was preparing to move to Vancouver, B.C.. They had come here in 1984 for a one month family holiday and fell in love with the city, the mountains and Canada. They decided that, when the time was right, they would make it their home.
At the age of 25, Michele and his family moved to Vancouver. His dream – to sell Northern Italian pastries and gelato to the Pacific Northwest. Giuseppe, Michele’s father, was expecting a large settlement from investments back in Italy and was keen to invest in his son’s idea. Michele and his business partner Clay, a friend from Baylor, planned to open a small gelato and coffee store in order to build their brand. They didn’t expect to make much money from the shop but they were going to create a name and demand for the tasty Italian treats based on family recipes and then sell them to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the area. It seemed like a great plan! They found a location for the shop, signed a lease, and started to buy up supplies and equipment. Unfortunately, they were working on Canada time now and banks back home were still on Italian time. Things weren’t going as smoothly as these two business grads expected.
Eventually, it turned out that the money simply wasn’t coming. In fact, it no longer existed – a common frustration for many Italians who have left their beautiful country of origin. Unfortunately, Michele and his partner were committed. They couldn’t get any money from the banks, after all, they were young, new to the country and without collateral. They had already invested $40,000.00 of their own money and there was no going back. They no longer had the resources for the wholesale plan and they were, in a manner of speaking, stuck with a retail space, so they decided to turn it into a Northern Italian style gelato shop.
The first summer was very good. The weather was beautiful and warm and people couldn’t get enough of his dad’s homemade gelato. In the fall, sales dropped off and things became desperate. With a little quick thinking, they decided to offer their customers another product – coffee. Espresso to be exact. This seemed to help. They weren’t rolling in the money. There were times when Michele remembers counting the quarters in the register just to make that months rent, but they were staying afloat. The hours were long. They couldn’t afford to hire any staff so both of the guys were working everyday, early in the morning until late at night, allowing themselves only four hours off a week. It wasn’t easy. After a year and a half, his partner left the business and returned to Texas. He never went into business for himself again but, he is doing well and he and Michele are still good friends. Michele’s mom and dad then joined the business and although they were more help, it was tough with three chefs in the kitchen – everyone had a different idea of how things should be done.
The challenges seemed endless. The outside signage referred only to gelati. The shop was called B.C. Gelati and they couldn’t afford to change it. Slowly they developed a cult following and word of mouth was their only advertising. In their first year, the editors of Cityfood magazine listed their Top 10 Food Experiences in Vancouver. Number two on the list was an espresso at B.C. Gelatti.
Both in Italy and here in Vancouver, Michele took his time learning as much about the art of coffee as he could. He is a firm supporter, both personally and professionally, of organic and free trade. He doesn’t believe in advertising it for several reasons, but the coffee at Caffe Piccolo is both. He also believes in supporting both local and Italian businesses. Since their second year in business they have been serving Milano Coffee. The importer is originally from Umbria but is now based in Oregon and they do the roasting right here in Vancouver – at 8th and Columbia.
When it comes to the skill of making the perfect espresso, Michele refers to the famous 5 m’s of coffee – miscela (the blend), macinadosatore (the grinder), macchina (the machine), the manutenzione (the maintenance, cleaning and upkeep of the machine) and last but not least, the mano (the hand – of the knowledgeable and talented barista). He offers as proof of this widely held theory, that he visited another local coffee shop in town that uses the same beans, the same blend, the same machine, made in the same year and their espresso was the “worst”. All five of the components must exist in harmony for the espresso to be perfect.
After three years of non-stop work and stress, Michele was burnt out. He left the business to his parents and spent his time pursuing new business deals and working part time as a server in some of Vancouver’s top restaurants. Michele’s sister Francesca replaced him at the store. The caffe became more like a restaurant and Michele’s mom made delicious traditional Northern Italian Fare for all the regulars smart enough to ask for it – handmade gnocchi, oven-roasted chicken and of course, sole on Fridays for the Catholics that don’t eat meat on Friday. They continued to make the gelato and coffee too. Business was good, but still not great.
Four years later, they asked Michele to come back. His sister was disillusioned with the business and overworked herself. Giuseppe and Anna knew they needed their son’s business advice to move forward.
Michele went back. He looked at their resources and demographics and he set up a plan. At first, his changes were not welcome with some of the regulars. No more half portions, less emphasis on the home cooked meals. Back to the basics. B.C. Gelati would change again, this time from being customer driven and somewhat inefficient to being business driven and more consistent Michele’s new vision was to RATIONALIZE operations. The customer is still treated very well but service is delivered for the greater good of all the customers. In the spring of 2007, Michele made more changes. Now the focus was on the coffee. The name of the business had to change and he had to create enough liquidity to pay for new signage. Some customers stopped coming. They didn’t like the new look, the new systems, but it turned out that they were not necessarily the desired demographic. Most of the regulars stuck with them and new people started coming in.
The new name, Caffe Piccolo, and the new awning and signage told the whole story – cappuccinos, soup, salads, sandwiches, desserts, homemade ice cream. As more people came in, the average guest check increased and it wasn’t long before the Molinaris could see a difference in the bottom line. I asked Michele what was, in his opinion, the the worst part about being self employed. He thought for a moment and then he replied, “You work twice as much, just out of necessity.” He paused. “But, when you care, you really care about what you are doing, you work three times as much.” And the best part about being self-employed? “If you are a creative person, you get to express it in everything you do. No one says, ‘No!’ to me. I do things my way and then I reap the results, good or bad.”
Caffe Piccolo isn’t the only thing evolving at West Broadway and Spruce, things have changed in the neighbourhood too. There is a lot more foot traffic, condos are going up everywhere, Finlandia is right across the street now and a new Waves Coffee opened up, kitty-corner, a couple of years ago. The future looks bright. So what did Michele and and his parents decide to do? Sell. The caffe has been up for sale for six months now. Business is only getting better but Michele’s parents are ready to retire and Michele has other ideas about what he wants to accomplish. He has been asked by several people to share his expertise and that is just what he plans to do. He consults with other cafes and restaurants regarding finances and operations and he is designing a course, “Barista 101” that he will be teaching at some of the ESL schools in the city. When I asked him what kind of person he thought would buy Caffe Piccolo, he didn’t even hesitate. “Someone with passion!” he grinned!