Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vincenzo Ristorante Italiano, Bangsar

From The Star

The business of dining out

DATUK Kalimullah Hassan is on his way. There's an expectant air at Vincenzo Ristorante Italiano, the Italian restaurant he co-owns on Bangsar's Jalan Ara, where the staff are aware of his impending arrival. Soon enough, he pulls up a chair and sits down for an interview with BizWeek, punctuated with greetings and acknowledgments from various diners.

Since its opening, the restaurant's reputation has grown considerably, to the point that Kalimullah himself finds it difficult to get a table without a prior reservation. Still, he is often to be found on its premises, in the company of friends from his various corporate stints.

Kalimullah, after all, has become quite the visible figure on the Malaysian landscape – just pick from his eventful time as group editor-in-chief of The New Straits Times, his involvement with ECM Libra Avenue Bhd, or his latest duties as chairman of Fly Asia Xpress Sdn Bhd.

So is this what he had in mind when Vincenzo was first conceived, and is the restaurant synonymous with the man?

Kalimullah says that Vincenzo grew from a seed cultivated with a close friend, a shared desire to establish a watering hole where friends could kick back and share food and discussion of equal quality. Using his connections to the restaurant business, this friend secured the services of a manager and chef, while Kalimullah and his partners provided the funding.

“It's more like a hobby. We would have been quite happy if it had just broken even, and we had a place to run. But from the first month it started making money. In one and a half years it has already paid us back,” he adds, emphasising that his first venture into the industry was hardly a profit-driven decision.

Kalimullah and TSH Resources Bhd managing director Datuk Kelvin Tan each own a 30% stake in Vincenzo, while another partner whom he declines to name owns 20%. The management of Vincenzo owns the remaining 20%, ensuring a personal stake in keeping the restaurant running smoothly.

The One Bangsar development, spread over 1.4ha, is occupied by restaurants offering a variety of different cuisines, many of which are owned by a who's who of corporate Malaysia. Kalimullah stressed that these are largely part-timers, himself included.

Vincenzo is nestled in one of the choicest lots on the development, with an outdoor dining area concealed from the street by the natural curve of the land. A well-manicured lawn sets off the restaurant's low-lit charm, making it the ideal place for plans to be laid and hands shaken to consummate business deals – or one would think. Easing back in his chair, Kalimullah laughs and refutes the notion.

“That was not the intention! It turned out that we made a lot of friends, though it doesn't actually translate into business deals,” he says. All the same, the notion of a positive circle effect is as hard to dispel as Vincenzo's appeal as a networking spot for the owners and their friends. Kalimullah, however, paints the picture in an amusing light.

“This is not our core business, it is a hobby. We enjoy seeing our friends here, but the thing about having them here is that when they have complaints to make, and they have 101 suggestions, we have to listen to them. Some ask why we use paper napkins, some say you should add more pepper to a certain dish, while someone else wants chili padi paste,” he grins.

“So we've got all those things for those who would like them, but we've even got some fellows complaining that we don't have too many French and Australian wines. We're an Italian restaurant, with one of the best collections of Italian wines, but the wine drinkers come here and say we don't have good French wines!”

Responding to a question about Vincenzo's potential as a franchise, Kalimullah says that he is unlikely to open another branch. However, he enthuses over a new venture, an American bistro called Rick's Cafe that is the latest addition to One Bangsar. Vincenzo will own a 40% stake in the restaurant.

“We've done some renovations...we want to make it like Rick's Cafe in the film Casablanca, with a baby grand piano (among other things),” he enthuses. So with two restaurants under his belt, could this blossom into a full-fledged business venture further down the line?

“I doubt it very much,” is the succinct answer. “It takes up too much time.” With that, the interview comes to a close, and Kalimullah takes his leave, perhaps seeking another venture that is destined to become the subject of discussion over dinner at Vincenzo. – By Hari Raj

No comments: