If the words of Benjamin Franklin are to be believed (or, indeed, those who quote him), “wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance”. In which case, perhaps it’s time modern-day journalists brought the bottle back to their desks.
With this perception of wine and its smoothing effects, I can’t help but think that this particular Founding Father was channelling his inner Italian when coining such supporting proclamations. The passion and value that Italians hold through coming together over fine food and wine is a lesson that should be learned by us all. I’d certainly never skip that class. As luck would have it, the UK on-trade currently has a couple of guys who are willing to be our teachers. They are Andrea Zecchino and Nino Francesco Caruso, co-founders (Founding Fathers?) of Veeno, the Italian wine café business that is set to surge across the country in 2018.
I caught up with Caruso (pictured right) at the beginning of the year, having kept an intrigued eye on Veeno’s rather rapid expansion since its first site opened in 2013 (there are 18 Veenos now, with plenty more on the way). While conducting Pub & Bar’s City Watch project last year, I paid a visit to the Nottingham branch to see just what it was all about. Inside, I found an intimate, stylish setting – an environment made for carrying out the ritual of drinking, eating and relaxing. After all, that’s what Italian aperitivo culture is all about, and that’s exactly why Caruso and Zecchino set up the business in the first place. They missed home and the customary culture that comes with it.
“We opened that first Veeno together and we didn’t have much,” remembers Caruso. “A few tables, some wine, some food, and we thought ‘let’s see what happens’. Those first two months over Christmas were an absolute success – we sold all the wine and it just went crazy. So we sat down in January, I left my job, and worked on how we could turn it into a business. One year later, we opened two more stores through loans and family connections – £1,000 here, £1,000 there.”
Family is a vital cornerstone of the Veeno offer. Not only did those close connections help financially at the start of the journey, but the business also sources its wine from Caruso’s family vineyard in Marsala, Sicily, where his family have been growing vines since the 19th century. From an operator’s point of view, being this connected to the core product offer not only allows for a confidence in the quality of what’s being sold, but naturally leads to an in-depth wine knowledge across the whole of the business. This is then passed onto the guest.
“I think the way we do our offer and the way we design the bar is crucial – we work hard on customer experience and service,” Caruso explains. “It’s not just about having an attractive list of wine – we have products that we produce and import. It is great value for money, as we produce it and control the supply chain. Then we create a family environment that’s familiar and relaxed, and rather than just offering information about the wine, we make wine interesting and allow people to be more knowledgeable about it, without having to be sommeliers. That’s not what we are – that can be boring and too serious. We want it to be fun, interactive and approachable.”
A national brand
Those of you who are familiar with Veeno will know about the growth of the business. The simple model, created in tribute to Italian traditions, has proved most popular with not only the general public, but also financial backers and franchise partners. Out of the 18 venues that were up and running when Caruso and I spoke, four were under the Veeno franchise model. By the end of this year, he anticipates to have around 30 sites in total up and running. What’s more, 70 UK territories have already been sold to franchisees. Over the next few years, there won’t be many areas in the UK that don’t have a Veeno café in close proximity.
“When we got to 14 corporate stores, we started looking at franchising,” he explains. “We had huge franchise demand from London, Glasgow, Brighton, Birmingham, Newcastle, you name it. As of now, we have opened four franchised stores, with one more in Brighton opening in March. We need to finalise that. Then there’s Warrington right after that, and then a pipeline of 10 franchised stores within the year.”
If this rate of growth lasts, and the corporate and franchised stores continue to open around the UK, Caruso says Veeno could eventually become a 250-site business, competing with the likes of PizzaExpress and several other casual dining brands. As a model, it crosses through a variety of markets, potentially securing the spend of customers who are loyal to pubs, restaurants, bars and cafés. Veeno seems to tick every out-of-home box.
While thousands will already know about the company and what these wine cafés offer, 250 units would create a far more powerful and renowned brand association and reputation. Is this something the co-founders are actively seeking?
“It would be a dream to be a nationally-recognised brand, and then go abroad – that would be me on top of the world,” says Caruso. “We work hard and we enjoy what we do, so we’ll see where it takes us, one site at a time.
“In 2019, if there is the right chance, we will start looking at other countries – we’ve already had a lot of contact about this, but we are going to take that slowly. We don’t want to overdo it.”
Franchise or corporate?
As conversations continue about just how many Veenos can arrive on high streets around the UK, you wonder if Caruso and Zecchino ever step back and consider the dangers in such extreme brand evolution and growth. What could happen to their original idea? That first mock-up Veeno, where Caruso poured wine and Zecchino paid the bills, must still be fondly ingrained in their memories – after all, it was only a few years ago. In theory, the bigger a brand, the weaker the authenticity. Keeping track of company values and validity will get harder as the business gets bigger, and that’s before large-scale franchise deals have even been put in place. Does that worry Caruso?
“There is a risk with franchising, absolutely,” he says. “But it’s about having strong leadership at the beginning and building on a training programme that is engaging and approachable for the franchisee. It’s a matter of doing that properly, and choosing the right partner is crucial. We have it all in place. We worked for one and a half years before opening the first franchise site. We put almost everything in place, and we’re confident we can keep that standard.
“In terms of expansion, we are happy with both the corporate and franchise route. There is no rush in one or the other – we just have to be ready for it. We have a fantastic concept, with a fantastic team of people behind us. Let’s be ready for expansion and if we can do more of either, that’s fine. The longer-term business plan is to split between the two, fifty-fifty.”
There’s no doubt that Veeno’s growth has been exponential – the company’s turnover has gone from £1m in 2015 to an anticipated £6m for 2018. Give them another three years, and who knows what that number will grow to. I’m sure there are many pub and bar operators reading this a little wide-eyed at the idea of having 250 as a potential number of outlets, but it doesn’t worry Caruso and Zecchino. They haven’t said that’s what they’ll get to; they’ve said that could be the limit. Right now, they’re happy with their plans, happy with their franchise partners, happy with their team (over 150 employees at the last count) and, crucially, happy with their offer. If all that remains, then Veeno should continue to flow.
“From a technical point of view, the number of sites we’ve come to and accepted is 250, but we’re not working to that as a target,” concludes Caruso. “The important thing for us is not the number of stores. We’ve created a proper business starting from a family-run wine bar, where I was doing the wine and Andrea was paying invoices, and now we’ve built a corporate environment, delivering the same values, focusing on the quality of the product and delivering our training. Now we just have more resources to do it.”