A journey stretching from Italy to Australia has seen Flavio Carnevale use his butcher and deli background to open Popolo in Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay. By Kerryn Ramsey
“I grew up with my family running a butcher shop in Rapone near Salerno [in south-western Italy]. We supplied organic meats to restaurants so I’ve had my foot in the business since I was a child.
“In my late teens, I moved to Rome and worked in a traditional deli. I would de-bone prosciutto, hand-cut 30kg-size mortadella, and prepare cheeses—it was more like art than just food.
“By the time I was 21, I was working as a head waiter at Bar della Pace, and as a restaurant manager at Santa Lucia in Rome. It was a great experience that gave me real drive.
“My first trip to Australia was to visit relatives and improve my English but I soon realised it was a very special place. I returned to Europe—working at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Tragaluz, in Barcelona—but I missed Australia so much, I came back and never left.
My first job was in a newly open cafe/deli in Paddington run by an Australian-Italian lady. I was back to deboning prosciutto! The best part of the job was that she let me treat the deli like it was my own and effectively run that part of the business. That job helped me make connections right across Sydney.
“I then spent five years working as a floor manager for Fratelli Paradiso in Potts Point. I learnt more about service and how to adjust between Europe and Australia.
“After my first daughter was born, I decided it was a good time to start my own restaurant. I wanted to show a different side to Italian food and opened Popolo in 2012.
“When working with a small team, it’s very important to find the right person who can fit in and who has an interest in what we do. I offer a few rewards and I like to find out about each person’s interests.”
“Initially, I looked at three different locations but the rents were immense. In Sydney you need the right location but a realistic rent is essential. You also need a clear business model and a vision of what you want to achieve. At the same time, it’s important to be a little flexible.
“It also depends on the demographic of the people, as well as the competition you have around. I knew Popolo would be popular with locals but I also wanted to encourage guests from other areas to visit. I was happy to have plenty of parking in the area. It makes an enormous difference.
“I have 12 staff in total—six in the kitchen and six on the floor. When working with a small team, it’s very important to find the right person who can fit in and who has an interest in what we do. I offer a few rewards and I like to find out about each person’s interests. They may have an enthusiasm for wine but never had the opportunity to cultivate that interest. I’ll then make them part of the wine selection process and in some cases, my floor staff have taken up study to become sommeliers. I look for people who are curious about our business and who want to learn. I try to make my staff feel they’re part of a community and reward their quality and hard work.
“Marketing is very important when you’re running a restaurant. You need to be in contact with customers through social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and EDM (electronic direct mail), which we organise in-house. We only send direct mail out for specific events—not just for a new menu. We want to keep in touch with customers as often as we can but only if it’s informative.
“During the first three years of running the restaurant, I never had any time off apart from a few days in January. I didn’t have the right support structure in place and it’s impossible to do everything yourself. Good staff is your best support.
“We’re currently working on a new concept that we’re hoping to get up and running by early next year. Trying to exactly replicate Popolo would just lose its spark and interest. The new restaurant will be different but it will still have a Popolo soul.
“I love what I do and in future I would like to write a glossary of Southern Italian food. The food from that region is my passion. It’s part of me.”