Foodie families: Da Paolo Group

SINGAPORE - Husband-and-wife team Paolo and Judie Scarpa opened Da Paolo, a trattoria in Tanjong Pagar, in 1989. It soon became well known for serving authentic Italian food by chef Scarpa, now 58, and the warm hospitality of the stylish Mrs Scarpa, 61, who greeted guests like friends while keeping an eagle eye on the operations.

Since then, they have opened and closed three upscale restaurants and started a gourmet deli chain called Da Paolo Gastronomia.

The brand celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and has come a long way from that first restaurant.

Currently, there are eight Gastronomia outlets. The flagship at the basement of Paragon shopping centre seats 42 and offers an array of prepared food, pastries, wine and other treats that customers can take away or have in-house. It took over the space that Canele, a now-defunct patiserrie, had vacated.

The family also has a bistro-bar at Rochester Park and a pizza bar at Chip Bee Gardens. Da Paolo Ristorante at Club Street will be revamped to introduce a more casual vibe.

The Da Paolo Group, which has 120 full-time staff, is now run by the couple's two children and son-in-law.

Ms Francesca Scarpa, 31, a mother of two boys aged two and four months, is the product manager, and her husband Guillaume Pichoir, 40, joined as chief executive in 2010. Mr Andrea Scarpa, 26, is the executive chef of the group.

When you started the business, did you think that one day, your children would take over?

Judie Scarpa (JS): We started the business as a way of making a living, not knowing what the future would bring. When we grew into a big company, we realised that we had to call on our daughter. It wasn't planned, she wanted to be a doctor. Having struggled for so long, to give the business up would have been a waste.

In 2010, Mr Pichoir joined the company as chief executive, coming from the finance sector. Why did you ask him to take on the role?

JS: To be the top man of the company, you need to have experience working for a big corporation. He had the qualifications and the analytical ability to take on the role. I know his character. He has determination and passion. I can't ask for more.

Guillaume Pichoir (GP): There was no formal request by anyone but the family talked about bringing Da Paolo to the next level and that was interesting. I had the feeling that this brand is very strong and the prospect of developing it further was interesting.

What changes were made to the business?

Francesca Scarpa (FS): He introduced an organisational structure. We were run very much like a family business. We would walk into a shop and ask the staff to do this or that. But it was firefighting and not solving the problem.

That has changed. If my mother sees something not right, she reports to the manager who then speaks to the staff and the problem can be fixed for good. It took about a year for us to get used to this.

GP: We didn't have concepts before but we created four brands - Gastronomia, Bistro-Bar, Pizza-Bar and the catering arm - and we aligned Da Paolo behind them.

FS: He comes from a tech background and we were working on paper, telephone calls and fax machines. He banned fax machines.

Andrea, you look after the food offerings across the outlets and manage the two central kitchens in Admiralty. What new offerings have you planned?

Andrea Scarpa (AS): There is a lot of room for creativity. I am developing a new line of healthy food such as organic quinoa with chicken and eggplant, kale and sweet potato salad, and gluten-free food.

This is a trend that's happening worldwide and even those who are not gluten- intolerant are looking for gluten-free food.

Quinoa, Paleo diet-friendly food, aren't these very different from your original Italian offerings?

Paolo Scarpa (PS): I'm not surprised at all. Somehow, it has to change. Young people have new ideas. Recipes evolve, it's unavoidable.

FS: When we have food tastings and maybe a dish with meat and fruit sauce, my father will say, 'Blech, what is that?'. He would never have pineapple on pizza but we have it. We ignore him when he says blech.

What would you say are the strengths of your children?

JS: Francesca has a bit of my character. We both love fashion. We are quick to know people and network well. She has better taste than I have, in terms of choosing the right packaging for the products. The younger generation can always refine things.

Andrea didn't have time to enjoy anything. He started off washing dishes at the pizza bar and suffered under chefs while working in Italy. I'm proud that he has worked like any employee.

PS: When he was working at the pizza bar, he was washing dishes and learning to make pizza. One afternoon, 15 guests arrived, wanting pizza. The chef had gone off, so he did it by himself. He was 16 at the time and he had been working since he was 14.

Mr and Mrs Scarpa, do you think your business is in good hands?

JS: Yes. Laziness is not in our family. If you think you can have a lifestyle that is easy, you can't make it. It's not a nine- to-five job. My children and Guillaume know that hard work is important.

This article was first published on Dec 29, 2014.
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