There was buzz coming out of Richmond that a new Italian restaurant had opened, and being a lover of Italian cuisine, I wanted to know more! A few days later, I headed to Coppin St. Richmond to meet Morena Miceli, a woman who took her passion for both food and people and used it to open her first restaurant, Za-Za’s.
Morena, tell us a little about your background and what made you decide to open your first restaurant?
My background is predominately in sales and marketing; I worked for Village Roadshow for the better part of 10 years and part of my role in the early 90s included a lot of socializing. I spent my days taking out buyers and working with a lot of individual stores. There were 300 Brash’s stores, 2000 Kmart stores, Target, and 5000 video libraries! As you can imagine, it was a very social environment! I slowly became the go-to person whenever we had problematic big accounts because I excelled at being able to woo and schmooze with our clients. I had expense accounts, corporate cards, and perks that helped me connect with the people I was working with—and I really enjoyed all of that.
See, I really loved my time in sales and marketing … until the Internet really started to take over. Nowadays, the primary way to communicate with people is through computers and texting, and that wasn’t something I enjoyed. I much prefer to speak to people face-to-face.
My mum was an amazing cook, so I’ve always had an affinity towards food. I even drank up to 5 cups of coffee a day! I have a lot of friends that are restauranteurs and café owners, and I always had a passion for that, as well.
I had a restaurateur friend of mine that kept on saying things like, “You would be perfect in a café!” and “People are just naturally attracted to you!” and “You understand food, why don’t you just go and do it?!” It sounded intriguing, but I felt really unsure about making such a huge career change until that same friend came to me with a proposal for an empty space off the beaten track in Richmond.
He said to me, “Why don’t we turn it into an Italian Trattoria? There isn’t anything like that in Richmond.” I knew the developer, so we checked out the site. It was part of the Cubo development that has office space and residential areas for sale and development. Even though we are located off Bridge Road, it is only 80 metres and allows us to be part of the hustle and bustle of the city. I was really attracted to that energy and I was at the perfect place in life—my mortgage was under control, I don’t have any children—and I thought that now was time to get out of the corporate world. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I made the decision to take a chance.
Where did you get the inspiration to open Za Za’s?
I had two girlfriends, one who I worked with and the other who was in retail. They opened up a little deli in Brunswick St. about 10 years ago and both had the same philosophy as me: They loved food and wanted to be around other people who love talking, drinking and eating.
I think there is a very nurturing side to people that want to do that. I saw these women really throwing themselves into their philosophy and working their guts out, and now Alimentari is one of the most respected cafes in Melbourne! I saw these women work—it was social, they let this business evolve, and let the business speak to them. And I was so inspired by that!
They wanted to have a deli, they wanted to cut Prosciutto and cut cheeses and make sandwiches to-go. But since it was such a nice, inviting environment, people wanted to linger in the cafe. So they decided to add a coffee machine and learned how to make coffee. Soon customers started saying, “Instead of taking home this cheese plater, can we have it here?” So they would get a bread board, add slices of cheese and salami, then cut up bread and started making soups, too. One of my friends is Lebanese and the other Italian, so the Italian mum was making Lasagne and the Lebanese mum was making Tabouleh and hummus. And then my mum started making biscuits for them to sell at the café.
They have a fantastic business that is an institution in this area, and Linda (one of the girls) has gone on to buy another restaurant in Smith St. and they are about to open up their third store food venture!
My friends who didn’t have any previous experience in hospitality. But they have worked hard, been passionate and stuck it out. It has taken them years, but they have become very successful. They make me believe that if they can do, I can do it, too! We all come from completely different backgrounds, but the thing we have in common is food and people.
How would you describe the atmosphere you have tried to create?
I have tried to create a warm and inviting atmosphere that is true to the Italian psyche: A cozy environment surrounded by food drink. I want to support Italians in Australia who have started businesses, so I like to promote local business with an Italian heritage. However, we also support the internationals by importing some of our cheese because our chef believes it is the best in the world. He makes grand statements that it’s not about how can we get product cheaper or quicker, it’s about providing really good quality food at a reasonable price.
Za-Za’s has 3 lives: Weekdays it’s full of suits, IT people and mums with prams. In the evening hours, it becomes an Italian restaurant full of couples and large groups. Thirdly, we’re starting to do a lot of functions. We have the space; it’s a 100 seater. We have space and large communal tables so it’s very easy to quickly turn it around and cater for big groups.
You can have a romantic dinner for two, the kids can come in and have a Nutella pizza whilst mum and dad are having Gnocchi, or you can come in with a party of 16 and bring your own beer and wines. You can have pizza and pastas, you can have a rib eye steak—we cater to many different tastes!
Because we are BYO, we are getting an older crowd who have excellent taste in expensive wines cellared at home. They like to bring their own bottles to dinner and enjoy them here with our beautiful quality food.
And it’s all about the locals. I helped design the restaurant and was a project manager during the build, so I have spent over 18 months working in this space. I’ve had a lot of time to get to know locals, people that commute to and from this area. There is a big dog walking contingency in this area and bike riders that are cutting through Coppin St. and through Bridge Road are finding us!
Who is your mentor and what is the most important advice they ever gave you when it comes to business?
One of my not-so-silent business partners told me “business is business”. Leave your heart at the door when it comes to making decisions. And when it comes to making decisions, you must think of all aspects of the business”.
I’m learning very quickly that it’s all about relationships and they need to be different from the kitchen staff, to the front-of-house, and to your partners. You need to be very solid with your partners. Even when days are tough, I still must come to work and smile at my customers and be a leader to my staff.
One of my brother’s became my mentor as he helped me design the interior of the restaurant and has been by my side from Za Za’s inception. He’s offered me guidance and advice through every detail of the design side of the business.
You do not only offer a dine-in experience, you offer the service of being a provedore as well. Have your customers embraced this?
It’s been a slow process as we have a deli around the corner that stocks more produce. It’s been there for years and has a steady customer base. Part of the provedore experience is that it becomes a pantry for the kitchen. Everything we are selling in the provedore area, we are selling in the restaurant. If you are going to order toast with jam, you are eating the Sicilian jam we well in the provedore area. The oil is used in-house and everything is interrelated so that when we have people say, “I love the oil,” they can get it right here. Everything from the salumi, to the crisini, to the cheeses and the Truffle honey can all be bought from here.
What were some of the qualities you were looking for when you chose your head chef and the service staff?
When it came to hiring a chef and staff, the whole Italian experience was on the forefront of my mind. I wanted a young enthusiastic chef that would help me build this business and create something from nothing. It would be a slow build and people would test us out (Melbourne diners are quite savvy and they are spoilt for choice, especially in Richmond. You can go out and spend $10 a head for dinner or $150 a head; (you are spoilt for choice!). I needed a chef that would stand side-by-side with me and be honest with food. Also, I wanted him to be as traditional as possible, knowing that this place will evolve into whatever it needs to evolve into because the people and the environment will make that decision for us. It was important that they were flexible because if the meat cannelloni wasn’t going to work, we’d need someone to say, let’s try the Ricotta. People are health conscious and Italian food is based around starch, so I also needed someone who had a modern brain and can make Gluten-free if needed or whatever other special issues customers may have.
I seem to attract front-of-house staff that is originally from Italy either as permanent residents or on a work Visa. I speak and write Italian, so I can communicate with them easily. They want to learn the English language because they see that there is a big opportunity for them in this country. It’s nice to be around Europeans and talking to one another. The menus are Italian so they sound authentic when they pronounce it. They can even help when preparing the menus. I really love their attitude the majority of them know they are lucky to be in Australia and lucky to be in work. The Italians are hospitable and jovial and the customers love it.
As a leader and owner, how do you get the best from your staff?
I can tell you one thing: It’s certainly not from thinking I’m the leader or the owner. I think of us as equals because I have a lot to learn from them just as they have a lot to learn from me. In fact, my staff actually teaches me more because a lot of them have a serious hospitality background in Italy. The Italians are obsessed with food! In Australia, the people that I have interviewed are university students who are just there to make a little extra money. But my staff has made food and this restaurant their career.
Getting the best out of my staff is also about respect. I respect them because they have made a career out of this place and they work hard to make it great. In return, they respect me because I put a lot on the line to open up a restaurant and am taking a chance in order to follow my own dreams.
People visit our websites, and Urban Spoon and Facebook have been big for getting us business. I have also sent a press release to several food and special interest magazines. I am doing a promotion with a local hairdresser and local police newsletter as well. We’ve even had a company distribute flyers in the area and have been advertised in Melbourne’s Walk About.
I have a social media expert working for me, but this is definitely something I need to work on more myself because I know I’m not doing enough on my own!
We are doing signature events and running special promotions as well. For example, we are having MataDestreto (Tight Arse Tuesday) with all pasta and pizza only $15.
And honestly, a lot of our advertising is word-of-mouth. We have a lot of return business and are very lucky to have some loyal locals coming back.
In a city with many restaurants available, what makes you stand out?
Za Za’s stands out by offering solid Italian comfort food in an area that doesn’t have it.
Most good restaurants have stand-out dishes that seem to be the favourite. What is Za Za’s stand-out dish?
Our stand-out dish would have to be our main course of Scialtelli alla Rosinelli. Scialateeli is homemade pasta that we make in-house. It’s like a Tagliatelle, but we put Basil throughout the pasta. It’s the Neapolitan spin on a marinara clams, prawns etc., but it also has a little bit of a broth. When it come out of the kitchen, it is unbelievable.
My motivation? That’s easy! The smell of the food! Watching the sunrise in the morning along with the scent of fresh coffee beans being ground—there’s nothing like it! We test some coffees each morning, and the third cup is always mine. Then the chef comes in and starts cooking eggs and bacon, so by 7:30 a.m., my senses are on high alert.
Note: Za-Za’s is currently BYO, though their Liquor Licence will be coming soon. I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to sipping Processeco with the concertina doors open on a beautiful summer day, dreaming I am in a gorgeous Italian city. In the meantime I’ll settle for one of Za Za’s delicious salumi platters and a glass of red from my cellar!
For more details www.zazas.com.au