One of the founding members of Melbourne’s coffee scene, Pellegrini’s has witnessed a lot of change over its 60-odd years – but embraced very little of it. Co-owner Sisto Malaspina told Danielle Bowling he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Foodservice operators are always being told they need to keep up with the times, to stay abreast of the latest dining trends and shun technological advancements at their peril.
Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar on Melbourne’s Bourke Street is living proof that if you’re onto a good thing, don’t mess with it. Since 1954, the humble little coffee shop has resided in what is now arguably the nation’s coffee capital, offering espresso coffee, authentic Italian food and genuine hospitality.
It was the first café in Melbourne to have an espresso machine, it has a loyal if not cult-like following, has never changed the décor and has made only the slightest of tweaks to its menu.
Nino Pangrazio and Sisto Malaspina bought the café from its founders in 1974 after travelling to Australia from Italy, and have worked in it almost every day since.
“Pellegrini’s was the number one in the way it did things, the way things should be done – fresh ingredients, taken from the growers to the market to the shop. Everything done by hand. No mechanisation, no additives. Everything was simple, fresh and beautifully put together,” Malaspina told Hospitality.
“And it hasn’t changed at all. It’s still the same menu, prepared in the same way. Slow cooking, no machinery, done by hand … This is the way food should be done. It’s not contemporary food. It’s secular, traditional, home cooking.”
The Pellegrini’s offering might not have changed much over the past 60-odd years, but the Melbourne coffee scene certainly has. Cafes have gone from being few and far between to almost countless, but that doesn’t phase Malaspina. The café is as busy as ever, its reputation as strong as ever and its clientele as loyal as ever. Even Gough Whitlam frequented the cafe in his heydey.
“Don’t ask me what he had because I wont tell you. People often ring up and ask, but that’s nothing that really concerns anybody. There are some things that we leave in the house,” Malaspina said.
Pellegrini’s has had the same coffee supplier – Vittoria – since its inception. In fact, Malaspina said the café has hardly ever had to seek new suppliers, for any of its produce.
“The bulk of our suppliers are still the same,” he said. “The relationships have lasted this long because we acknowledge the people that look after us. If you don’t have a relationship and you don’t look after your suppliers, there’s no way they can look after you. So speaking on my behalf – or on Pellegrini’s behalf – if you do not have the best to work with, you cannot deliver the best. You might think you can, but you can’t. So look after your suppliers and they’ll look after you. It makes life much easier for us.”
And it’s not just the suppliers who have stuck around. Pellegrini’s has a number of staff members who have clocked up more than 40 years of service. In fact, it was only two or so years ago that a couple of staff members from the café’s opening in 1954 finally decided to hang up their aprons.
Malaspina admits, however, that finding staff willing to go the distance is becoming more and more difficult.
“Back in the day, people were arriving by boat on a weekly basis and we could say to a friend ‘Look, if you know anybody who needs a job and has a bit of experience from the old country…’ We might have needed a waiter or bartender, for example. It was easy to find staff with experience,” he said. “They arrived fresh from the old country, young, and they got a job here, learned the trade and they were here until they were ready to retire.
“Now, it’s totally different. It’s hard to find staff – staff who have the old fashioned values. Now they’ve got long hair, earrings, nose rings, tattoos. We don’t go for those sorts of things.”
Old fashioned values means a commitment to service, a love for what you do and a deep respect for both your colleagues and your customers.
“The thing is, young people today say ‘Oh, how’s it going, guys?’ Are you kidding? At Pellegrini’s? ‘Oh, thank you, guys’. I mean, this is terrible. This is not a form of greeting, it’s something you might say in a garage. At Pellegrini’s you say ‘Good afternoon.’ If it’s ladies, you say ‘Ladies, good afternoon.’ If it’s a couple, you say nothing. You could say ‘Good afternoon’, or when they go say ‘Thank you very much, lovely people. Bye for now.’ Not ‘See you, guys’. I will not tolerate that.”
The staff that do fit the brief are respected and treated as family. They just need to understand, Malaspina said, that working at Pellegrini’s isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle and he expects commitment.
“First and foremost, staff are employed by me on behalf of the customers. That’s what they have to understand. They are sort of self employed. There is a job to do; they’ve got to do it and they’ve got to enjoy it. If they enjoy doing the job they should stay, or else they should go before they even start.
“If you’re not cut out to be serving people, then you shouldn’t be here. You should go push wheelbarrows, maybe,” he said.
So what does the next 50 years look like for this Melbourne institution, which sees no need for a website or email, has no microwave and up until 2016 had a pay phone as its landline?
“Had you asked me the same question 20 years ago I would have answered differently because I thought I was invincible, but as I grow older I realise that I’m not immortal and I’m not invincible. So it will be over to the next Pellegrini’s managers – the next custodians. We’re not really the owners, we’re custodians of this beautiful place.”
Simplicity, freshness and quality. Old fashioned values and true hospitality. It’s been the formula for success that has seen Pellegrini’s rack up a tenure that is almost unheard of in today’s hospitality sector.
Whoever Malaspina and Pangrazio’s successors are, they absolutely must buy into this philosophy. It’s non-negotiable, Malaspina said.
“That’s the only way it can happen. It will not happen any other way, you can be sure of that. This isn’t a place where I come to work. This place is my life. I live at this place. Look, it’s very hard to put my emotions into words, but this isn’t work for me. This is joy, and we’re very fortunate to be where we are.”