Conversation with Alfiero Fucelli, CEO Dispensa Emilia

23 July 2015

When, in 2004, he launched Dispensa Emilia – Tigelleria Tradizionale, the first Italian example of a restaurant chain featuring traditional products and fast service, he also introduced in the country a new approach to the Food&Wine industry.

Today, 10 years later, the success of his restaurants is the confirmation that the entrepreneur Alfiero Fucelli, CEO of Dispensa Emilia, had it right, filling up a gap in the Italian catering landscape, as he told us, after meeting the students of the BBS Masters in Business Administration.

Mr. Fucelli, tell us about how you got the idea, ten years ago, of establishing Dispensa Emilia.

Dispensa Emilia was born from the idea of combining the pleasure of good food and the high quality of typical products from Emilia [Emilia-Romagna, a region in northern Italy], with the innovation of a way of eating featuring fast service, vast choice and affordable prices. And all of this in a warm and welcoming atmosphere, as per the typical Emilia character. We started off with tigella (editor’s note: a thin, round shaped bread, usually filled with cold cuts or soft cheese), then we extended our offer to first courses, salads and iconic products such as balsamic vinegar and lambrusco wine, including them in a format that is traditional and modern at the same time.

What were the main difficulties you encountered?

Enterprising means betting, taking risks on something new that hasn’t been tried yet. In our case, the main difficulty was finding the right locations inside shopping malls and railway stations, and convincing lessors that a new concept such as Dispensa Emilia could have its space and the legs with which to compete with the big players of the organized restaurant sector. It wasn’t easy at first, but we’ve been stubborn and patient, and one tigella at a time, we demonstrated customers appreciate what we offer. We’re very selective in choosing our locations and when we need to pick one, we visit at least ten. We intend to grow well and we’re not in a hurry.

Don’t you think that the idea of a quality fast food might sound something like a contradiction in terms? 

Our motto is doing very few things, but doing them very well, taking great care, and with passion. Our formula, featuring the order placed directly with the cashier, the preparation on the spot, with a limited menu, allows us combining the quality of tradition with the efficiency of an organized kitchen and a quick table service. Technology was fundamental in order to improve customer experience, from the trovami [literally, find me]– a wireless device allowing us to know where the customer is sitting – to the development of the new mobile app to perform purchases directly from smartphones. The visitors of centres of attractions like shopping malls and railways stations, where we opened Dispensa Emilia restaurants in these past few years, have been pleasurably surprised by the quality and our service, and therefore they awarded us their loyalty.

How did you manage to win the loyalty of your customer base?

Loyalty is fundamental to us, considering that we don’t advertise. We rely on word-of-mouth and repeat purchase. We have a website, a Facebook profile, we started to test a loyalty card and we communicate within our points of sale, but, as off today, we’ve never done any advertising campaign outside our restaurants. We have three pillars: customers, their happiness is always right at the centre of everything we do; quality, the constant care in the selection of products we offer and the service, dedicated, fast and friendly. As a wise friend told me, at the beginning of this adventure: “If it’s beautiful, they come; if it’s good, they come back”: simple and profoundly true.

Today Dispensa Emilia has eight restaurants, six in Emilia Romagna, one in Florence and the newest, just opened in Milan, at the Expo. What are your plans for the future?

We have a development plan that foresees the opening of 3/4 restaurants in the next 12 months, in Italy. We constantly receive expressions of interest and we’re looking into new opportunities abroad too, though it’ll probably be a project for 2016-2017.

What type of advice would you give a student who’d like to start operating in this industry?

I’d tell them that in a young and fast-growing company like Dispensa Emilia there are great opportunities, starting from the operations. We’d like to hire and train those who’ll become the managers of our restaurants in Italy and, in the future, abroad. Two former trainees now working for Dispensa Emilia come from BBS. One of them, who attended the Food&Wine Global MBA, deals with our loyalty card; the other is active in the operations/marketing area. My suggestion would be to step forward, roll up their sleeves and plunge into the experience, that always starts from operations. All those working for us, regardless of the corporate area they operate in, inevitably start with a internship in one of our restaurants. For us, everything starts from there, one tigella and one tagliatella at a time.


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