Restaurateur Roberto Guiati On Thriving During Uncertain Times
There is an old saying: "Even in times of great crisis, there are still victories that can be won." Perhaps no one exemplifies this more than Roberto Guiati, chief executive of Petra Cucina, the food and beverage arm of the Petra Group that operates Zenzero Restaurant & Wine Bar and Luce Osteria Contemporanea.
The group surprised many when they opened Roberto’s 1020 Osteria, a casual dining Italian restaurant, at Bangsar Shopping Centre in December last year, at the height of a crippling pandemic when many established businesses were struggling to keep afloat. Yet according to Guiati, it was all according to plan.
“We're always looking for opportunities, even during tough times. We believe that the pandemic will be over one of these days. For Roberto’s, this was the right time. We could open in a beautiful location because this is coming at a time when many people are less keen to invest due to the uncertainties. We invest with the knowledge that the market will bounce back one day. And on steroids!” Guiati quips.
Speaking to Tatler via Zoom, Guiati speaks candidly of his love of the restaurant business, and his deep passion for Italian cuisine. He becomes more and more animated as he goes through the milestones of his nine years in the industry.
“I think Malaysians are becoming more demanding when it comes to Italian food—in a good way. They know what good Italian cuisine looks like now. Customers are getting more exposed, more knowledgeable. And that’s good. That’s what drives us. We try to bring something from Italy that maybe has never been brought here before,” Guiati says.
“When I first came to Malaysia many years ago, certain Italian products were rare. Now, they are common. The supply chains have really improved. So there’s no excuse for us to say, something is not available, this is not possible. Everything is possible.”
Guiati, who has a Masters in Geological Sciences, came to our shores in 2007 to work in the oil and gas industry. Eight years ago, he opened Zenzero Restaurant & Wine Bar (the name means ‘ginger’ in Italian) in Kuala Lumpur.
Perhaps he was always destined for this line. After all, Guiati hails from Ferrara, an Italian town with a rich culinary history dating back to the Renaissance. When he was younger, he worked part time as a waiter, and cultivated a strong love for the food and drink business.
“I‘ve always had a passion for recipes. I dreamed of having a restaurant where I could entertain my friends, and discover more about food, wine and all the aspects of the F&B business,” reminisces Guaiti, who is married to actress and designer Kavita Sidhu.
In August last year, he partnered with Petra Group and is now its senior vice president. “It has been a blessing partnering with the group and working with (chairman and group CEO) Datuk Dr Vinod Sekhar. He really understands the market and customers,” says Guiati.
The three restaurants under his purview run the complete gamut of Italian cuisine, offering all styles from casual to fine dining. But one thing they all have in common is authenticity, which Guiati insists on.
“I believe that being authentic and true to your message is very important. We are here for the long run, not to make a quick buck and then leave. We want to build a group, a brand, and that means building trust with your customers. We invest in Italian chefs, the best Italian ingredients," he asserts. "It’s not easy but that is our way."
Like all dining outlets, lockdown has forced his restaurants to rely on takeout and delivery. To ensure they remain present in the minds of foodies, social media engagement is ramped up.
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You have to always keep a positive outlook. When you stay positive, the opportunities come.
“It hasn’t been easy but it wasn’t tough; actually, I don’t like to say the word ‘tough’. There was a lot of uncertainties but we came out of the first MCO strong. We learnt a lot about ourselves. We had to be more creative and we learnt how to control our costs in a way that didn't compromise our quality,” Guiaiti notes.
He prides himself on not letting any staff go throughout these times. And in the short period between MCOs, when restaurants could fully operate, business boomed.
“I wouldn’t say I have any bad memories of it. In fact, if I look back on 2020, I would say it was one of our best years,” the restaurateur recalls.
Optimistic as ever, he is already planning another expansion. In the pipeline is a cigar and whiskey lounge, which will offer live entertainment. Guiati is also scouting for a second Roberto's in Kuala Lumpur. The group is also looking to venture into Singapore and China. To be sure, these are exciting times for Guiati.
“You have to always keep a positive outlook. When you stay positive, the opportunities come. It’s always for the best, at the end of the day,” Guiati says.
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- Images Courtesy of Roberto Guiati