Stefano Pieraccini is 26 years old, owns The Rocca Group and its four leaseholds, The Seafood Ristorante in St Andrews, and Edinburgh’s The West Room, The Broughton, and Rico’s Ristorante and employs 50 staff. He is aiming for his first Michelin star, and wants to roll out his new Rico’s Ristorante brand across the UK in a couple of years.
He’s Scots-Italian and is the only son of Susan and the late Adrian Pieraccini, who ran hotels in Inverness like the Rocpool brand and latterly Rocca in St Andrews, after the family moved there following a brief spell living in Dubai.
He started washing up in his family’s hotels aged 14, then followed a business and marketing management degree at Northumbria University, a stint in marketing for the FA in London, and working off-shore before starting The Rocca Group in 2017.
Stefano, whose girlfriend is a lawyer, kicked things off in our chat at Rico’s in Edinburgh by telling me how his success is a collective effort while being incredibly gracious about how he got started in business.
“My parents bankrolled the first business, The Seafood Ristorante in St Andrews. The reason I do what I do is because of them. I also know that this business isn’t just me – I have worked with and continue to work with some exceptionally talented people, and without those people around me, I wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing.
“But I have a vision. People can go their whole life no knowing what they’re good at, and, believe it or not, hospitality is genuinely what I’m good at.
“All my pubs are leaseholds. I don’t have the capital behind me to buy property, being the age I am. But I think it’s important to add that I don’t owe money to anyone. I don’t have investors – it’s money my parents put in at the start, and money I have put in since.”
Stefano’s parents quit running bars in 2016 and moved to Edinburgh and Stefano took on the lease at The Seafood Ristorante the following year.
“The former owner of The Seafood Ristorante in St Andrews Tim Butler, who we knew personally and still do, had fallen out of love with the venue after 14 years. But it’s a really special venue, so my father and I decided to invest in it jointly, the majority of the capital coming from him.
“When we opened in March in 2017, I brought in the team I wanted. My executive chef Davey Aspin had worked at Rocca and Rocpool Reserve for my parents, and I’ve known him since I was 12.
“Without Davie, Jamie Mackinnon, my head chef in St Andrews, and Paul Barber my executive chef at Edinburgh, I couldn’t do what I am doing. “
Stefano lets his chefs get on with their job and gives them complete creative licence, while he concentrates on the operational side of the business.
“I listen to my staff. I’m not an owner that says my train set, my rules. I let staff have their say. My chefs, I tell to use the suppliers they want and cook what they want. They have total creative control.
“I am very hands-on and work every service and I also understand people – that’s probably my biggest skill. As soon as a customer walks through the door I understand them by the way they present themselves. The biggest skill in hospitality is identifying, meeting, and then exceeding customers’ expectations, once you have ‘read’ them, and this comes from experience. “
Some of the people he’s worked with over the years have likewise gone on to be big noises in Scottish hospitality.
“The manager of Rocca was Liam Simpson and he went on to achieve one Michelin star as restaurant manager at Adare Manor in Limerick where he achieved one Michelin star. He’s now restaurant manager at Gleneagles.
“We also had a Golden Grape sommelier called Chris Delalonde and he’s a Cork of Master sommelier, one of only a few hundred in the world. He was like a walking book. So knowledgeable learned so much from him.”
How did he come to lease the building from Martin Wishart who ran The Honours restaurant where Rico’s is today, before it became a casualty of the pandemic?
“I had the idea in my head for three years. I knew I wanted to do it in Edinburgh. I knew that this venue was the one I wanted.
“I first enquired about it in early 2019, and Martin and I had a conversation about it but the numbers didn’t quite work for me. But completely understandably, as this was pre-Covid and hospitality was booming. It was just too much of a gamble at the time, and he completely understood.
“Then Covid hit and Martin phoned me again and said, look, do you fancy revisiting this? I looked at the figures and I wasn’t in a terrible position by any means at this point. Each business was doing well, and I’d taken advantage of government grants and furlough, and I only made two redundancies at The St Andrews Seafood Ristorante, two at the Broughton, and one at West Room.
“We managed to strike a ten-year deal that we’ll review after five years that works commercially for us both. I will say that Martin is a big inspiration for me. The first Michelin starred restaurant I went to was his, in Leith.
“My thinking behind it was that there are hundreds of Italian restaurants in Edinburgh but none that really put themselves at the top. Everyone understands Italian food, everyone knows what a plate of pasta should taste like, but when you serve someone a plate of homemade pasta and Ragu, the difference is night and day.
“I took inspiration from restaurants in Dubai and I thought that there’s nothing in Edinburgh that really puts itself up there, plus the market has changed now. Take Tattu, you have a darker atmosphere and the guys have done it so well, and they get a good age range, but the music may be too loud for some people.
“Whereas Rico’s sits kind of mid-market and is very classy, yet understandable and still very welcoming. The music’s on, but it’s not intrusive. From the moment you walk in, we’ve gone with small details and that’s what I really care about.”
And he’s so proud of his concept that he wants to roll it out UK-wide.
“Rico’s I want to roll out as a brand. I hope it will be Newcastle next because I know the market after spending three years at uni there and working in nightlife. I’d also consider a site in Glasgow. I see this roll-out happening in about two years because everything needs to be perfect with Rico’s Edinburgh first.”
Stefano’s mum Susan does the accounts for The Rocca Group and works on the interior design of his venues – like in Rico’s.
“Alan Baxter and Gill Morris of the Davidson Baxter Partnership did The Broughton and because they did such a great job I brought them in to design Rico’s too. It was their design concept, they sourced it and put it all together and worked closely with my mum.”
One of Stefano’s personal goals is a Michelin star for The Seafood Ristorante St Andrews.
“It will be six years in March since we opened it. We inherited an interior consisting of a hard floor, white tablecloths, up-back chairs and that’s never been my style of dining. I don’t like stuffiness. I like it to be and you’re wowed by the venue and you just feel relaxed, and then everything else, the service, the food, does the talking. I don’t want customers to feel privileged that they’re eating here.
“I thought at the time, what’s the point of trying to upstage the amazing view over St Andrews Bay and West Sands Beach, so the changes we made were minimal.
“I put in a carpet to absorb some of the sound, put in comfy chairs, spaced it out, as the layout as it was too tight. The style is casual but professional. I had doubled the turnover to a figure close to £2m turnover in 2019 pre-Covid – not bad for a 50-cover restaurant.
“But I am going to be completely refurbishing the place in January 2022. It’s a stunning venue and the food and the service are the best it’s ever been, but I’m going to make it even better. It’s full for lunch and dinner every single day so from a business point of view and a restaurateur’s point of view, I’ve done the job.
“The market is always changing though, and there’s always going to be someone that wants to knock you off your pedestal so I don’t want to bury my head in the sand and keep taking the money.
“I am going to make it the best dining venue in Scotland. It’s done five years, the standard timeframe for any venue before it needs at least a freshen-up. I’m going to reduce the covers again, to 40 possibly, and it will become super-premium and my dream is one Michelin star. I have to give it a go and take this venue to the next level. I know the food is there. “
And he’s already got form: The Broughton was mentioned in The Michelin Guide.
“In 2019 I was approached by Star Pubs and Bars to lease The Broughton on Edinburgh’s Broughton Street, who were looking for somebody young in the trade to run it. It was a Capex project, so I didn’t have to put up much money, only £50k. I love this venue. It’s a tenancy for five years, with an option to buy after five years.
“I give each business a target and we work to it collectively to achieve it. With The Broughton, it’s Bib Gourmand, so it’s Michelin recognition of high-quality food where you can get three courses for under £30.
“We launched The Broughton just before Covid hit, but once we were allowed to open again and we got in the Michelin Guide, which was a big win as we’d only been open six months. We knew we’d had a visit but to get this type of recognition was the icing on the cake.”
The West Room is also leased through Star Pubs and Bars but he is selling the lease. It came about in 2018 and was Stefano’s first foray into the Edinburgh market.
“I always wanted to come into Edinburgh market. My parents used to drink in this bar, which is tiny and so incredibly intimate, and I saw the potential to break the Edinburgh market.
“We spoke to Compass Group and they were wanting to sell the lease anyway, and it was a pretty painless process. We paid about £70k and invested £20k and launched it as The West Room Bar and Chiccetti, keeping it in the Italian theme.
But then the family was visited by tragedy.
“My father took ill in 2020 and passed away shortly afterward. My parents had been running it for me, so we decided to put it on the market and the sale is pretty close to completion.
“It’s a great wee owner-operated business. If it were me and a chef running it six days a week, I reckon I’d be driving a Bentley. But that’s not the situation and because it’s so small the staff costs take over so I can’t be sentimental about it. You can’t get emotionally attached to a business. I’ve learned that lesson over and over in this industry.”
Like many operators, staffing is a big thorn in his side at the moment.
“Staffing is horrendous. People have fallen out of love with this industry pure and simple. Big hotel companies that made all these people redundant during lockdown have forced people into logistics, or Amazon, or retail – and that’s where they’re staying.
“They don’t get the stress and don’t want the long hours. How I’ve tacked it is that all my staff in Rico’s and The Seafood Ristorante only work four days. They do long hours in the four days, granted, but that extra day off makes the world of difference to them.
“I always like to work with career hospitality people but I’ve had to go down the student route or training people for two shifts a week, say, because I just can’t find them.
“I have thrown money at candidates, but money doesn’t motivate people anymore in hospitality. I don’t know why. It’s time off that people want, and a work-life balance. But there is no work-life balance in hospitality unless you’re working in a venue that does breakfasts only, say, because you have to commit to weekends and late nights. That’s the way it is.”
He’s a fairly pragmatic chap too and tries not to dwell on that which he can’t change.
“VAT at 5% is great but it’s going to go up and once it does go back up, it’s going to hit us hard, so they need to look at that. But there’s no point in dwelling on what I can’t control. All I can control is my staff and my product so I just have to get on with it.”
And with that, I left him doing what he loves doing – running his bars and restaurants with an eye to building his empire.