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Into The Fire: Franco Sotgiu, Solita

David Blake talks Big Mancs, pigs, sofas, nursing hens and touring in shipping containers with Don Franco of NQ big-boy Solita

Written by . Published on January 30th 2014.


Into The Fire: Franco Sotgiu, Solita
 

FRANCO has the restaurant bug. He’s got it bad.

Never in a million years would I open a fine dining restaurant. There’s very few Michelin starred restaurants that make money. Trust me.

The co-owner and face of Solita in the Northern Quarter was initially brought in as a consultant for failing seafood restaurant Sole. He now owns half of the Solita restaurant on NQ's Turner Street.

Francesco must possess some of the stickiest fingers in Manchester, they’re in so many flavours of pie. Chesterfield sofas, kitchen knives, INKA ovens, sausage-seasoning and now back to the restaurant game that raised him.

He couldn't be more content. He's the proverbial pig (which he breeds, not the proverbial type, the real ones) rolling around in a big meaty cheesy puddle.

SolitaSolita

It only takes a few moments to see Franco's on the ball. When we first meet for a chat on the debut morning of Solita’s new brunch menu his eyes whip around like a chameleon following a banquet of flies laced with MDMA.

He surveys every morsel of food that comes in and out of the kitchen, every drop of drink that leaves the bar, and every person that comes in and out of the restaurant. At one stage he leaps from his stool because one dish emerges from the kitchen without "the right amount of maple syrup".

I once witnessed Living Venture's chieftain Tim Bacon walk into one of his units and within five seconds spot a dead lightbulb from 25 metres away. Meticulous. Well, Franco has a good dollop of that stuff.

Franco, what's your background?

My Dad came to England from Sardinia in 1964 to work in Manchester at an Italian restaurant chain called Enzo’s. There were seven or eight restaurants around Manchester. He opened his own place in Bolton in the late 70s so I grew up around that until we sold it in 1985.

He subsequently went into the furniture trade. I currently own the country's largest manufacturer of Chesterfield sofas and also supply INKA ovens to many restaurants like Piccolinos, RBG, the Blackhouses. Even though I was out of the restaurant game for 27 years, I'd still been in it in a way.

When did you start shifting furniture?

I went into the family furniture business after college in 1989, before that I was in advertising at CityLife magazine for two years. Your Editor was there later. We did a similar thing to what Confidential has been doing for the last ten years. It was good fun.

Dad died five years ago so it’s just me now. The INKA ovens we make in Manchester and ship all over the world.

How many businesses do you have?

Lots. I own knives.co.uk, Chesterfields of England, sausagemaking.org, Inka ovens and Solita. Because we have other business interests, we could take a few more risks with Solita. We didn’t need it to make money from the start so we had freedom because we could try things, if they failed we wouldn’t go under.

Do you have a favourite business?

I do like the buzz of the restaurant. I’m passionate about it. I take criticism very personally. It upsets me. I try to do a couple of hours every day with each business. Which can muddle your head up, the problem is that I don’t sleep much. I’m up at half four every morning, maybe in the afternoons I’ll have a power nap. It’s an Italian work ethic.

Franco whipping up a latte pre-openingFranco whipping up a latte pre-opening

How'd Solita come to be?

Solita was Sole seafood restaurant, owned by my current business partner Simon. My brother Dominic (now running TV21 in Northern Quarter) came in to manage Sole for six months but it wasn’t taking off. They brought me in to rebrand it. I'd turned a number of failing businesses around before as a consultant. I made the decision to close Sole right away, change the menu, the décor and the name. The name Solita came from the 'South of Little Italy'. Ancoats around the corner used to have a big Italian community.

I didn’t just want an American menu, other people do that, not better than we do, but they do it. That’s why there’s bits of Italy in the menu, bits of Manchester too. I think if we’d been purely about the Americana it would have failed.

So you bought in to Solita?

Initially I was just brought in as consultant but after six months I was asked to buy in and now own half. As a seafood restaurant, Sole was losing thousands of pounds a month. It took around nine months to start making money. Well into 2013.

Chesterfield sofaChesterfield sofa

Was it a slow-burner?

We were busy at weekends to start with. We only had the ground floor in the beginning but as we got busier we’ve had to convert the downstairs. We’ve gone from 30 covers and losing money to 130 covers making money. We fill up. But that's not just down to me, Simon runs the operational stuff. I’m the ideas man. We're a great match.

So what’s down to you?

I do all the menu planning, development, social and marketing. I’ve done all the menus from day one. That's why I've had blazing rows with chefs in the past. The menu is mine. End of story. Our chef now was head chef at Gaucho so he's a meat man. He's Czechoslovakian and a machine. We've got great Eastern Europeans in there now that just want to cook.

The problems we've had in the past is that, being slap bang in the middle of Northern Quarter, we couldn't stop our chefs going out and partying. It was like a Happy Mondays reunion. Yes it's a stressful job and they work long unsociable hours but you can't be out till four or five in the morning. We can't have that. We're too busy. We did 830 covers one Saturday in December.

You do all of the menus? So you were a foodie anyway?

I grew up around the restaurant and we're Italian. So we have the big family meals and we do the parties. I like to get stuck in, every dish we do in the restaurant has been tested by me at home and I'll come in and show them how I want it doing. We print our menus daily, so I can change it by the hour. Now that really pisses chefs off. But it means we can react quickly to our customers. When we started we only had one burger on the menu. Now we’ve got fourteen. We use chuck steak and bone marrow. Say what you like but people love burgers.

 

INKA ovenINKA oven

What's your favourite part of this business?

Menu development. I travel all over the world and look at and adapt recipes. If I go somewhere like America I’ll take a photo of the food, come back, show it to the chefs and say let’s adapt it for Solita. I’ll always try credit them though.

Picked up any trends recently?

Grain-fed beef. I think we’re the only ones here doing that. I think it’s so much better than grass-fed. The cows are just fed barley and corn but you get this fantastic marbling and great flavour. I think that’ll be a next big thing. We’re not scared to stick things on the menu, if it doesn’t work we’ll scrub it.

Do you have a least favourite part of the job?

When somebody across the road copies what you’re doing without any credit. But that’s why we’re constantly changing the menu. Let other people play catch-up. Mainly though it's having unhappy customers. Me and Simon really take it to heart. As we’ve got busier it is harder to keep everyone happy.

Do you have a preferred dish on your menu?

The Big Manc. We took the idea of the Big Mac and made it with decent meat, bread, cheese and sauce. It is a copy but we don’t deny it. It sums us up at Solita. We’re magpies. We’ve seen a dish that works, repackaged it and made it better.

The Big MancThe Big Manc

Has Americana been overdone?

I don’t think it’s been overdone, I just been done badly by other operators. When you see Wetherspoons with pulled-pork on the menu you've had it. Our pulled-pork sundae has been copied all over. It's the only pulled-pork we have left on the menu. It's just roast pork.

But Americana is nothing new, McDonalds and Burger King have been doing it for decades. People love burgers. If you were to be a purely American diner then, unless you do it very, well, you’re going to fall flat on your face. We’ve never labelled ourselves as an American restaurant, others have. I pull ideas from all over.

We've seen on twitter that Solita might be going mobile...

We’ve actually just bought a converted 20ft shipping container that we’re going to take out to festivals and other events. Solita on tour, Solita on the road. Things like the Manchester Food and Drink Festival, music festivals, maybe plonk ourselves down in Spinningfields. Outside of Manchester too. You might see us out and about.

Solita's planned mobile ship containerSolita's planned mobile ship container

Speaking of social media, how important has it been to Solita?

I’d go as far to say that we wouldn’t be where we are now without social media. We don’t have the foot traffic so rely on word of mouth. It's mostly twitter. I'm tweeting from 5am. We rely on that because we’ll never have offers of 50% off. You've got to have confidence in your product and stick by it. The worst thing you can do as a restaurant is sign-up with GroupOn. You devalue your product.

Bloggers... Blog on or blogger off?

Chefs and owners can have a love hate relationship with food bloggers. But even before I opened a restaurant, I've always got involved with their opinion. Chefs can hate them, but things move on and change, I value their input. Even when it's wrong. I’ll always listen. I’ll always continue to hold blogger nights for menu development. Yeah we’ve got in some arguments, 'twitter storms' I call them, but we’re not afraid to engage. It’s usually schoolyard nonsense. I have control of all our twitter activity.

You do all of the menus. You won't let anyone touch twitter. Control freak?

Yes. I won’t let anyone have anything to do with them. It annoys staff, but it's working. We're busy. This is the only one of my businesses that I’m fully hands on day-in day-out.

Have you ever wanted to pack it all in?

Daily. It's a hard industry. We've had crisis meetings, mainly about staff. You become a social worker sometimes. I leave that to Simon. He's better at that people stuff. But when we had a thousand people stood outside dancing around and people dancing on the rooftops of the car park during the NQ street party, that's when you realise it's all worth it.

Dancing in the streetDancing in the street

What would you be doing if it wasn't this?

I'd be a full-time farmer. I live in the country and breed pigs. I’ve had up to thirty pigs. I’m also into rescuing battery hens. We’ve got eight Solita former battery hens. Normally they’d go in a Cup-a-Soup. I get my fun from breeding pigs and rescuing hens.

How many pigs do you have now?

None. We've slaughtered them all.

So much for your soft side...

We kill them all in the winter and raise more pigs in the Spring. I make salami and cured ham from my pigs for friends as a hobby. I don’t kill the hens though. I nurse them back to health.

Franco's pigsFranco's pigs

Where do you like to eat?

I like Paul Heathcoate, Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan. For me they’re the best in the area. Aiden has one of my INKA grills actually so if you could tie that in that’d be great. I’m in to my classical French cuisine. I had an amazing truffle ravioli at Paul Heathcoates a couple of years ago. I was at Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume recently, I had a langoustine dish that was stunning. The best I’ve eaten in a long time.

Interested in opening a fine dining restaurant?

Never in a million years would I open a fine dining restaurant. There’s very few Michelin starred restaurants that make money. Trust me. And we’re not good enough to do that. I’m not interested in it. We’re never going to win awards for our food. We’re good at giving people a good feed. That’s what they want.

What if you could bring another concept to the city?

I think there’s room for a top steakhouse in Manchester, I’m talking Hawksmoor or Goodmans. To get the best steak you have to charge a high price. I'm not sure Manchester is ready to pay it. The Blackhouses, RBG, they’re good at what they do. I think Gaucho’s marketing is better than the food. I’d love to open a Lebanese restaurant. I’ve already got a name for it. I’d love to open both of those. But only if they were done right.

Franco's hensFranco's hens

Any plans to expand Solita?

We’re close to signing for a site in Liverpool which will hopefully open before summer. We’re also looking to open in Leeds before the end of 2014. It’ll be more or less the same menu, except in Liverpool instead of the Big Manc burger we’ll have the Big Maccer, after Paul McCartney. He's a vegetarian so I'm sure that'll cause us a few problems.

Me and Simon both agree four restaurants is the most we’d do. People always say open a Solita in London but I don’t think we have the logistics. For the time being though we want to get our shipping container on the road.

Is there anything you see in Manchester and wish you'd done first?

Two years ago we had a site lined up in Northern Quarter for a Mexican. Before Luck, Lust, Liquor and Burn opened. Once they opened we decided against it. there's Lucha Libre now too. I still think there’s room for a better Mexican restaurant. A move away from the 'street food' thing. I love 'street food' but lots of people don't. They like to sit down with china plates and have table service without the loud music. Just because it’s Mexican food it doesn’t have to be ‘street’.

What's your proudest achievement?

Turning a failing restaurant into a successful one with quadruple the covers and making money.

Do you look up to anyone?

Franco accepts Gizzi... not sure why?Franco 'accepts' Gizzi - how come?I don’t really look up to anybody. I’m not into this celebrity chef culture. Gizzi Erskine is about the only one I can accept.

Wonder why? Has the NQ become over developed?

The Northern Quarter has evolved immensely over the last thirty years. I do think the clientele has changed but the NQ doesn't belong just to the hipsters. Before they were here it was someone else's. It still has a great community feel. I walk through the streets and I’m saying hello to everyone. If a chain moved in, which will happen eventually, then the area will lose something. But Solita isn’t just a Northern Quarter restaurant, people come from all over to eat here.

Plus I’m not that NQ cool, Simon’s definitely not either. 

Follow @SoLiTaNq on twitter

Solita, 37 Turner Street, Northern Quarter, M4 1DW, 0161 839 2200

Menu here

More info here.

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18 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Georgina Hague shared this on Facebook on January 30th 2014.
AnonymousJanuary 30th 2014.

I absolutely LOVE SoLita. Going back on Sunday and I have honestly been looking forward to it for about 3 weeks. I think I need to get out more...

TimetoshineJanuary 30th 2014.

Great food, friendly staff and not too pricey.... what's not to like !?!?

AnonymousJanuary 30th 2014.

Great interview. He comes across as a gobby cock on twitter a lot of the time but really enjoyed this

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousJanuary 30th 2014.

Twitter does that to people

Alex WattJanuary 30th 2014.

great review and some really insightful comments. Really looking forward to watching Solita grow over the forthcoming years.

AnonymousJanuary 31st 2014.

When you say not too pricey ,what are you comparing it too? It is good food but you can run up a large tab if you keep off the burgers , I think its mid priced ,great staff drinks a bit dear but the view is just depressing ! That carpark! If i was Franco i would terminate the lease and move somewhere with a better outlook ,I think its a great place spoilt by crap location.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousFebruary 1st 2014.

I don't think people go to solita to enjoy the view!!

Mark HaireFebruary 2nd 2014.

I remember them doing a 50% off all food offer on here! After being assured the offer was fine to use, we placed our order. 10 mins later the waitress came back and said they weren't doing it on starters so we'd only get it off the mains. It wasn't a major issue but did leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth (unlike the food)

AnonymousFebruary 3rd 2014.

seems pretty arrogant to me. "When somebody across the road copies what you’re doing without any credit" ...Like what? eggs and hollandaise? lol, if you read solita tweets recently you would think they had invented breakfast. practically everything on the menu is served with chips and a terrible side salad, very wetherspoons

Bearded NQ DecipleFebruary 3rd 2014.

He is talking about people "copying" but Solita are just doing what another NQ company are doing to the letter! Famous opens liverpool - Solita opens liverpool Famous do festivals - Solita to do festivals whilst the food is good at Solita maybe even Franco should "give credit" to where "His Ideas" came from! I will watch with interest to see if they will be opening a "bakehouse" to compete with Home sweet Home next!

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousFebruary 3rd 2014.

"Famous" ?

AnonymousFebruary 3rd 2014.

Couldn't agree more Bearded NQ Deciple. These people seem completely uninspired. Would probably still be trying to flog fish in Sole if Almost Famous hadn't been such a success

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousFebruary 3rd 2014.

AF are pretty uninspiring too. clearly just copied a couple of the places in london but not as good.

AnonymousFebruary 3rd 2014.

Is this the same advocate of social media as the person from Solita who responded to my criticism with a "would you come and say that to our face" tweet? The food is OK but the arrogance of the place means we've never been back since we had to wait 90 minutes for a table - which led up to their twitter response. Saying that Goucho's marketing is better than their food is laughable. An established restaurant serving quality steak Vs Solita - a johnny come lately fad in the ever changing NQ. Almost Famous all the way.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousMay 14th 2014.

Gaucho don't do any marketing do they?

martin0475February 5th 2014.

which is the better burger solita or almost famous??????? im going solita!!

AnonymousFebruary 7th 2014.

What a hypocrite. "I travel all over the world and look at and adapt recipes. If I go somewhere like America I’ll take a photo of the food, come back, show it to the chefs and say let’s adapt it for Solita" and then to say the least favourite part of the job is "When somebody across the road copies what you’re doing without any credit". So funny. So Franco, where's the credit for the ramen burger you copied, or the deep fried mac n cheese, etc etc. For travelling all over the world you would think he would come back with a better idea than another burger.

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