From a London property developer, to new owner of local Italian café, La Cosa Nostra, Bruno Pace sits down with Hannah Patterson to discuss trade, the St John’s community and his twist on the traditional Italian menu…
What inspired you to open La Cosa Nostra? What’s your ethos?
I’m actually a professional property developer by trade, but one side of my family has always owned restaurants, club and venues in London. Watching that from a distance, I knew I wanted to do something similar, but away from the city. Usually I would take a building like this, develop and let it out, but here having spoken to the then mayor, I realised St John’s was crying out for someone to bring a restaurant like this to the community. I wanted to make an Italian, but not the chains we are used to here, and so I created La Cosa Nostra – an authentic café restaurant. Italian food is usually healthy too, so I took really traditional recipes and made sure our approach was equally as good for you.
How do you ensure your food is so healthy?
Keeping it traditional. We use all the Italian oils you would expect, but without any chemicals or e-numbers. I’m very fussy when it comes to quality, and as someone who won’t serve a customer a meal I wouldn’t eat myself, it’s important I check out all my suppliers personally. It has taken about five months of searching around to find the ideal supplier. I have to see a chicken running about my feet before I’ll believe the ‘free range’ label on the eggs! There is no cutting corners. An apple tart we sell here are from apples grown by my family. I’m trying to be as self-sufficient as I can, within reasonable limits.
How has your authenticity led to your popularity as a restaurant?
I wasn’t surprised that the people here really care about what they eat and the quality of food. Also, the community around Tunbridge Wells are often well-travelled so they always come to me with Italian meal requests. If it’s an Italian recipe, my chef knows it! I’m solely focusing on La Cosa Nostra at the minute, so I’m making sure I really listen to the customers and what they want – that’s the secret to pleasing people. For example, the cushions we are sitting on now were at the request of a customer and we are always adapting the menu to suit the locals. Adaptability is key – if our customer wants something, we will do all we can.
How has the business had to adapt in the short time you’ve been open?
We’ve been here for 14 weeks and had 16 menu changes. If you like it, great! If no one likes it, we change it. We are always listening to the customer. Currently, we are looking into opening later, as I think commuters may prefer this. Again, we will play it by ear! A new ‘Winter Warmer’ menu is coming this week so look out for that! The business has definitely got off to a good start, especially as we got our five star environmental rating the day we opened. The support from the community has also been amazing!
How has your relationship been with the community?
It’s been really great. I came here knowing almost no one, and the few people I did know didn’t work in hospitality. I just came here, had a look around, ate in a few restaurants, and realised this place needed something new. Like any good investor, I invest in things I believe in, like the St John’s community. The people here are amazing, they really do care. This café restaurant should feel like a second home. Whether you come here for a three course meal or just a coffee- the service is always the same! I hate the places that rush you and try to constantly upsell. We are far too relaxed for that.
What does the future hold for La Cosa Nostra?
As well as the new winter menu, and looking into ways we can adapt La Cosa Nostra, I really want to focus on St John’s itself as the up and coming area it is. We are looking into creating a local forum, so we can coordinate Christmas and charity events between all the St John’s businesses. I’m all about working together to make St John’s the place I know it’s going to be in a couple of years. We want to plant trees along the road to really encourage a community vibe. I’m also currently trying to work with local school governors to encourage children to stop buying bags of sweets after school and instead try something like our ‘Pasta Cone’. The profit on the cones is marginal, but it’s more about providing something affordable to the children of this community to help them look after themselves better. It’s all about caring for the community.
What does the future hold for St John’s as a whole?
We are all working together, which is great and something I’m not used to having spent my career working it London. St John’s is not about competition between traders – it’s about us coming together to all offer our different services in the same area, and encourage the area to flourish for the benefit of us all. If you want authentic Italian food with coffee that’s fresh from Naples then you can come here, if you want Turkish food or an English breakfast, then there’s other options too. My rule is, if you engage in local community business, you can’t be selfish. It’s about you, the other traders and the community in unity. You can’t be cold. People here just want that community feel, that’s why St John’s is so great. The warmth of the area is what we emulate in La Cosa Nostra.
Describe La Cosa Nostra in five words
Homely, cosy, adaptable, community, authenticity.