Bruno Zoccola has one tip for would-be entrepreneurs: get a job amongst the meat at Smithfield Market. “It made a man out of me,” says the foodie, who started there as a runner aged 17. “I couldn’t wait to leave school: after my parents moved here in the 1950s from Italy, I was brought up by my grandparents who could only speak Italian, and I never fitted in.
“Then I started at Smithfield: at 3.30 in the morning I’d buy meat for £1 a pound and sell it for £1.10 a pound - this, I could relate to. Buying, selling, talking to people, convincing them my product was better than the next guy’s, Smithfield bought out all those skills that were inside me and school hadn’t developed.”
By the time he was 26, in 1985, Zoccola had worked his way up to becoming director of a meat business at the market. He led a management buy-out, and was running a company turning over £100 million a year by 2000, importing meat from Brazil and Argentina. He sold that business in 2006 - “I was comfortable, but there was no way I could retire,” and spent £600,000 on a shop and the two flats above it in Sheen.
The entrepreneur, who is now 64, began building this delicatessen into a chain, Valentina’s Fine Foods. He built a thirty-seater restaurant at the back of the deli, and focused on creating dishes with the foods sold in the shop. “In the deli, there’s charcuterie counter, cheese, and prepared chicken milanese, lasagna, Sicilian caponata – so you could take it home cold to warm up, or eat them in our restaurants.
“I’ve always loved food - unfortunately I’m overweight and have a bit of diabetes through my love of food: I’m addicted,” Zoccola adds. “Aged 10, my parents would tell me at half past 5, you need to make sure the pasta is on and the sauce is there, get everything ready for when we come home from work.” He spent the Noughties cooking up an empire, with more deli-restaurants opening in Putney, Sevenoaks, Notting Hill, Weybridge, Reigate, Chiswick, Tower Bridge and Battersea over the next seven years. “We had 10 at our peak, but then it all went wrong,” Zoccola says. “When Jamie Oliver, Carluccios, and Prezzo all hit a brick wall and had to cull their empires back, I had to do the same. We couldn’t survive.”
In 2018, Valentina collapsed into administration. “It was very traumatic - we’d built this business, my son and daughter and other members of the family were involved in it, and seeing it fail was really emotional and hard.” Zoccola bought back two of the sites, in East Sheen and Weybridge. Business was ticking along - then came the pandemic.
Zoccola feared a second business collapse - but turned his sites into ‘dark kitchens’ offering takeaway pizzas, pastas and burgers on Deliveroo and Uber Eats. “The Covid years were our most profitable years,” he reports. "Although we had to give such big commissions to the delivery platforms.”
Valentina’s had also gone online just before Covid, selling pasta from Puglia, Tuscan winter truffles, sauces and other foods to be sent across the UK. The digital business took off, and Zoccola, who lives near Bromley, opened two more sites in Sheen and Weybridge, hitting £3.7 million turnover, of which £1 million was profit, last year. “Post-Covid we managed to maintain the deli customer base once restaurants re-opened, because more and more people were choosing not to dine-out but to spend a little more on food that is of a high quality and having a dine-in experience at home.”
As with all hospitality businesses, Valentina’s has faced staffing problems: “when we first opened I employed a lot of staff from our village in Italy – Cassino - but their English was always limited - I’m still unsure whether their English language or customer service was worse,” Zoccola laughs. “A customer visited the deli asking for ‘Wensleydale cheese’. Not understanding what this was, our member of staff responded with “Yes madam, we get cheese in on a Wednesday, a Thursday, a Friday, any day of the week!”
Now the entrepreneur has tempered his ambition: he’s investing in Valentina’s digital presence, with PR, digital marketing and SEO specialists, but won’t be expanding too fast. “Big is not always beautiful,” he says. “I didn’t want to open up another store, but strengthen what we’ve got, trying to make Valentina name a bit more well known. The restaurant business is very challenging right now, sales have dipped, but the deli and online side has picked up, and cheese sales have had meteoric growth. It’s an ever moving feast.”