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Taking over a cafe: How Pellegrini's kept its brand strong

'You must have a clear idea of what you want to do and how you want to do it.'
Sisto Malaspina, Pellegrini's Espresso Bar

Top tips

  • A prime location and freehold premises give you stability even in difficult times
  • Being hands on ensures consistency
  • Loyalty will keep your business strong

Business partners Nino Pangrazio and Sisto Malaspina own and run Pellegrini's Espresso Bar in Bourke Street, Melbourne. The Pellegrini's sign is heritage-listed and the bar is one of Melbourne's most iconic destinations, in a city that prides itself on coffee and fine food.

A history of good food and coffee

Nino's father came to Australia from Italy in 1926 and worked at Florentino's restaurant.

The Pellegrinis - who first owned the well-known espresso bar in Melbourne's Bourke Street – came to Australia after the second world war and also worked at Florentino's. Nino and Sisto met while working together at a reception company. As well as working in the industry, they both grew up with a strong appreciation of food that came to them through family and their Italian heritage.

In 1974, they went into partnership to buy Pellegrini's which had already been operating for 20 years.

'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'

'People said it would never be the same without the Pellegrini family running the place, but we had the same mindset as them. We just continued the way they had been.'

During the handover of the business in 1974, the Pellegrinis worked very hard to transition the new partners into the business. 'They taught us how they were doing things, working with us for the first three months, side by side with us. They worked incredibly hard,' says Nino. 'Our quality hasn't changed.'

Hit the right spot

Some years ago, Pellegrini's was wondering if franchising might be a good idea. The advice they received was that their position – right at the top of Bourke Street – was such a huge part of their business that franchising might not be the best way for them. 

'We can't deny that our position here is incredibly important.' 

Freehold gives you freedom

When they first took over the business, Nino and Sisto were leasing the premises. 'When the freehold came up for sale, we didn't hesitate to buy it,' says Nino. 'The freehold means we can be masters of our own destiny, regardless of what's going on in the commercial world.'

Marketing by word of mouth

Pellegrini's is such a recognisable brand now that they never pay for advertising. 'The only advertising we have ever paid for has been to take out ads in our children's school newsletters.'

'Our customers are a mix of tourists and locals. We still get the business people coming in for their morning coffee or a plate of pasta, but we also get tourists who've read about us in a magazine. Every weekend we'll have wedding parties posed outside our sign for photographs.'

Hands on

'Forget about two-day weekends,' says Sisto. 'My weekend lasts less than 24 hours. But I'm happy.'

The partners are actively involved in every aspect of their business, building relationships with suppliers, hiring and training staff. They are the faces and voices of Pellegrini's.

'Staff come and go, but we do all our own training. Both of us are hands-on. It's a big thing. The staff see us working, doing the same things they are doing – whether it's chopping vegetables, cleaning pots or whatever it is,' says Nino.

Treat your suppliers right

'We still have the same butcher that we had when we started.'

Both Sisto and Nino believe strongly in building great relationships with their suppliers. They are loyal, refusing to change suppliers – even for a better price or a promise of better service. 'We pay within seven days,' says Nino.

'Pay the suppliers before you spend their money,' agrees Sisto. Other suppliers have unsuccessfully tried to win the Pellegrini's business, offering better service and prices, but long term loyalty and ongoing relationships count for more.

If Pellegrini's needs something fast – like a fix to the coffee machine or a quick delivery, they can rely on the suppliers returning the loyalty.

'We don't ask for deals; we just want good service.'

The result

Pellegrini's is still thriving, 60 years after the business started and 40 years after it was bought by Sisto and Nino. The brand is so strong that it markets itself.