(This story is sponsored by Futurpreneur Canada.)
Not every couple could manage a business together, but Polina Pen and her husband, Alessandro Riccobono, have built not one but two successful restaurants. Pen is from Bulgaria and Riccobono is Sicilian, but it’s not just geography that separates the backgrounds of this duo.
They met in the U.K., where Pen had a job at a policy-management company and Riccobono was working in some of London’s toughest kitchens. When they made the move to Vancouver in 2012, both were ready to start a business of their own.
“We became a very good partnership because we bring very different skills to the table,” Pen says.
While Pen deals with the bureaucracy of managing the business, Riccobono runs the kitchen—a combination that she says has been essential to their success.
The first restaurant they opened served international cuisine, and although they did very well, Riccobono wasn’t satisfied creatively. He had the very ambitious goal of creating the most authentic Italian restaurant in Vancouver. That venture was Mangia Cucina and Bar (2211 Manitoba Street), where he applies his experience in fine dining with the classic cuisine of his heritage to deliver a menu that is both special and unpretentious.
“People are moving beyond the spaghetti-and-meatballs narrative, which is great for us,” Pen says. “But it’s still a chef’s interpretation rather than ‘Nona’s cooking’.”
After the successful sale of their first restaurant, Pen was hesitant to embark on a second project, but when she saw the location—a heritage house in Mount Pleasant—she began to see Riccobono’s vision come to life.
“It really ties in with the European vibe. It looks cozy and it adds more authenticity to the project that we had in mind,” she says.
Although they had the idea, a robust business plan, and a good credit score, one of their biggest hurdles was securing the funding. After opening their first business, they were familiar with the challenge of asking a bank to invest in a restaurant. That’s how they found Futurpreneur Canada, which has been helping young people across the country build and grow successful and sustainable businesses since 1996. The nonprofit Futurpreneur recognizes that it can be difficult to get funding when you’re a young person without a lot of assets.
That’s why it offers entrepreneurs like Pen and Riccobono collateral-free loans of up to $45,000 toward launching or buying a business. Futurpreneur is able to finance up to $15,000 per business, and its partner, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), can provide additional financing of up to $30,000.
Pen praises Futurpreneur for giving credit based on your business plan, your understanding of the market, and the research that you have done. And it’s in this way that it supports and opens doors for people with great ideas in ways that other financial institutions may not.
“It is logical, but they judge you on your ability to grow, and I think that was essential for us,” she says. “We had the experience, we had some of the funding, and we needed somebody to help us. Futurpreneur did a great job in helping and guiding us. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have the business.”
By combining the collateral from Futurpreneur, BDC, and their own savings, Pen and Riccobono were able to buy the business, do some renovations, invest in the marketing and design, and stock up on food and liquor.
“At the beginning, it’s very stressful because you’re putting any savings you have, along with a loan that you have borrowed, into the business and you don’t know what is going to happen or if it’s going to work out,” Pen recalls.
But the pair remained focused and put all their efforts into making Mangia the most authentic version of the restaurant they had envisioned, from sourcing the best ingredients to hiring other Italian experts to work with them.
“It’s essential to create that kind of community feel for the success of our restaurant, but also in business. To network, to get more people in, and to get recommendations,” Pen says. “You need to be a part of a larger community.”
That’s another way that Futurpreneur has been more than just a financing option. Pen and Riccobono were able to take advantage of a full suite of online and in-person business services, including the support of their dedicated case worker, Mina Haghighi and their mentor, Enrique Arce.
“Thanks to those two, Futurpreneur has been so much more than a financial advisor,” Pen says. “It really felt like they cared for us. They have sent us a ton of customers. They had a Christmas party with us. They really go beyond supporting the local businesses that they are funding.”
Research shows that 70 percent of small businesses with owners who receive mentoring survive for five years or more, which is double the success rate of those run by those without that support. And from Futurpreneur’s perspective, entrepreneurship matters to the health, vibrancy, adaptability, innovation, and economic activity of our communities. It’s for this reason that it looks to remove the barriers that might prevent young people from starting their own business.
Pen recommends that any aspiring entrepreneur complete Futurpreneur’s business-plan template.
“Do a lot of research. Do a very extensive business plan. And then put another 30 percent on top of what you think you are going to spend,” she advises. “It’s not an easy decision. Even if you are an expert in your field, to run your own business is actually a different set of skills.”
However, Pen and Riccobono haven’t let the challenges stop them wanting to grow, because they have thrived in being able to work for themselves. They hope to expand Mangia’s patio ahead of the summer months and Riccobono would like to bring a Sicilian lunch concept and coffee bar to the city.
“It will be more of a takeout place but with a very Italian interpretation,” Pen explains. “I think Vancouver is ready for something very different and authentic.”
For Riccobono, as an entrepreneur and a chef, having the independence to express himself creatively through his cooking and his business is really rewarding. And despite their different skill sets, Riccobono and Pen find the most satisfaction in the same way: seeing the response from their customers.
“You work very hard and you’re putting in a lot of hours, but when people really appreciate what you’re doing and they respect it, that’s the best part of the business,” Riccobono says.
“We have discovered latterly that you make amazing connections,” Pen says. “Customers become friends, suppliers become your network, and you create something bigger than just a restaurant. You create a small community around you of people who are rallying for you, who want to help you and to see you succeed. We honestly didn’t expect that. We didn’t think about it. But that has been very heartwarming. It makes you want to continue working and to work harder to keep pleasing people and create more of that.”
To learn more about Futurpreneur and how it could help you get your idea off the ground and start your own business, visit the website.