How to build a restaurant empire: Victor Lugger, co-founder of Big Mamma group
The day I fell in love with cooking was the day I left home. My mother and my grandmother are the most amazing cooks. Once I left, I realised that I’d have to do it myself. So I got on the phone, at the age of 20, and I asked my mother: ‘How did you cook this? How did you cook that?’ At first, I was terrible — I made all the usual mistakes, and a lot of inedible food. But slowly I got better. And the better I got, the more my love of food grew.
When I was a kid, I had a very dull vision of professional life. I always thought I wanted to be a corporate CEO, and I went to business school in order to get into that world. After I graduated, it only took me three months to realise that I was probably not suited for that long, steep corporate ladder. To me, it was way more exciting to take risks, be out of my comfort zone, innovate, and break rules — just like in my cooking.
I met my partner Tigrane at business school, and we soon decided to launch Big Mamma. The name came from his wife, Erika. We were really struggling with what to call the company, and she said: “You guys are trying to recreate a very homely, comforting, generous, self-indulgent place”. Tigrane would always say it was an “antidepressant place — we are building restaurants that are an antidote to the Sunday blues.” To us, this felt very “Mamma”. The “big” part came from our ambition, as Erika pointed out. We always wanted to do things bigger, crazier, with wilder ambition. “Big Mamma” seemed to say just that.
One of the first restaurants we opened was a pop-up in the South of France. It had a 150-seat terrace, with 40 seats inside. One memory in particular stays with me. It was 10pm, and the place was full, inside and out, on just our second ever week of running a restaurant. It was May, so it was a bit chilly — but warm enough to dine al fresco, and there were nearly 200 clients sitting down. In the middle of service, as sometimes happens down in Luberon in the South of France, the weather suddenly turned. In came the fearsome mistral wind, closely followed by a monsoon. I remember standing on that terrace in the pouring rain, with every client staring at me. I felt like a rabbit in the headlights — I was so panicked I couldn’t even move.
I felt like a rabbit in the headlights — I was so panicked I couldn’t even move.
Then, suddenly, the Italian guys on our team began to sing. They didn’t know much about restaurants — but they did know a thing or two about breaking a silence. Everyone started to laugh. Then, the team took the customers by their hands and led them dancing inside the restaurant. Soon enough, we had 200 clients inside a dining room designed for 40 — people were sitting with strangers on their tables, while others were eating straight from the kitchen pans. But I sincerely think those people had the most memorable dinner of their lives. That day, I realised there is no problem too big in our industry. You can out-laugh and out-joy every challenge. It’s a lesson I learnt from our very inexperienced Italian team, and one that I am still grateful for, seven years later.
People in our team would say I’m a creative person, but it’s funny: before I started Big Mamma, I was first a CFO, then a CEO, and I was always seen as the guy who would stick to the numbers, and let the creatives do their work. That probably got me frustrated. So when we started Big Mamma, I wanted to prove to myself that I could be creative, too.
If you ask me today what I think creativity is, I’ll tell you it’s just a job. If you put the time and the work in, you’ll get a good result in the end. It’s just like a sport: train hard, and you get better at it. You have to make time for it, too. To be creative, you have to read, you have to get bored, you have to walk around the house and get lost in thought.
Over the years, I have had so many mentors who don’t even know who I am.
In the restaurant industry, it’s not about banging your head against the wall until you come up with new ideas. It’s all about borrowing pieces of inspiration from here and there. That’s not to say you should steal ten ideas from the guy next door. But you might find one in South America, one in Boston, another in the countryside of Italy, another in Australia. Over the years, I have had so many mentors who don’t even know who I am.
The places we revisit again and again, however, are the timeless trattorias of Italy: from the traditional ones in Turin, Milan, Rome or Naples, to the very classic small places dotted across the countryside. What we love — and what is impossible to borrow or bottle up — is their sheer Italianness. It’s very hard to describe — like describing what love feels like. But trying to get as close to that as possible is our constant mission.
I love Il Centro in Priocca, in Piedmont. It happens to have a Michelin star, but it looks like a tiny grandmother’s restaurant in the middle of the countryside. It serves 14€ dishes on white tablecloths, and half of the kitchen is made up of young people from around the globe. And it’s owned by this amazing family — the mother is the cook, the dad is the front of house, and the son handles the most incredible wine cellar. It is both brilliantly refined and so pure in its simplicity. It is probably my favourite restaurant in the world.
Le Baratin in Paris’s 20th Arrondissement serves very traditional French food. It is renowned to be the restaurant that Michelin chefs go to when they’re not working. It’s simple cuisine, but it’s good and refined. It’s run by a couple — she cooks and he does the wine and the front of house. He is the most French, annoying, and apparently disagreeable man — but he has the biggest heart. If I was a tourist in Paris, I would go there first.
I also love Ristorante Cortile Arabo, set in a village that runs around a square courtyard, all built from white stone, on the south-eastern tip of Sicily. You can sit on the terrace, which is on the sea, and everything is white and bathed in gorgeous sunlight. The food is fished from that exact spot, and you eat this amazing couscous which is a local Sicilian speciality.
“He is the most French, annoying, and apparently disagreeable man — but he has the biggest heart…”
When we started Big Mamma, we were in our 20s and we knew nothing about restaurants. We were inspired by London, in many ways. The city was bustling, and tended towards big restaurants, in every sense — plenty of waiters, big groups of people, lots of sound and music. It all felt a little OTT to our French sensibilities, which are used to 50 seat brasseries. But we thought we’d try to open this big, bustling, London-style restaurant in Paris, and we were the first to do that.
We were also the first to ever get a foreign designer to design a Parisian restaurant, when we hired the brilliant Martin Brudnizki. We were looking at what Jamie was doing, we were looking at the River Cafe, the big steakhouses, the first Corbin & King restaurants. We were amazed by them, and so inspired. I suppose what we have done is create a mix between that London energy, the New York restaurant scene, and the most traditional places in Italy.
The first ingredient of any great dining room is the people. And I’m not saying that as a restaurateur — but as a diner. We, the team, are always the first customers, and so we always try to create restaurants that we would want to go to: beautiful dining rooms serving amazing food that’s cheap and accessible to everyone.
It’s the antithesis of snobbishness. One of the most beautiful brands in the world is Nike. Everyone wears Nike. Children wear Nike. Billionaires wear Nike. Young people, old people — everyone wears Nike. That’s a recipe for an amazing brand. I suppose the question we’re always asking is: how can we create a restaurant that’s a bit like Nike? A restaurant that’s genuinely for everyone?
“The restaurants we love are the antithesis of snobbishness…”
After the customers, the second most important ingredient is the staff. They create the vibe. Good staff are passionate. But to be passionate you need freedom, autonomy, ownership, incentives. We try to give this to our teams. And because it’s very hard to find passionate staff who are also experienced, often we’ll trade experience for passion and sheer ambition.
When building a restaurant, the most important things are the light, the music, the temperature and the airflows; and also the staff and the quality of the food. Music is so important, and we invest a huge amount of money into the sound systems we have. I think there’s a direct correlation between how much you spend on your hardware and how good it sounds and feels. But that’s nothing, of course, without good music. I will confess that I have often tried to curate the music in our restaurants — I used to run a record label, and I love everything from baroque harpsichord music to rap and hard rock. But it never works. In the end, the music at all our restaurants is picked by the staff. I wish I could tell you that I do this because I’m a big visionary manager, and I think people should hear the music they love. And perhaps that’s true. But it’s more true to say that I played my music and I failed, and no-one gave a shit. Now, they just play what they want.
The day before a restaurant opens, I shit my pants. When we opened our first restaurant in Paris, East Mamma, we had 146 covers and we thought we’d do about 50 clients a day. The first lunch we did, we had 90 people queuing at 12pm before we had even started service. To this day, I have no idea where they came from. We thought we were going to be eaten alive. We felt like gladiators going into the arena. Then one of the Italian guys said: “No, they aren’t going to eat us. We are going to eat them!” Before we were even ready to be open, he went outside and opened the doors and yelled: “This is the opening of the restaurant! Bongiorno!” Now, every single day when we open the restaurants, the team always yell “Bongiorno!”. People often ask me whether I tell the guys to do that. And I say no. They do it themselves.
“Tigrane, my business partner, spent seven days straight washing the dishes…”
When we opened La Felicita, our biggest ever launch and the biggest restaurant in Europe, we thought we would have 800 clients on the first day, and we prepared 80 staff members accordingly. But on day one we did 3,500 clients; day two, 4,000; day three, 6,000. I remember Alaine Ducasse telling us that, whatever the cost, just be ready for anything at an opening — do not fuck it up. We thought we were ready. This was our seventh restaurant. But we weren’t. We were drowning in a tsunami of clients. Tigrane, my business partner, spent seven days straight washing the dishes, because the dishwasher exploded almost straight away. I was cleaning tables and managing a queue at the same time. But the team kicked into gear. Everyone called a friend, or anyone they knew, and by the next week our team had grown by 60, and we just about got through it.
Then we opened Gloria. In Paris, we were fortunate enough to be very successful with all our restaurants. Then we came to London. For the entire first year and a half, we worked day-in, day-out, trying to recreate from a standing start the buzz we’d achieved in Paris. Frankly, no one gave a shit. We had to prove ourselves all over again, in a city where there is so much competition and so little media space. On opening day, I was so tense. The team was doing an amazing job, but I was pacing around the restaurant three hours before opening like a wolf in a cage. I kept worrying that nothing was perfect, until eventually I told myself that I just had to leave. I was only bringing tension. I’m really ashamed to admit that, but I think it did me a lot of good, and it did the team a lot of good, too. I went for a walk around Shoreditch for an hour and a half, and then, when I got back, it was half an hour before opening and there was a queue around the block. I remember calling my wife Apolline and my partner Tigrane and saying “Guys! They’re queuing down the street!”
“I miss the energy of a room, a unique space, filled with 100 human bodies…”
I have really missed restaurants over the past year. I miss the energy of a room, a unique space, filled with 100 human bodies. There is a chemistry to this that we as restaurateurs try to articulate, orientate, use and dynamise. In its own small way, it’s like a concert. Life has been quieter and flatter without it.
I’m lucky that I can really cook, so I eat good food during covid and we still have amazing Italian producers and the logistics are all still fine. But what I miss is that atmosphere and my team.
When we reopen, I think restaurants are going to be packed like never before, and people are going to party like never before, and we are going to have fun like never before. I think life can quickly change back to what it was, just as it quickly transformed into this crazy lockdown world. We can go back to the good times very quickly. But we need to be doing it sooner. If we don’t open up soon, even the good restaurants are going to die.
We really have no regrets. We live this job so fully, work at such a pace, and take risks all the time. You can’t have regrets. I think about that every morning with my partner, and every day with my wife, too. The phrase YOLO is a little “Ok, Boomer”, but you get my point. You only live once.
My greatest achievements is how Big Mamma — not my partner, not me as a restauranteur, not even the two of us; just this thing that we all as a team have created — has become a self standing, autonomous entity. It’s like an organism that grows all the time. And it’s changing people’s lives.
“We really have no regrets. We live this job so fully, work at such a pace, and take risks all the time…”
I can tell you about the more than 40 people who we have helped to get official documents in France, and who have now escaped exploitation. That’s been amazing for them, and for all the people they support. I can tell you how it changed Enrico’s life, too. He’s the manager of Big Mamma in the UK. He’s responsible for 250 team members, and has helped them all through the pandemic. He came with us to that first ever pop-up in the Luberon in France, carrying coffee to the tables, and speaking one language. Six years later, he is an incredible and accomplished manager — and speaks five languages. I could also tell you about how Big Mamma has changed my life, too. It has given me the opportunity to do new things, to meet new people, and to feel that, every day, we are participating in giving thousands of people the best moment of their day. It’s a lot of love you get. So whenever I’m on holiday, I start to miss the customers first.