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Global Foodservice: Foundation is the family

Professionalism, planning nurture success for Schiavones’ Tartarun restaurant in Malta

By Anthony Fletcher
August 01, 2013

Mixing business with family is fraught with risk, proof (if ever it was needed) that it is perfectly possible to know someone too well. The Schiavone family, however, based in the Maltese fishing village of Marsaxlokk, believe that they have found a winning formula that mixes family and work.  

“In a family-run restaurant there will always be issues, but everyone here plays their part,” explains Stephen Schiavone, who along with his twin brother, James, and their mother Rena and father Joseph, has run Tartarun since 2009. “We complement each other. I am front-of-house together with my mother, James is the chef and my father sources and purchases the fish. We work different hours; we’re not always working at the same time together.”

Stephen’s parents have run a restaurant most of their lives, but Tartarun was the first time everyone in the family entered an enterprise as equals. “It all happened quite naturally,” says Stephen. “My father had a stake in the running of a restaurant — a touristy restaurant — which only opened for lunch.” 

At the time, the brothers were both studying, James to be a chef at the local catering school and Stephen to be an engineer. 

“But I soon realized this wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I followed my brother (into catering school) and studied hospitality management,” Stephen says. Around this time, his father was looking to invest in something on his own, which presented the twins, now qualified, with the opportunity to throw themselves into something creative. 

In order to be successful, the family has been keen to adopt professional management models, and tried to eliminate personal feelings when making tricky business decisions. “If a meeting is scheduled, we talk objectively, not personally,” says Stephen. “And we try not to step into each other’s roles. We respect each other and I think this is the key: Other family business models are often dominated by the father who has all the knowledge and experience, while the young generation are under his shadow.” 

The restaurant is located in Marsaxlokk’s central square. The town, located about 35 miles from the capital Valletta, is known for its seafood. Most of Malta’s fish is caught by fishermen from this port, with swordfish, tuna and the popular lampuki (dorado) caught in abundance between spring and late autumn. On weekdays, the catch is taken to the fish market in Valletta, but on Sundays fish is sold in the open on the quay. 

“People come here for the seafood,” says Stephen. “We have built up a loyal local clientele, and attract a lot of business people. Marsaxlokk is a real restaurant hub, and during the economic crisis no one had to close their doors here. We were lucky that we didn’t feel the effects that much.” 

Appetizers include sautéed black mussels with garlic, mint and white wine (€9.50, $12.38), local marinated octopus with black olives, capers and pickled artichokes (€10.50, $13.68) and Mediterranean prawn carpaccio with garden cress, lemon and olive oil dressing (€12.00, $15.63). Entrées include king prawns and langoustines with spicy buckwheat and sweet pepper salad (€21.50, $28) and a Plateau Royale of langoustines, prawns, mussels, razor shells and surf clams (€25.50, $33.22). 

“We try to keep the menu with as much locally sourced fish as possible,” explains head chef James. “With our fish we try and serve it whole, as you get different flavors if fish is cooked on the bone [as opposed to] filleted. This is our way of doing it.”

The restaurant has built a solid reputation, and the family hopes to capitalize on its early success. “We didn’t start out with a particular ambition,” says Stephen. “The business is maturing, but there was never a plan as such.” 

The Schiavones now hope to run two or three restaurants. “We will be able to inject more talent in the business this way,” explains Stephen. “With one restaurant you might get stuck; this is when a family business can become unsustainable. Most of the family businesses in Malta I know last eight years then separate; they have not gone out of their comfort zone. We’ll see what we eventually do.”

Contributing Editor Anthony Fletcher lives in Brussels

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