The co-founder spills the frijoles on his Catalan restaurants and delis in Liverpool and Manchester

In 2010, Peter Kinsella left a successful and rewarding career to risk everything and open a Spanish and Catalan deli and restaurant in Liverpool. Ten years later, he now has two well-loved venues in Liverpool and one in Manchester.

I reckon the mistakes I made cost us well over half a million pounds

We caught up with Peter to talk about his dramatic career curve-ball, the perils of professional kitchen design and the effects of the Brexit referendum on the restaurant industry in the UK. 

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Did you have any idea ten years ago that you’d be in the position you are in now?

PK - "I thought, if we were lucky, we might last a couple of years. I opened knowing there was a really high risk it would fall flat on its face. I grew up on a horrible little council estate and I thought, if we lose everything, it’s not the end of the world to go back to that. I didn’t want to, but a house doesn’t define you, your car doesn’t define you. It’s your relationships which I think determine most things. I thought, I’ll do something, I’ll drive a cab for a year if I need to. That gave us to foolish courage to risk everything. 

"We’d spent years saving. We thought, if we put it in a building society it’s not going to grow. So I bought this stocks and shares magazine and started following their advice with the money and it grew five fold. Then the financial crash happened and we lost half of our funding six months before we were due to open, so we ended up having to borrow half a million pounds which was really hard because no-one was lending.The last £112,000 or so we borrowed at 47%.

"We tried it out at the food festivals to see if there was an interest in Spanish food. There was only La Tasca in Liverpool, Manchester had El Rincon de Rafa, but that was it. We thought, is there an interest in great providence and good Spanish food? We did about six markets and they went really well. I’d been practising at home. We’d invite 30 people round for dinner but that wasn’t true practise for a restaurant because everyone got what I gave them!"

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Is your background in cooking?

PK - "Not professionally. I cooked at home as a child. My mum was a really good home cook. When I was at uni I got some business cards printed and I did catering for weddings and birthdays for mates, their parents and whoever. That helped me get through uni. I’d always loved cooking and always had at the back of my mind that I’d love to do something professionally food-wise."

What did you do before opening Lunya? 

PK - "I’d worked in health and social services all my life. I was involved in the very first project in the UK getting people with learning difficulties out of long term hospitals, back in the mid-eighties. There was a funded experiment so see whether people could live outside of hospitals - which is absolutely bonkers. We knew the answer: of course they could! But you’ve got to prove it. So we did it for three years and then started working around the country releasing people.

"I set up an independent consultancy, employed 20 people and went round the globe doing that same thing. We were really on a social mission, making a massive difference to peoples lives. That took me to Barcelona. I went there in ’98 to do some work with the Catalan health service about closing their institutions and they took me out to lunch. I’d never been to Spain and that sewed the seed for me. It was astonishing."

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When did you decide to change careers?

PK - "Around my 40th birthday. I remember telling all my mates, 'I’m packing everything in and I’m going to open a deli or something.’ Everyone just thought I was pissed - which I was - but I woke up the next morning with so much determination."

I like the idea that people don’t have to do the same job their whole lives.

PK - "There was a guy called Charles Handy who, in the eighties, was the bestseller of management and leadership books. He had this theory that people used to work for 20 years and then die so we became conditioned to that. He said in the future, people will have a portfolio career, doing two or three different things. You might start out as a doctor and then decide halfway through that you’ve had enough and train to do something else."

Do you miss it?

PK - "Oh god yeah, loads, everything about it. What we’re doing here is feeding people, we’re not exactly changing the world. I loved what I was doing. That was the hardest thing. So it’s different. What’s nice is you get quicker results here. Put a nice plate of food in front of someone and you immediately see it in their face.

"I’m just about to join the board of a learning disability charity. I’m trying to keep a sense of doing something really important because ultimately we’re just proving food and drink. It does feel like we’ve really made an impact in Liverpool though, introducing great Spanish food. With the deli we’ve introduced so much food to the UK that wasn’t there. We always put this hashtag on our instagram now: #morethanarestaurant because we spend a huge amount of time going to Spain and visiting obscure places to find really great products to bring over. We’ve not resorted to a deli full of crackers and jams and chutneys, we’ve got really obscure stuff."

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How do you tackle food waste?

PK - "We have virtually no food waste at all. The plastic spine of a squid we can’t do anything with so we throw that out. We used to throw our potato peelings away. So we checked, if you start off with a 100g potato, about 65g translates to on the plate. So our patatas bravas and our fries we do skin on now. They’re tastier and have more nutrients. 

"No one ever realises what a proper independent contributes to a local economy. In ten years we’ve paid £7.1 million in tax. That employs a nurse for 237 years. Or 237 nurses for a year. And that’s just our Liverpool site. Our prawns come from a fishmonger in Birkenhead, the cabbage comes from Noone's, we’ve spent £3.7 million on food in the time we’ve been open. Much of that is with Liverpool or Manchester based companies. We’ve served 1.7 million portions of patatas bravas." 

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Any regrets? Lessons learned?

PK - "When we opened I’d never worked in a restaurant. I reckon the mistakes I made cost us well over half a million pounds. I remember being asked ‘How do you want the kitchen to be?’ I hadn’t really thought too much about that. If a lot of food’s coming from your fryer it needs to be close to the pass because if it’s four metres away the time you waste and the accidents you have all cost. Our other restaurants have all got fryers very close but in our original one in Liverpool it was the furthest away. I was really involved with the recipes and the food but people, machines, layout, I’d no idea at all. 

"The biggest learning was going from colleagues who were all a similar age to me that were all the very best at what they did and had all been in that sector all their life to going into an industry where most people are barely out of puberty and they’re not too sure what they want to do. Even having the basic work skill of coming in on time! 

"We have this really clear policy on timekeeping because being late just shows a complete disrespect for your team. That way, the really good, hard workers you keep. A fifth of our workforce have been here a very long time. I think there are five that have been here from the very beginning, ten years."

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Are you worried about Brexit?

PK - "Yeah it’s terrifying. People are going out less, spending less, worrying about the future. We know that from our expensive wines. If someone buys a £120 bottle of wine, they’re very well off. They’re never going to be poor. They’re never going to lose their money. But now they’re not buying the £120 wine, they’re buying £30 wine because they’re worried about what’s around the corner. It’s a psychological impact. 

"We’ve lost a lot of staff who’ve gone back to Spain. We’ve never employed so few Spanish staff as we do now. A lot of people went after the Brexit referendum, not the next day but within a year or 18 months, they thought ‘I’m not wanted - I don’t know what the future holds.’ I think this job requires very high functioning people skills and body language reading. If you’ve got balance, you can carry a tray but carrying a tray is only one little part of it. You need an age range across any industry and there’s not a culture of Brits staying a long time in our sector."

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How has the industry changed in ten years?

PK - "The biggest changes are the advent of delivery and food halls - people want to get fed rather than going out for a leisurely meal. We’ve just done four months in the Baltic Market in Liverpool. We’d love to do the same in Manchester. Food halls are definitely the big trend. Another one is the breadth of choice. When we opened Liverpool in 2010 there was no other restaurant within 100 metres of us. There’s now over 30. In Manchester when we opened I thought we’d be about the last to open because there were so many in 2015, but it’s not stopped. It’s hard because you’ve got people going out and spending less but there’s more choice. Nobody’s doing brilliantly. You’ve just got your head above water. So for us 2010 was there (gestures low) and then we went up, so 2013-15 was brilliant and now it’s gone back down again to what it was like in 2010.

"I always say recessions are good for business because they really make you pay attention to every single thing you do and spend. When things recover you do a lot better because your cost base is much lower. We just have to cope."

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Tell us about Lunyalita, your third venue on the Royal Albert Dock

PK - "We were the first to take the plunge. They asked us about two years ago and we said 'no chance.' We’d only been open here two years and we were still reeling from that. We had our wedding reception in the Albert Dock and in 29 years we’d only been back six times. Locals just don’t go there, that’s what worried us. But the new owners are getting local businesses in to bring them over and it’s working. They asked us what it would take for us to move in. So we said you’ve got to give us this, this and this - expecting them to come back and say, 'You’re taking the piss, there’s no way'. Within a week they came back and said the board had agreed. They gave us this corner unit, all glass, next to the Beatles museum with a sun terrace and overlooking the water on the other side. We thought, my God they do want us! It’s been brilliant. 

"The first summer season was immense, really busy and then the first winter was like the Mary Celeste. No other tenants in, the cruise ships and coaches had stopped. Last year Maray moved in, Rosa’s Thai moved in, there’s a handmade bakery all on the same run and they started to put new events on that started to bring good locals over: a food festival, a floating cinema, gorgeous’s now a place where even if you weren’t eating there, if the weather was alright you’d walk around just to get in the mood. If only we had a Mediterranean climate."

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What are your favourite restaurants in Manchester and Liverpool?

PK - "I love the places that don’t get enough attention. In Liverpool there’s this brilliant Chinese restaurant called the Mei Mei. They do the most glorious honey roast duck and soy braised chicken. In Rockferry where I grew up, there’s the most fantastic place called The Refreshment Rooms.  It’s a really grotty run down area and they’ve got this - well I think people call it a gastro pub - in an old ferry terminal. The restaurant is right next to these great big gasometer things full of diesel and it’s packed every single day. I took my dad there on a Wednesday in January for lunch and you couldn’t get in! It’s just really good home cooking. People travel there from across the Wirral because of word of mouth. 

"In Manchester I love Siam Smiles, it’s simple nice and friendly. I love El Gato Negro too, but they get enough shout outs. I love Dishoom, they don’t need shout outs either. I’ve been to every Dishoom in London. They’re just so perfectly consistent."

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