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Aquilini expands restaurants with Umberto acquisition

Restaurant’s sale highlights B.C.’s No. 1 rank in Canada for food service
Umberto Menghi: “until God tells me, ‘Don’t work anymore,’ I will work” | Rob Kruyt

When restaurateur Umberto Menghi was growing up in Italy, his father gave him some advice: “If somebody wants something that you have and they are willing to pay for it, sell it to them.”

Those words came to mind when the deep-pocketed Aquilini Investment Group’s Toptable Group came calling to make a bid on Menghi’s Il Caminetto restaurant in Whistler.

The 70-year-old local culinary legend said he hadn’t planned on selling, but the offer was too good to refuse. Though a confidentiality clause forbids him from disclosing details, he said he will receive top dollar for the 160-seat bistro because it is very popular and has a great team.

“Business is very good,” Menghi told Business in Vancouver. “I could say ‘very good’ five times over.”

The transaction is Toptable’s first acquisition since Aquilini bought the Toptable collection of restaurants from entrepreneur Jack Evrensel in March 2014.

Its restaurants at the time included Araxi Restaurant and Oyster Bar, CinCin Ristorante, Blue Water Cafe, West Restaurant and Thierry café. After the acquisition, Toptable opened the Cellar by Araxi and Bar Oso, which are both in Whistler.

Menghi expects that Toptable will keep most of the 40 or so employees at Il Caminetto, although there will likely be some staffing changes.

“Toptable Group acquired Il Caminetto due to the long-standing history of the brand and the service excellence that Umberto has inspired,” said Toptable president Michael Doyle. “This culture fits well with the passion we have for delivering elegant yet approachable dining.”

Aquilini’s other restaurant division is PH Restaurants LP, which operates 47 franchised Pizza Hut locations. The company plans to open a 48th Pizza Hut restaurant in Burnaby’s Marine Way Market area by May 1, president Mike Cyr told BIV.

“B.C. is doing much better in the food service sector than the rest of the country and that’s largely because of tourism,” he said.

Indeed, data from Statistics Canada and Central 1 Credit Union shows that B.C. restaurants had a 10% sales increase in the first 11 months of 2016. That compares with 6.3% sales growth at restaurants countrywide during that same time period. The province with the most sluggish gains was Alberta, at 0.3% sales growth.

B.C.’s full-service restaurants are the best-performing food service niche, with an 11.5% sales gain in the first 11 months of 2016, compared with the same period in 2015. Fast-food sales were up 10% across the province during that same time period.

Menghi still owns the 160-seat Trattoria in Whistler and the 200-seat Giardino in Vancouver. He said he is not planning to leave the restaurant business, but if anyone wants to buy his remaining restaurants, he said that he is open to hearing the offer.

Menghi is likely best known for operating Il Giardino restaurant at the corner of Hornby Street and Pacific Boulevard between 1976 and 2013. His restaurant was known for high-end Tuscan food as well as its location partly inside a yellow heritage house that was built circa 1881.

Menghi and W.P.J. McCarthy and Co. owner William McCarthy sold the site to Seacliff Properties in 2013. The site then flipped to Grosvenor Pacific, which plans to build a 39-storey condominium tower and to restore the house.

After Menghi closed Il Giardino, he realized that managing two Whistler restaurants left him wanting to do more.

He found a site half a block up Hornby Street from Il Giardino’s old location and spent more than a year renovating the space before opening his new Giardino in mid-2015.

Retirement is not in his sights.

“I want to work and to keep seeing my customers,” he said. “Some of them are 80 or 90 years old. They are all healthy and enjoying life. Until God tells me, ‘Don’t work anymore,’ I will work.”

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