Closing in on the 20-site mark, Veeno has reached a fork in the road for future development. Georgi Gyton spoke to co-founder Nino Caruso about the journey so far, and which direction the company might head in

When Nino Caruso and Andrea Zecchino first came up with the idea of opening a cosy and informal wine bar, they never envisaged it would become the business it is today. With 18 sites, and three more lined up to open before the end of the year, the cofounders of Veeno have created their piece of Italy in many corners of the UK.

The pair were both working for multinational companies when they founded the business towards the end of 2013. Caruso was on the Fast Track Talent Programme at Norbert Dentressangle and Zecchino a finance graduate at Kerry Ingredients – both in Manchester. So it made sense that they opened their first site in the city, on Brazennose Street, just off Albert Square.

Caruso tells MCA they were “a bit bored” with working in big business, and set about thinking about what they were passionate about – turns out that was wine, cocktails, cheeses and meats. His family has been producing wine in Sicily for 140 years, and while Caruso was keen to be involved in the continuation of the Caruso & Minini wine business, he was happier doing it from a distance, so the pair set about bringing a bit of Italian culture to their new hometown.

“Inside, everything was from Ikea, and we didn’t even have a coffee machine – we were using an espresso maker we had at home. It was very simple and genuine,” says Caruso of its debut opening. He also had to work to convince his family to sell them their first pallet of wine, as they were concerned he was leaving a good career to set up Veeno. But they agreed, and Veeno got through its first pallet in a week. The family now supplies 20 varieties of wine on its menu.

“We had not worked in hospitality before so it was all very overwhelming, and we were still working full time in our other jobs,” explains Caruso. But the January following its November opening, he quit his office job. They opened a second and third store, in Leeds and York.

“Our mission is to offer quality products in an informal and affordable way,” says Caruso. In the early stages they were working out what the business should be and what would work. They started doing pasta dishes alongside the antipasti, but decided that wasn’t who they were, and so they refined their offer and focused on small plates.

“Five intense years” later, they are almost at the 20-site mark, and assessing what the next steps are in their journey.

What’s next for Veeno?

Veeno is due to open its next site in Norwich, at Castle Terrace Mall, on 19 September, with Chancery Lane and a site in Woking, Surrey – within Morris House on Commercial Way – to follow later this year. The business is also understood to be considering a unit within Ealing’s Dickens Yard development.

Caruso says the majority of its new openings are likely to be under a franchise agreement – currently only four of its sites are franchise-operated – in order to balance the business a little more and not spread the management team too thin. But he says that as the business is a lot more service-focused, and perhaps less mechanical, than other franchise operations, “it is about finding the right people to work with”.

“For us it’s important to have people who understand about our service and our product. It’s not just about giving them a handbook – that’s not what we do,” he explains. In terms of future sites, there are a few locations that Veeno is looking at, but Caruso says they are in no rush to open additional outlets. “I think it’s a very important moment for us, because we grew very fast and we now want to consolidate where we are at,” he says. To date, the expansion of the business has been funded by a collection of small private investors, meaning the control of the company is not affected, explains Caruso.

However, “realistically, the next step would be bigger investment and structure behind us”, he says. While the business has considered crowdfunding, it is keen that investors can offer more than just finance. “We would be looking for investors who can actually add value, not just in terms of capital, but can help us develop the business – non-executive directors or consultants, who have a lot of experience in the industry,” he says.

“It’s a case of taking opportunities as and when they come.” Currently, the development of the business and the operational side of things is still largely taken care of by Caruso and Zecchino. “We have pushed ourselves as much as possible with our current structure. Our job now is to understand exactly how we get to the next level,” he says.

“If we open another one or two venues, that’s fine, but if we open 20, then it’s a different game.”

Small plates, Italian wines

While the focus of its menu on small plates has not changed, Veeno launched a new menu this summer. New additions include ‘while you wait’ items, such as olives and Italian crisps, a greater selection of sharing boards, salads and bruschetta, with extra vegetarian and vegan options still to come. At the same time as the menu relaunch, it also introduced an afternoon tea, which has been popular and is boosting trade outside the business’s core ‘after work’ trading hours.

“What represents us most is our local wine tasting menus,” he says.

“You get six wines and a platter of spuntini (appetisers), which are matched, and a guide book that gives you some information on them. It’s all about trying something different, but in a very informal way. The main thing is about having a good time,” he explains. He is also keen the drinks list caters for everyone, even if they don’t like wine. Its main customer demographic is 25 to 45-year-olds and 70% female, but “it’s about offering something interesting for that person in the room who doesn’t like wine to come here”.

In addition to the family wines, and a selection from another Italian family vineyard Moroder, there are cocktails, beers – including craft beers from Italy – and a new selection of gins, including one that changes colour when the tonic is added. Other developments include the rebranding of its Veeno Club to Veeno Family. Subscribers receive a newsletter with offers and a wine tasting on their birthday, but Caruso says they want to broaden its offer over the next 12 months, and make it more of a membership club.

Wine delivery is being considered too, with subscribers offered the chance to try new products or sign up to receive a different wine every month, for example. “In the next 12 to 18 months we will ideally spend that time having fun with what we do, and investing in all the things we haven’t because of our growth,” says Caruso.

“Hopefully we will then have a machine that is working well and we will see what the opportunities are.”