Craig Pedersen – Il Primo

Craig Pedersen is the founder of Il Primo, an Italian restaurant located in Ottawa. Although he has been involved in the restaurant and hospitality industry for much longer, Craig has only been operating Il Primo for the past 18 years.

He did not start out in the restaurant business. Instead, his career began as a contract reservist in the Canadian armed forces, working for National Defence Canada in public relations. Through his job, Craig joined a recruit mission to Africa. Upon his return, he was tasked with teaching a driving course to new recruits and decided that this current vocation did not align well with his interests. As a result, he taught the course and promptly left the forces.

After his time in the military, Craig and his wife Adriana traveled in Northern Italy, enjoying the fine skiing and food. They fell in love with Italy’s culture and simple lifestyle. As a result, his planned two-week stay lasted five years. To be able to stay in Italy, Craig took on a demolition job.

A year later, however, he and his wife sank all their resources into the purchase of a little local bar. While in Canada, a bar is a place where people go to drink, a bar in Italy is a locale where people go to grab a snack. Over time, the bar provided a decent living, but they eventually sold it in favor of moving back to Canada. “So that was basically the foundation of opening our own business,” he said.

Craig and Adriana settled in Ottawa, where they both got jobs in the hospitality trade. “I was working in a place called La Piazza Bistro, and eventually started managing it. Adriana did the same thing at another restaurant.” After about 3 or 4 years of long hours, they knew they wanted to run their own business. They each had experience in the hospitality field and knew what was going on in the market. “So we ended up buying this small restaurant. It wasn’t an established restaurant, it wasn’t an equipped restaurant, but it looked like a restaurant,” he mentioned.

Il Piccolino was the name their first restaurant in Canada. Although it eventually became a favored dining destination in Ottawa’s Little Italy, the business faces its fair share of challenges. An early challenge was to find a market for authentic Northern Italian cuisine. “When we first started, we found that we couldn’t duplicate really authentic stuff because the market base wouldn’t support such a thing,” Craig said. “We couldn’t sell our fondue because people wanted caesar salads and spaghetti with meatballs. One of our best sellers is penne with spicy tomato sauce. Although that isn’t our signature dish, we keep it there because we are a business.” They also had issues due to lack of proper equipment and utilities, along with a handful of other obstacles they hadn’t initially planned for.

But bit by bit, however, Il Piccolino established itself. Five years in, they realized they were turning down potential customers due to limited seating and concluded that there would be value in opening a second restaurant. “This location opened up, so before it went on the market we got in contact with the owner. It was a [failing] Asian joint, so I agreed to pay off the guy’s arrears in exchange for a contract,” he recalls. “So we came along, opened this place up and it took off very quickly with both restaurants feeding off each other.” The second restaurant was Il Primo, the location that is still under the ownership of Craig today.

“[At this point,] I had the two restaurants. Then it was around the time me and Adriana divorced, to keep my mind occupied, I opened a third restaurant with a friend of mine,” Craig explains. “And as time [went on], I opened a catering company, so now I was running all four.” He came to realization years after, that operating four separate businesses all at once was too tiring, so he transferred full ownership of Il Piccolino to Adriana, and sold the catering company and his other restaurant in favor of limiting himself to Il Primo.

More recently, Craig and a partner invested in an 1863 house in New Edinburgh, which was converted into a little café in the front (Union Street Kitchen Café), a yoga studio in the back (Shunnya Center), and short-term rental accommodation in the upstairs (through Airbnb). “I figured this place had a nice little setup, with three profit centers under one small roof.” So to this day, Craig is the co-owner of the trio of businesses in New Edinburgh, along with owning Il Primo.

I asked Craig what he thought were the most important qualities/skills that attributed to his success and that he would advise other up-and-coming entrepreneurs to follow. He responded with:

  1. Be courageous

Starting a business is an extremely risky investment since many businesses don’t tend to make it to their three-year anniversary. Craig advised that entrepreneurs should “Be prepared to lose because many do. I am one of the lucky ones [to stay afloat].”

  1. Work hard

Many entrepreneurs know that they have to work extremely hard to become successful in this day-and-age. “Hard work equals luck; as in the harder I work, the luckier I get,” Craig mentioned.

  1. Do things differently than everyone else

In a world full of people with similar ideas and tons of competition, you must bring something to the market that differentiates you from the next guy.

  1. Be kind

At the end of the day, there is only so much that you can do as a business owner. The people that determine whether a business succeeds or fails are your customers and employees. “Be kind to your staff [and customers], make sure to treat them with every inch of respect.”

  1. Keep your priorities straight

Ensuring that your company has its priorities straight and delivers upon them is incredibly important to ensuring long-term success. “I have this five-point thing with restaurants that if you put out good food, with good quality, with good quantity, for a good price, and with good service and cleanliness then you’re nailing all the biggest priorities.”

I also asked Craig what he thought were the most common mistakes made in today’s entrepreneurial practices. He answered with:

  1. Overworking yourself

Although it’s important to work hard, you also must make sure that you’re not burning yourself out at the expense of your business. “I see it over with my partner at the café. To control her labor costs, she cuts everybody right after the lunch rush and she will stay until 11 o’clock,” he states. “For a 52-year-old woman, she should not be working 14 hours a day. It’s just too much.”

  1. Misreading trends and/or data

Many people don’t understand how to properly read market trends but being able to anticipate and react to fluctuations in the economy, is crucial to succeeding in today’s market.

  1. Ignoring good advice

It is fair to say that not all advice is good advice. However, it is important to always keep one ear open for ideas or changes that you can make to your current operations that will improve the overall quality of your business.

  1. Not surrounding yourself with passionate people

The team that you surround yourself with is crucial to maximizing productivity and quality of your operations. People that are passionate about what they do tend to go at things with more care than those that are just in it for the money.

  1. Watching the small stuff

The larger costs of starting a business will take care of themselves. However, it is the little costs that add up quickly and will be more damaging as time goes on. “For example, we ran out of mozzarella the other day, and we did something we don’t normally do. Rather than me going to our regular supplier and picking it out for $22 a brick, we went to our produce supplier for $27 a brick,” he says. “It’s only a $5 difference, but if I’m going through 300 kilos of mozzarella a year those numbers really add up.”

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