Former personal trainer Francesco Iaquinta (45) has created a little corner of his home country of Italy on Belfast’s Lisburn Road with La Bottega where he shares his passion for good food, thanks to help from the Go For It programme in association with Belfast City Council.
The project is part funded by Invest Northern Ireland and the European Regional Development Fund under the Investment for Growth and Jobs Northern Ireland (2014-2020) Programme.
His deli, bistro and food market La Bottega, serving up authentic Italian produce, has gone from strength to strength since he launched it in November last year.
Francesco says: “It’s an Italian deli where you can find Italian produce which comes in from Italy every week.
“If you go to Sainsbury’s and Tesco and find something the same as in my shop, I’ve failed. But if you have to go to Italy to find it – that’s my shop.”
When La Bottega first launched, the idea was to serve up takeaway and authentic deli dishes from the north and south of Italy such as lasagne and arancini, but the vision has evolved and he now employs a chef who serves up delicious food at what is now a sit-in bistro.
Since moving to Northern Ireland nine years ago, he has been working both as a manager at Belfast Castle and a personal trainer, before discovering Belfast’s Lisburn Road while working for French Village Group.
“We wanted to serve the best coffee in the world – we have pastries, we have tiramisu made every day.”
While there are many pizza restaurants in Belfast, their food is customised to suit local tastes and many of the dishes served up in La Bottega may be quite unfamiliar.
Francesco said: “We have sfogliatella from Naples, a small pastry with filo pastry and orange flower. We do bomboloni with Nutella, which is like a doughnut without the hole.
“We’re really famous for our cannoli, including pistachio, chocolate and cherries with candied orange. And our charcuterie board is also very famous. It’s a little piece of Italy on the Lisburn Road.”
Francesco found the Go For It programme invaluable, with his mentor helping him put together a business plan. He had originally planned up the business in Lisburn but soon realised the Lisburn Road offered the customer base he needed.
“It was my first business, so I didn’t have a clue how to do it, how to manage social media, how to manage deliveries. But the team at Go For It came up with some really good suggestions,” he says.
The Go for it programme is delivered free of charge by a team of experienced business mentors through Northern Ireland’s wide network of enterprise agencies. It provides expert advice and help with developing a robust business plan to help turn ideas into a commercial enterprise.
La Bottega secured its liquor licence three months ago and now serves up a wealth of wines and beers from all over Italy, including organic wines.
It currently operates deli hours (9am to 5pm) Monday to Wednesday and 9am to 8pm Thursday to Saturday, but Francesco is hoping to lengthen the hours in June.
“Lisburn Road is full of coffee shops, so it’s important that we keep our identity as an Italian bistro,” he says.
The bistro now seats 32 customers, including tables and stools, but one of the elements that Francesco is proudest of is the bar area with its stools set in front of the coffee machine where customers can chat with staff, a sociable idea imported from Italy.
Franceso added: “It’s not just a cold relationship between customers – food then payment. I’m building up a portfolio of regular customers and I have people who come in twice a day just to relax and have a coffee.”
Chair of Belfast City Council’s City Growth and Regeneration Committee, Councillor Ryan Murphy said: “It’s fantastic to see Francesco’s business thriving on the Lisburn Road, thanks to help from our Go For It team.
“I hope that La Bottega’s success gives inspiration to others in Belfast thinking about setting up their own business. We’ve got a wide range of support to help you realise your dreams, so get in touch today!”
Business Adviser Patricia McNeill said: “The Go For It programme helped Francesco shape his niche business model and in particular examine the areas of finance and marketing which were critical to his planning.
“It has been amazing to see this unique, authentic deli and coffee shop come to fruition here in south Belfast. We’re delighted to have worked with Francesco, setting up La Bottega.”
If you have a business idea you would like to develop or if you are thinking about starting a business contact the Go for It Programme on 0800 027 0639 or visit: www.goforitni.com.