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'The crisis is forcing people to be creative'

George Mills · 27 Jan 2014, 16:53

Published: 27 Jan 2014 16:53 GMT+01:00

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A narrow, unimposing shop front in the Madrid neighbourhood of Las Letras is home to a business with a difference.

Run by Renaissance Man Alejo Ruocco, La Pizzateca is an attempt to unite one man's passion for good food, design and literature, and all this with a social conscience.

The Local spoke to Alejo recently about his vision, and about operating a successful business during Spain's crisis.

How did you end making pizza in Madrid?

There are several factors. One of those is that the work flow for architects around the world has slowed, including in Spain. And this is one of the reasons I decided to move away from architecture and concentrate on my other interests.

Gastronomy and cooking have been very strong interests of mine for a long time now.

The reason I make pizza is to do with my origins and traditions. My parents are both Italian — they emigrated to Venezuela — and my mother taught me about pizza at home.

I was born in Venezuela, and studied architecture there but when I was 22 I went to study overseas and worked as well, including in restaurants and pizzerias.

That was 20 years ago. First I went to Paris because I started studying industrial design and from Paris I went to New York to work in architecture.

So when did you arrive in Spain?

I arrived in Madrid six years ago and I love it: it's the perfect mixture between a big city and a small village where you know everyone in your neighbourhood.

I opened the pizzeria three years ago in the midst of Spain's crisis and this has made me feel very strong.

It gives me a great feeling of strength to know I have kept alive this type of business with its artisan focus and intimate style during the crisis.

Were you nervous about opening the business, given the economic situation?

Three years ago, things didn't seem so bad and we thought the economy would recover soon.

I thought, "OK, we're here in the crisis and we'll make our way through it".

It was, and continues to be, a very interesting experience. The business is continuing to develop, little by little. There have been a lot of international reviews in Google and Trip Advisor because we are in a tourist area here.

And this has given us a huge boost, especially in the last year.

People often criticize Spain for being overly bureaucratic. Did you find it difficult to open a business?

Yes. I think it's always difficult anywhere to turn a dream or a project into a reality.

Perhaps it's a bit more difficult in Europe than in the US, where there's more of a spirit of entrepreneurship.  Perhaps you have more support in terms of the banks and the institutions.

Here in Spain, however, I had the help of a public institution — the Fundación Tomillo — which helped me create a business plan before I opened the business.

This helped me a great deal.

Tell me about your pricing policy.  Your prices are low and you could probably charge more.

This is part of the philosophy of the business. We want to make a good, homemade product which is affordable.

We are very aware of the situation here in Spain so we want to keep our food gourmet but without it hurting your wallet.

Your premises are quite small. Do you have plans to expand?

I don't have any tables and now I am starting to think about possibilities.

I've got people ringing up to reserve, because people don't realize how small the place is. So yes, expansion is part of the plan.

I'm even talking with people about setting up overseas — not as part of a franchise arrangement but working with people who share my ideas about the business.

How many employees do you have now?

I have four people on my staff — me, and three others.

That's a big outlay but I pay more than Spain's (very low) minimum salary. I want my employees to think of the business as a big opportunity as well.

This is part of the business plan — that the people who work for me feel like part of a long-term project.

I don't want them to feel like just another employee, and I want to recover values that we are losing like trust and love of work.

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I think starting of right is key here. You need to communicate with people and provide a good salary too. It can be difficult at times, especially at the beginning, but it's a long-term challenge I want to take on.

What part of your work do you find most difficult?

I think the management aspect is the hardest. It's hard to combine and balance the roles of entrepreneur, manager and worker.

There is no particular part of the job which is more difficult than the others, but balancing all the roles is hard.

And of course sometimes I just stop and think: "Where is my free time?" because with this sort of job you have to keep working. 

The government says the Spanish economy is starting to recover. What's your perspective?

This is a very difficult moment in Spain.  Things may well be on the up at the macroeconomic level but there is also the element on the press wanting to portray a positive message.

For people on the street, though, there is a great deal of uncertainty and worry about the future.

But you really see how the crisis has created two groups of people. Some people feel paralyzed by what's happening while others are out there trying out things.

The crisis is an opportunity to look into new ways of doing business or trade. Perhaps that's something I learned growing up in Venezuela: sometimes you need to find creative solutions.

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George Mills (george.mills@thelocal.com)

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