How a Catalan-inspired restaurant has thrived during hard times
Bionic sat down with Peter Kinsella, whose popular Catalan-inspired restaurant, Lunya, has been delighting diners for more than a decade. We found out what fuels his passion for Spanish dishes and why he thinks the finer details are the key to a successful small business.
For those who haven’t experienced the exotic culinary spot, Lunya is a Catalan-inspired restaurant and deli nestled in the heart of Liverpool. Its sister branch Lunya Lita, is situated less than ten minutes away from the Hanover Street premises and boasts a suave champagne bar overlooking the Albert Dock.
Since setting up in 2010 on College Lane (a few doors down from its current location), owner Peter and his wife Elaine have weathered every kind of economic storm, from the financial crash to the Covid pandemic.
They’re now dealing with the cost-of-living crisis. But ever the positive influence, Peter had some pearls of wisdom to share with business owners. Read on for more, Lunya’s story is sure to inspire.
A taste of Spain
“Lunya is a Catalonia-inspired deli, restaurant and bar,” Peter tells Bionic when we ask about the influences behind the eatery.
“We first opened here in Liverpool in 2010, just down the road in College Lane. We then opened another restaurant in Manchester in 2015 but closed that premises during lockdown and relocated from College Lane to Hanover Street where we are now. We also have Lunya Lita in Albert Dock.” He continues.
Catalonia, for the unfamiliar, is a region in Northern Spain which consists of provinces Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona. The area beautifully blends history with modernity. The famed Gothic quarter and stunning architecture in Barcelona plus the lively beach resorts of Costa Brava are some of Catalonia’s must-see destination nations. And it’s also known for its delicious food.
When setting up Lunya, Peter was heavily inspired by the flavours of Spain and used tastes discovered on his travels to guide him when creating the menu.
“We are absolutely passionate about how fabulous Catalonia Spanish ingredients are and how wonderful the food is, so we try to recreate the best I’ve discovered on my travels here in Liverpool.” He says proudly.
Before Peter decided to start up a restaurant, he had no experience in the culinary world. But he unearthed a real love of Spain when visiting Barcelona on a work trip in the late 90s.
“Up until 1998, I’d never been to Spain.” Peter tells us “I used to run a management consultancy in health and social care and was over in Barcelona for the first time doing some work with a charity there. They took me out to lunch and that sowed a seed” He laughs before adding:
“I was knocked out by how sensational the lunch was. We didn’t go to a fancy restaurant, it was a spit and sawdust type café, but I still remember the dish; it was chickpeas and pig's trotters. It doesn’t sound appealing, but it was glorious!”
Lunya’s best bites
So, Peter decided to expand his culinary pallet, he wanted to share those Catalan delights with people back home. But he didn’t set up Lunya straight away.
“I came home, and the following weekend went back to Barcelona, I started a love affair with the place, the food and the culture.” He reminisces.
“But I was busy running the management consultancy. We were working across the UK and the world, but I’d always had this inkling since university that I wanted to make a career out of cooking. It took me 25 years to do something about it!” He smiles.
Lunya offers some traditional Spanish delicacies including Fideua, seafood and noodle-based paella, spicy meat Bomba and Catalan country pork pâté to name a few. Then there’s the signature ‘Catalonia Scouse Stew’ which is a fantastic blend of Catalan and Liverpudlian cultures. There’s a huge amount of choice on the menu and everything is expertly prepared to perfection.
But what is it that Peter thinks gives his business the extra edge? What makes sure his customers keep coming back again and again? He believes authenticity is key.
“We try and keep it specific to Spanish gastronomy. We start off with fantastic ingredients and do as little as possible to them, it’s very different to French gastronomy, which is very complicated and quite difficult in cooking techniques and sauces.”
He explains, adding:
“In Spain, if you’ve got a fantastic red pepper all you really want to do is grill it, char it, drizzle it with olive oil and some salt and just enjoy the stunning nature of the pepper - that’s what we try and do here.”
Lunya is certainly a thriving dinner spot and the team enjoys many a glowing review online, but what about the other premises in the Albert Dock, how does Peter juggle both efficiently and how are they different?
“Our other premises are smaller, it’s more of a tourism-driven site, and we do a lot more with the bar there. This site is more about the deli.” Peter says.
Peter explains that branching out was hard and if he’d known what he knows now, he would have reconsidered. It really affected how hands-on he was in the business.
“It’s difficult, if I had my time again, I’d turn the clock back and not open a second premises. That’s because it’s changed the relationships we have with our customers and staff.” He says, laying out the cons.
“Before, I was ever-present. From the beginning of the day to the end of the night, if you came in, you’d see me. I was in the deli, behind the bar, on the restaurant floor or in the kitchen. If you worked for us then I would have recruited you, and you’d see me every single day.” He laughs.
“But as soon as you have a second site, you’re not there all the time. And if you have a second site in Manchester like we did, it’s even harder.”
“My wife Elaine and I moved to Manchester for a year while setting up that premises. We had to live and work there exclusively and would sometimes go a whole year without seeing the same regular customers we used to see every fortnight.”
“That emotionally and personally made it really difficult. I miss knowing everyone, having the time to chat and get to know people.”
He adds: “We have regulars now who Elaine and I don’t know. And I hate that idea as a small independent business, but we’re human and can’t be in two places at once. And I’m a human who’s 15 years older now so I need to work less!” He chuckles.
And how about the main site on Hanover Street, how has that changed over the years? Peter tells us the premises were already a former restaurant when they bought it, so he and Elaine didn’t have to start fitting their restaurant amenities from scratch. He thinks this is the way to save money as a business owner.
“It worked really well and was pure opportunism, we were looking to do a refurbishment on our old premises in College Lane. This site used to be a Thai restaurant and was brand new in 2014, but they went bust. I noticed it walking past one day. They’d spent a fortune on fantastic designs and a fit out and I remember thinking ‘That would be amazing for us’.”
He carried on: “I thought all we’d need to do was put up some Spanish tiles, some Spanish colours and replace the wok burners with our cooking equipment.”
Peter says the savings were definitely worth it.
“When we opened Manchester in 2015, it cost about a million to fit out. Our old premises in College Lane cost about £900,000. But this site cost £150,000.” He told us.
“Moving into an existing restaurant meant slightly redesigning and decorating, but economically it was great. We’d never done that; we’d always had to start from scratch and put all our restaurant equipment in.”
It sounds like Peter saved a lot of hassle with the refit, but how tough is juggling the general workload as a business owner and how does he manage it all? Peter stressed it’s all about aiming high and jumping in where necessary even if it’s not your role remit.
“I used to be working 110 hours a week, that’s not a clever thing to do in any business but especially not within the tiring restaurant industry,” Peter says thoughtfully before continuing.
“I feel as though I work part-time now, although I do 40 hours per week which is normal. But I miss people and having a say in the everyday runnings of the business.”
“Before, I’d be passing through the kitchen and see a dish going out and say, ‘That’s missing a bit of garnish’ or ‘I’d like it prepared like this instead’. That’s not to say when I was there everything was perfect, it wasn’t. Nothing is ever perfect, anyone who says their product is perfect is not telling the truth.” Peter adds:
“Aim for perfection, we get things brilliant most of the time, but like with any business, the odd time we screw up. Try to realise it before it goes on the plate or put it right as soon as you find out.”
Knowledge is power
Although Peter misses the personal touch of starting off small, he is grateful for all the knowledge he’s accumulated over the years.
“We have good professional staff; I’ve learnt so much from our chefs. Because cooking at home is so different from cooking in a restaurant. You can’t start from scratch as you do at home, if a customer orders 24-hour-slow-cooked-lamb, you can’t start when they order it. It’s got to be close to the stage where it can be reheated and finished.”
Bionic asked if having no restaurant experience hindered him at all in the beginning. He considered before answering.
“I was lucky when we first started, although I had no experience in this industry and never even worked a second in a restaurant, for 20 years I’d worked in a charity and run my own business, so I knew the basics.”
And what are the basics? Is there a formula fellow SME owners should follow? Peter says yes.
“Find out what customers want, give it to them, always try to exceed expectations and get obsessed with detail.” He lists “And always make sure you don’t spend more than you have coming in.”
He ponders before going on:
“You have to be willing to do everything, no matter how hard it is, how tired you are, how challenging it is. At the beginning, I was the person who unblocked the toilets, changed a fuse in a light plug and dealt with the IT problems.”
Is being social still savvy?
And what about social media? Does Peter think it’s a valuable form of marketing for Lunya or does he prefer a more old-school approach?
“I do 100% of our social media now. We’ve got two Twitter accounts and two Facebook accounts, we’ve got our Insta and a Threads account too. We’ve not bothered with Tiktok or Snapchat though.”
He went on: “When we opened in 2010, Twitter was reaching its peak. We had 16-17000 followers and Twitter was our big thing. We were quite late coming to Insta, but that reflects my old man status really!” He grins.
But Peter says that although social media is still important to his strategy, a more hands-on approach has worked better.
“Social media used to be everything. Now I’m not sure if it makes much of a difference. I think it’s useful for reminding people you’re there. In our early days, if we had a dish out of the oven, we’d put a picture of it up on Twitter and, that same dish would be sold out that day.” Peter remembers.
“But that was when Twitter was fun. Now we don’t get much response, because people are busy or working from home. Social media is still important but it's more about broad awareness rather than an immediate call to action.”
Peter tells us that direct emails have ensured that customers stay up to date with menu changes and new delicious deli items. The gains he sees from these emails outweigh anything he does on social channels.
“The best thing we ever did was give every person who dined with us a little feedback form. We’d ask them to tell us how we’d done and give their email if they chose to, that would get them 10% off in the deli.”
He added: “We got 58000 email addresses over 14 years, which is fantastic for a small business and so, roughly once every week we send emails to the best part of 60,000 people, people who know and love us, and that is the best marketing we do.”
“It’s how we fill our events, create awareness of new products in the deli, it makes more of a more impact.”
Highs and Lows
Bionic was curious to know what Peter cites as his biggest struggles and achievements.
“The impact of Brexit has been massive” He says “Recruitment is very difficult, 50% of our staff used to be Spanish, now it’s less than 5%. There are huge challenges, and they are not getting better.”
And how is he finding the cost-of-living crisis?
“We’ve only ever known very poor economic times,” Peter tells us “We opened in the economic crash, but we’d been saving for over 10 years. This was the late 90s, and by 2008, we had the £900,000 we needed to open Lunya. But then the crash happened, and we had to find a way to borrow when there was no credit to restaurants.”
Then the situation got worse and Lunya almost didn’t open.
“We nearly went bust two months before we opened. We had to start our fit-out even though we knew we didn’t have all the money together for it. So, we had to sell everything, the car, everything except our clothes! We remortgaged our house. There was no lending at all for hospitality.”
Luckily Peter and Elaine made it work and Lunya successfully opened, gained momentum and became the high street staple it is today.
But what about keeping it fresh? How does Peter ensure he’s ticking all the right boxes to keep the customers happy and returning?
“For a restaurant, it’s a really hard balance. If we’d had the same menu for 14 years, we wouldn’t be as popular as we are today. But you can’t get rid of your most popular, bestselling more profitable dishes either.”
So how does Peter combat this?
“We change our menus two or three times a year. There are some things that stay the same. For example, we’re never not going to have our patatas bravas or our calamari, we may tweak those dishes but they’re the ones that can never go.”
Does Peter take advantage of summer and winter staples?
“Yes, we do gorgeous slow-roasted ox cheeks, but it’s a winter dish, it comes off for summer but returns every winter. And that’s what's lovely about a restaurant, there’s nothing better than seeing customers enjoying something you’ve created.” He smiles
“That gets you through, no matter how tired you are. But then there’s a flip side to that, if you don’t get it right, that’s not a nice feeling!”
So, if he had to choose just one thing, what has Peter’s biggest achievement been?
“I would say our staff. We have core staff who’ve been with us since the beginning. They’re brilliant and the biggest achievement has been adapting to keep them, for example, those who joined as a 22-year-old are now 36, so we need to adapt to their life changes.”
He adds: “But I’d also say still being here after 14 years of terrible economic times, the worst economic time we’ve experienced is now. The cost-of-living crisis and the increase in utility bills is a lot worse than the situation in lockdown.”
Speaking about the rise in energy bills, he said: “We used to pay just over 50,000 for gas and electric, it peaked at 250,000 last year and is now down to 125,000. But that’s still 4 times what we paid!”
“The cost of food has shot up, not just the ingredients but the cost of bringing it over. We’re hoping over the next two years, we’ll see a recovery of that. But our own prices have had to increase substantially.”
Peter went on: “It’s difficult to make a profit. Of every pound a customer spends, 20p goes to the government for VAT.”
“We’re left with 80p. Then 20p goes towards food and drink costs, 60p for rent, utilities, overheads and staff costs. And in normal times you get 10p profit. But this year it’s just about getting through. We’ve had to take things like octopus off the menu because it’s just become too expensive.”
Lockdown allowed Lunya to flex their creative skills and make the most of their website, so Peter says luckily this has left them with a cash balance to hopefully see them through the cost of living crisis.
“We adapted hugely in the pandemic. Our website orders went from 47,000 to 600,000 and we did so many things that worked. Luckily, that gave us a cash balance for now. We’ll see it through, damaged economically and financially but we’ll see it through.” He says.
And finally, what advice would Peter give to an SME owner just starting out?
“There’s a very well-known saying in our industry. ‘How do you make a small fortune running a restaurant? You start off with a big fortune!”
“Be so careful” He warns “You can be doing well and have people coming in, enjoying the food but you could be running out of money so quickly.”
“But my more general piece of advice is no matter how terrifying something sounds and how much of a risk, it’s important to give it a go. But go in incredibly well prepared. I’m able to respond quite quickly because I’ve done so much thinking and planning beforehand. It’s so important.”
He adds: “My God, even with the advanced research, preparation and experimentation I’ve done beforehand, I went to Barcelona in 98, opened in 2010 and I thought that was a rush.”