With Corinthia Group chairman Alfred Pisani by his side, Alex Scicluna cut the burgundy ribbon declaring Café Jubilee Budapest open on Saturday night, snipped off a small piece and discreetly slipped it into his breast pocket. He then gave Mr Pisani a similar memento of the evening.
For the chief executive officer of Jubilee Group of Companies, that ribbon signified the realisation of a 10-year ambition to take Café Jubilee overseas - but hardly the finish line. Now Mr Scicluna has to work in earnest to ensure the brand travels well to its first destination abroad.
Café Jubilee Budapest, the chain's fourth café bistro, is a joint venture with the Corinthia hotels group, which has two imposing five-star properties in the Hungarian capital. The project represents a €500,000 investment. Corinthia Group subsidiary, Quality Project Management, was entrusted with the initial design and works. Mr Scicluna moved to Budapest seven weeks ago to oversee the fit and piece the brand concept together.
The 500-square metre corner bistro - larger than the Valletta, Gzira and Victoria Café Jubilee venues put together - boasts 100 covers. In April, an open-air, on-street terrace will complement the latest addition to the chain.
Over 300 guests poured into the newest venue in town for the launch party last week which was covered by Hungary's TV2 and the local gastro press. Mr Scicluna and his brothers Anthony and Mario hosted Corinthia Group company heads, Budapest-based executives from global corporations Siemens, IBM, Morgan Stanley and ING, local professionals, personalities, and athletes.
Members of the small Maltese community turned up, among them Malta goalkeeper Justin Haber and midfielder André Schembri who play for local club Ferencvaros. More than 30 relatives and close friends travelled from Gozo - where Café Jubilee was born in 1998 - to share in this much loved family's momentous occasion.
The familiar faces helped ease the pressure slightly. Alex Scicluna - usually the life and soul of the party - did not even reward himself a celebratory drink. Carefully tending to guests and monitoring the kitchen's operations, he made sure everything - from the lighting to the music - was perfect. It was imperative the Hungarian guests were impressed.
Café Jubilee is located on the main thoroughfare of Budapest's fashionable Fifth District, opposite one of the city's main theatres; the local legal community is based in the area stretching between the Fifth and the Thirteenth Districts and the environs are favoured by Café Jubilee's young, up-and-coming target crowd.
The venue has already won some repeat patronage in the 10 days since it first opened its doors, which has encouraged Mr Scicluna. After the shop fit was completed, Mr Scicluna began to give interviews to the local trade media and held numerous meetings with business community leaders. Word is spreading slowly but surely.
Besides ensuring that passing trade is captured, Mr Scicluna is now working on a modest campaign in the print and online media to advertise launch incentives and discounts. Flyers are also being handed out to passers-by in the area by a promotional team.
"It is still early days to properly gauge customer response," he told The Times Business in Budapest last week. "This is a very tough market to operate in, and locals are still not familiar with our brand. We will however be implementing the same brand values and beliefs that make up the Café Jubilee ethos in Malta, and we are confident that these will meet the same success in Budapest."
At the inauguration, Mr Pisani described Alex Scicluna as a "special, hard-working person" and encouraged the local community to support the venture. Mr Scicluna's modus operandi has always been hands-on, but he admits that the Hungarian project has completely taken over his life.
In Budapest, he is his usual upbeat, determined and boisterous self in spite of facial evidence that he is physically and emotionally drained. Exporting Café Jubilee has been far from straightforward, even with the constant support of the Corinthia team's expertise.
In truth, he has gone about this internationalisation project - a hugely ambitious one for a relatively small business - the hard way by taking responsibility for its realisation himself.
He has personally chased authorities and paperwork, and has had to negotiate the inevitable cultural differences that entrepreneurs face when they do business abroad: There are some matters business people find out for themselves when they venture into new markets.
Hungary has presented the Café Jubilee project with a daunting minefield of regulation. Mr Scicluna relates a particularly frustrating anecdote: On one occasion the 40-foot container transporting the Gozitan-made or sourced furnishings, decor items and supplies could not be given a simple parking permit although all the papers to enter the city were in order. The board which decided these applications was meeting in 10 days' time - close to the date when Café Jubilee had to be practically completed.
Staff training has focussed on the billing and ordering systems in use by Café Jubilee, the brand's values and ethos, and in-house service levels. Mr Scicluna noticed Hungarians in general had a tendency to stick to rigid procedures and had difficulty summing up the courage to think outside the box. That, in itself, presented him with a challenge.
In Budapest, the Café Jubilee team, led by Mr Scicluna, Aldo Mercieca and Christian Farrugia, totals 14 full-timers.
"Café Jubilee Budapest has been a learning curve," he explained. "Starting from zero - the sheer size of the city means this operation is entirely different from the one in Malta, despite that outwardly it is exactly the same. The concept fits well with the local market. I have seen at least 200 concepts around the city and we are able to compete comfortably once people walk through our doors. The challenge now is to win as many customers as we can. Café Jubilee Budapest needs to become viable as soon as possible so that we can begin to see a return."
Mr Scicluna acknowledges this Café Jubilee has one element the other three do not have in their home market - brand imposition. It is the first Café Jubilee with windows. While the Malta and Gozo Café Jubilee venues were designed to shut out the outside world, this one lets it in through two frontal full-length frosted glass panes. Passers-by are able to catch a glimpse of the brand concept as they walk past and spark their curiosity.
Café Jubilee will serve its franchise-wide menu in Budapest but the brand's food concept has seen the addition of some continental main course options including favourites like steak and chicken saltimbocca.
The sweets offer a taste of Hungary including cakes such as the traditional Dobos cake (chocolate cream cake covered in caramel icing), Eszterházy cake (almond cake layered with cream), Rigó Jancsi (cube-shaped Chocolate sponge cake) and Somlói galuska (chocolate and vanilla layered sponge cake).
In the next few months, Mr Scicluna hopes to obtain clearance to begin to import some frozen foods products from Malta, including Café Jubilee's favourite ravioli. There are also plans for products from the brand's own Jubilee Foods range to be introduced to the Budapest bistro as one of its unique selling points.
Travelling to Budapest for four years before his recent temporary move led Mr Scicluna to become truly enamoured with the city. He will stay as long as it takes to complete the initial hand-holding and first phase of the promotional efforts to make the operation viable before Malta becomes his base again. He has, after all, more business to tend to back home.
In June last year, he had told The Times Business that Jubilee would double its brand presence in the ensuing 12 months. There were three Café Jubilee venues at the time. With the fourth up and running and three Jubilee Foods stores operating (backed by a fully fledged production plant in Gozo), the Scicluna family's business plan is on course.
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