Interview

Giuseppe Di Rosa, founder of Sicilery

19 June 2023

They don't want to be just another Italian fast food restaurant, but a place where impact can be made sustainably. A place where students can learn about typical Sicilian hospitality and enjoy the Sicilian equivalent of the bitterbal – because that's how it all started, with a bitterbal.

You are a young entrepreneur, but so you are also studying here in the Maastricht Region?

'Correct! I come from Sicily (Italy). I moved to Milan when I was 17 to do a bachelor’s degree. When I was 20 I came to Maastricht where I started a Master of Econometrics at Maastricht University however I have since switched to Sustainable finance and Entrepreneurship & Business Development. So now I’m doing a double Master's. I am currently doing an internship as a research associate in the sustainable investment field at Robeco in Rotterdam.'

What is Sicilery?

'Sicilery is a project started by a whole group of people, but the idea came about when my brother and I ordered bitterballen at a restaurant. The first time I saw this typically Dutch borrelhapje (bar food, or in Italian, cicchetti), I was immediately drawn to it. When I first tried them, the taste actually disappointed me a bit. Or let me put it better, I felt it was missing something!

Those bitterballen reminded me of a typical dish from Sicily, a deep-fried rice ball called arancini. You get these in different flavours and sizes. 

My brother and I had a vision that arancini, with its bitterbal look, could be quite a hit with the Dutch public. But then you would actually have to offer these with different ingredients and flavours. Combinations you hardly ever taste here and something that is handmade in Sicily.

Italian food is not really something new here in the Maastricht Region, but what strikes me, for example, is you go into an Italian shop and I ask in Italian 'dov'è il bagno?' (where is the toilet?). Usually I then get the same look as you have now, making it clear to me that the person working in the shop doesn't understand me at all. Somehow it doesn't feel authentically Italian then anyway.

At Sicilery, the food is made in Sicily and we, the people behind Sicilery, are also made in Sicily. With this, we also hope to be ambassadors of sorts. Especially because there are so many stereotypes about Sicily while we have so much beauty to share and enormous hospitality to provide.

Hospitality is in our DNA. I was once accosted by a Dutchman on the street who was looking for a B&B quite late. I told him that he was probably not going to find anything at that moment, but that he was welcome to stay in my flat. Something the average Dutchman won't easily do. I think that's a certain basic form of helpfulness. Somehow, if you do something good for someone, you get it back in another form.

This also became apparent later when this very person put me in touch with SNS de Ruimte. He had promoted so enthusiastically to the people there that they immediately wanted to meet me. The very next day I sat there and presented our project. Fine they said, 'the place is yours'. From that meeting, things suddenly went very quickly from a plan on paper to the launch of Sicilery.'

You were talking about a group of fellow classmates you had set this up with?

'So the concept is pretty straightforward: a Sicilian fast food restaurant in Maastricht but with flavoursome dishes made artisanally in Sicily. Of course, I needed partners for this. I think it's always important to realise that you can't do everything alone. My first 2 partners were Rocco en Octavio, both European studies students. Rocco I already knew from Sicilery.

Sicilery started with the name, which was the first thing we had concrete. Rocco introduced Nicola to the group to help us with the branding. Nicola is a graphic designer now studying at the Politecnico di Milano (Technical University of Milan). He handles all of Sicilery's graphic design from our logo to social media graphics to print.

Then we started fleshing out the product itself, for this we visited several suppliers in Sicily. Once we had a name, logo, brand and supplier, the innovative part followed. That's what you have to do when you start something in the Maastricht Region. ''You don't feel satisfied if you don't bring innovation in.'' We didn't want to become just another Italian restaurant.

So my brother was brought in. My brother Georgio is the youngest of our team and our full stock developer. He designs software that allows us to keep an overview of our inventory, sales (online and in-store), costs and turnover but also delivery times, analytics of our media. All this combined in 1 dashboard.

Then came a financial plan. What would it cost us and could we afford it at all? As for money, we are starting as low budget as possible and with all our own savings. The aim is not to start our own catering business – we want to start an outlet chain.

I should definitely mention Martina, she is our interior designer. We have our own premises in mind for which she is designing the plans. Furthermore, we are assisted by 2 communication managers, also university students, who deal with our communication on social media.

Just to show how young we are, we are talking about a group with varying ages from 17 to 22.'

Who is going to cook?

'We are going to cook. I am also going to cook. Something my parents question. Why is their son with all his fancy studies now going to work in a kitchen making arancini? I understand their doubts but I feel that with this project in collaboration with other students, I can have much more impact and therefore more satisfaction from my work than I would ever have in an office job.'

What impact are you talking about?

'Sustainability! Apart from the fact that the products we offer are handmade, we are very conscious of the amount of waste in the hospitality industry. We definitely want to tackle that differently. For example, we already operate almost completely plastic-free. The reason this is not 100 per cent (yet) is because of the delivery of the arancini. These are handmade at the factory in Sicily and put together in 1 big plastic bag and frozen for transportation to the Netherlands. Arancini that are served in Sicily are also frozen, you can't deep-fry them otherwise, the same as with the bitterbal. In this process, we are talking about 15 bags a month. This also makes it the only plastic we wish to use.

As of 1 July this year, it will no longer be allowed in the Netherlands to use single-use plastic in the catering industry, which I think is a good development. Furthermore, we try to do only 1 order a month to keep transport emissions from getting too high.

The packaging material we will offer the arancini and other dishes in is made by Notpla . They won the Earthshot prize 6 months ago for their little water bubbles that you can eat. They now also supply our take away boxes made from seaweed.

When I started looking into seaweed, I saw that it has no negative carbon footprint. It disappears on its own. A package thrown on the ground degrades in less than 2 months. (Although, of course, we hope people reuse it and don't just throw it on the ground somewhere). In addition, seaweed absorbs co2, thus reducing ocean acidification. Plus it improves water biodiversity.

The more I delve into the results with seaweed, the more enthusiastic I become. Why isn't everyone using it? We are only the second company in the Netherlands to work with this packaging and the third in the European Union (EU).

Of course, we could also have gone for paper packaging, which is a lot cheaper to buy. Paper is also recyclable, but you also have to think about the pollution created in the production and recycling process. If it gets recycled at all! I think if you really want to make a difference and do something about your carbon footprint as an entrepreneur then you should also be willing to invest a little more. I won't die because of a little bit less profit, but the earth might die if we don't start doing business differently.

We made business cards and flyers from algae (hands one out immediately). We now hope to make stickers from this same product. Stickers that disappear on their own after some time. A win-win situation, right?

Our water is supplied by Dutch company Earthwater. It is quite difficult to drink water and still have a positive impact. Water is scarce in some parts of the world and we usually drink it in the Netherlands from plastic bottles. Yet I think Earthwater comes very close to having that illusive positive impact. Their drink cartons are made of paper and have a plant-based cap of which 54% is cardboard and 34% plant-based plastic.

They donate 100% of their sales to projects for people who lack water. So when I as an entrepreneur order a drink carton from them, not only have I purchased a sustainable product, around 50% of my costs are also directly invested in people who lack water! 

We are also negotiating with an organic fruit grower from Sicily. Our idea is to offer fresh fruit juices. Something I greatly miss here in the Netherlands: really fresh fruit juice. By that I don't mean the addition of ice cubes (!) No matter how delicious it is, people should understand that fresh fruit, organically grown, is not available all year round. So currently, that is not available to order from us either.

With this, we hope to raise some kind of awareness among our customers. The message: to buy real 'fresh' fruit that followed the normal pattern of the ecosystem. 

Impact, I've really come to love that word in recent years. Wouldn't it be great if we could prove that it is possible for a group of international students to start a business in the Maastricht Region and, in the process, also go on to be the first net-zero restaurant here in the region? I really hope we can inspire other young start-ups and students with this.'

You start with a pop-up at SNS de Ruimte?

'We launched on 2 June as a pop-up on Petrus Regoutlaan at SNS de Ruimte. That is for the period of 3 months. In September, we hope everything will be complete regarding the premises we have in mind. Then we will have our own location.

This is a great opportunity for us because at this location, you will receive a different audience than the usual restaurant clientele. Furthermore, I hope to collect a lot of data these opening months with which I hope to demonstrate that even as a customer, you have caused positive impact by ordering something from us. Thanks to the things I mentioned earlier: the special drink cartons, the co2 emissions saved, the zero waste production of what is offered. Everything artisanal and honest.

And even deep-frying can be cleaner and cleaner these days, with a carbon filter, for example. We are looking into that now.'

You are obviously very forward-thinking in terms of ecological impact and creativity, but I still wonder: where do you start as an international student with a project like this?

'To make a long story short. We had a name, a logo, an innovative product, a supplier, even a financial plan already in place and then it got difficult: finding premises, getting the right permits. That caused quite a few delays. Of course, we are still young and we are also from another country. It is sometimes searching for leads.

Usually when you want to start your own hospitality business here, you first buy goodwill from the previous restaurant owner. I actually find that a strange system. Basically, you are already giving someone a huge chunk of your budget to leave so that you can rent that restaurant building. You take over a business you don't actually want – because you already have your own concept – on top of that, you still have to invest in converting/adapting and redecorating the premises. The rent and deposit have to be paid etc.. Surely young people can never start up like that?

We decided not to participate in that, but to start from scratch. That is more work, but with the help of an architect, we are making everything exactly as it should be to get the right permits.

It may help that I am already entrepreneurial by nature. I remember an incident from when I was 8 years old and had discovered an easier way for all the children in the schoolyard to collect football pictures. This for a fee of course and with the help of my father's printer and my mother's laptop. It was a fantastic system, even if I say so myself, until the school headmaster found out about it.'

Why Maastricht and not, say, Rotterdam?

'I never doubted that. Maastricht has the most international students, it oozes diversity and innovation, and it's so much nicer than Rotterdam!'

Scicilery (3).jpeg
Giuseppe Di Rosa
Sicilery.com

Sicilery launched on 2 June at SNS De Ruimte. They sell arancini in 9 different flavours from vegan, vegetarian to different types of meat. The small arancini also have sweeter varieties with pistachio or hazelnut. They also offer a lot of other dishes.