In 2009 Alex Galentino opened his first espresso bar, now he is in partnership with Harvey Nichols. Catherine Scott reports.
When Alex Galentino arrived in from his native Milan aged 21 he had nothing but a suitcase of designer clothes and a tan.
Now with two espresso bars, last month he opened a pop up espresso bar on Harvey Nichols fourth floor.
It is part of the luxury retailer’s “Britalia” campaign which aims to bring the best of Italian culture and style to Harvey Nichols customers.
When Alex was approached by Harvey Nichols about taking up the residency on their Fourth Floor in an area previously home to Polpo, he jumped at the chance.
“When I first came to Leeds 20 years ago I visited the Victoria Quarter and Harvey Nichols, it was so reminiscent of Milan and the Galleria. It was the only place I could get panatoni and prosecco. I thought then that I wanted to open an espresso bar in the Victoria Quarter. We nearly did, although it didn’t eventually come off, so when I was approached by Harvey Nichols I knew that it was right for us,” says Alex.
“Harvey Nichols is synonymous with quality, style and design, that is at the heart of the Milanese Cafe culture that we try to recreate at La Bottega. We want people to step inside and be transported to Milan.” Hence the fact there is no table service and along bar filled with treats takes centre stage.
In Milan café culture is a lifestyle.
“Whereas in the UK people go for a pint after work in Milan people go for an espresso which then turns into a glass of prosecco and then something to eat. It is all adapting to what people want,” says Alex.
Alex did his national service in Italy where he joined the parachute regiment . He says he likes to push the boundaries rather than going for the easier option. On his return he worked in espresso bars and then planned on becoming a graphic designer or work in fashion. It was when he went on a lads holiday to Greece that everything changed.
“I met a girl who was at Leeds University and I came to visit her.” The relationship didn’t last but Alex’s love affair with Leeds did.
“I went back to Italy for the summer and got a job working for Dolce and Gabbana, I was very into fashion, well most Milanese are. I had a good career ahead but when things get too settled I kick out. I like to make things difficult for myself.”
So at 21 he left it all behind and returned to Leeds.
“I found myself in Headingley, aged 21 with a tan and good clothes. I wasn’t short of attention,” he grins. “I didn’t really have a plan.”
But this nonconformist ended up working in IT although he did take every summer off to work in a Greek beach resort, and that’s where he met his now wife Katie.
After seven years of this twin life, Alex realised he really didn’t have a passion for IT, and what he really wanted was to create something new.
“Starbucks was just getting really big over here and it was changing the way people thought about coffee,” says the 41-year-old.
“People suddenly started going out for a coffee rather than just having one at home and were prepared to pay £3 for it. Starbucks did me and the other independents a huge favour, they changed the coffee culture in this country.”
Realising that Britain’s perception of coffee was changing, Alex decided that the time was right to create something similar to the espresso bars found in his native Milan.
Although his aim had been to open in the Victoria Quarter, when it didn’t materialise Alex opened the first La Bottega Milanese in The Calls in 2009. Soon the modest ‘destination’ premises on The Calls were too small for the growing demand and the business had to move to a bigger store uptown in The Light complex in 2011.
This move sparked the creation of the very first late opening espresso bar in the North.
Fast forwarding to 2014, the booming Independent scene coupled with Leeds’s unstoppable growth and the popularity of coffee shops, LBM opened a second brand new store in the developing Bond Court area of Leeds.
What many people didn’t know was that during the planning and opening stages of LBM Alex was suffering from a life threatening heart condition. He still doesn’t like to talk about it much.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I am now perfectly well but at the time I was very ill. I was directing the opening of La Bottega from my hospital bed. I had a really good team which enable it to happen.” He says staff retention is very good, and some of it he believes is down to the fact that some staff know what he has been through. He also pays a little bit more than his competitors.
Alex underwent two heart operations and says he has some pretty good scars to prove it.
He would love to see a LBM expand nationally, ideally with backing that would allow him his independence while expanding his brand, although Italy and Yorkshire will always be at it core.
“I love Yorkshire, where possible we source our produce here.”
For now though he is enjoying being in Harvey Nichols and Harvey Nichols is enjoying having him.
Sue Stones, General Manager at Harvey Nichols Leeds, says: “We’re delighted to be bring La Bottega Milanese to our Fourth Floor Residency space as part of our Britalia campaign. We’ve long been fans of their speciality coffee and emphasis on quality, detail and design and we’re thrilled to be working with Alex and the team to introduce the concept to our shoppers.”
The collaboration with La Bottega Milanese forms part of Harvey Nichols’ new “Britalia” campaign this winter. The initiative, in partnership with the Italian Ministry of Economic Development and the Italian Trade Agency, celebrates the best of Italian style, beauty, food, drink, culture and lifestyle.
“Britalia” brings the best of Italy to Harvey Nichols, and the luxury retailer will unveil a range of new Italian collections in store and online. The campaign will be rolled out across all stores in the UK and Ireland, harveynichols.com and the seven international stores. La Bottega Milanese will be offering its own La Classica blend, which is hand roasted in Yorkshire every week using the finest Arabica beans, alongside a specialty filters menu. The Espressos will be pulled on the iconic La Marzocco coffee machine, hand built in Florence. There will be a selection of both sweet and savoury snacks, and street food including Arancini, Calzones and Lasagnas as well as traditional Italian cocktails.