What a difference a year makes. CBD dining institution Coppa Spuntino has made a grand comeback in its new Eagle Street Pier location – but just 12 months ago, owner Tom Sanceau was on the verge of giving it all up.
“I was considering my future in hospitality,” he says now, reflecting on the closure of Coppa’s original Creek Street locale last March.
Sanceau and his business partner in the Happy Fat Group, Bonnie Shearston, had opened Coppa in 2014, and its pizzas, pastas, spuntinos (snacks) and award-winning wine menu had become a mainstay of Brisbane’s culinary scene.
But in the early days of COVID, with office workers clearing out of the CBD amid an atmosphere of uncertainty, they made the difficult decision to shut up shop and focus on the survival of Red Hook, their New York-inspired burger bar.
“Coppa was almost at the end of its lease, and we were already reconsidering if we wanted to continue in that location,” Sanceau says. “Then COVID hit, and it was like… ‘Well, we’ve had a good run, it’s been six years, let’s call it a day’.
“We saw more opportunity with Red Hook, because we thought people would still venture into the city for takeaway burgers, but if people are working in the suburbs, during a pandemic, they’ll just go to their local restaurants for pizza and pasta.
“Even so, we still had to lose all our staff at Red Hook. It was down to just me and a chef. And during those lonely few months when it was just the two of us, waiting for customers and watching what we thought was the demise of the city, it was very depressing. It gave me a lot of time to think about what I was doing, and if I was really enjoying it, and for a while there, I wasn’t sure.
“I thought I was going to go bust, to be honest with you, and my get-out clause would be that I’d move back to England to live with my parents. I thought that was it for me. Luckily, that didn’t happen and we bounced back, but it was a tough year for us, like it was for everyone.”
When Coppa Spuntino closed its doors on Creek Street, it was never meant to be a temporary measure.
“No, that was it,” Sanceau says. “I was adamant that was the end of Coppa, and there were no plans to re-open it. We’d had great fun, we’d had our ups and downs, but as far as I was concerned we’d had a great innings and it was time to retire.”
Sanceau says the rest of the year was a blur, but at some point, property developer Dexus came calling. With plans to redevelop Eagle Street Pier, they were looking for a restaurant to take up the space previously occupied by Italian institution Il Centro, and they thought Coppa was the perfect fit.
“They kept saying, ‘Coppa would work really well here’, but I really thought I was done with restaurants,” Sanceau says. “I didn’t want to reincarnate Coppa. But after a couple of months had passed, and I’d adjusted to this new world, I realised that no matter what happened, we would get through this, things would get better again, and it probably was the right time to be looking at new spaces and new opportunities.”
Unbeknownst to Dexus, Sanceau had something of a nostalgic attachment to the space.
“When I first came to Brisbane over a decade ago, I used to work at the restaurant next door, the former Cha Cha Char,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself back then, ‘Wow, just imagine having a restaurant here, with these views of the Story Bridge’. And of course, I’d seen what Il Centro had done over the years, and the massive amount of patrons who’d come through that place.
“But it definitely wasn’t a no-brainer. It was a tough decision, because I had to look around and ask myself, ‘What happens if COVID continues for the next five years?’ I expressed my concerns to Dexus, and we managed to work through those – and I’m glad we did, because now we’re two months into the new Coppa and it’s been incredibly well received. I’m thrilled with the way things are going.”
The original Coppa was an intimate venue known for its moody ambience, but the new space on Eagle Street Pier necessitated a new approach. Taking full advantage of the location, it’s a lighter, brighter and bigger restaurant with a coastal Italian vibe, offering both indoor and alfresco dining. The menu emphasises seafood, and while the wine list remains extensive, it’s now complemented by a slushy machine slinging frozen prosecco and Negronis.
“I wanted to give people an experience that would make them forget about what was going on in the world,” Sanceau says. “It’s about giving people the feeling that they’re actually in coastal Italy, eating wonderful produce, drinking nice wine and just having a fun time.
“My vision of Coppa 2.0 was actually that it would be very casual, but we’re finding that because of the location and the quality of the food, we’re getting a lot of important business meetings and high-profile guests in for lunch. But then in the evenings, we’re getting those people who are stopping in after work, having a couple of small plates, a couple of sprizters and a couple of frozen proseccos and then going home, and that’s great.
“One thing I’ve noticed about Brisbane is that people used to just leave the city straight after they finished work. Now, they’re not rushing home. They’re sticking around and catching up with friends for a few drinks. It’s becoming more like Barcelona and other European cities that have that more cosmopolitan culture. That’s certainly very encouraging for us.”
Although he’s happy to focus on the new-look Coppa and the reliable Red Hook for now, Sanceau says the next year should be an exciting one for Brisbane’s culinary scene.
“I want to think very carefully about what we do next,” he says. “From where we were a year ago, with myself and a chef at Red Hook, we’re now back up to 55 staff across the two venues. I’m energised by that, and I’m excited about the future, but we have to make sure we get the foundations right.
“I do think there’s going to be some wonderful opportunities for restaurateurs and local businesses over the next 12 months. I think a lot of people have had some time off over the last year and have used that to work out what’s important to them and what they want to do. You’ve got to do what you’re passionate about, and that’s true of any industry, whether it’s hospitality or retail or anything else.
“Life is short. Do what you love.”