Boss it like Sisto

“Thank you for making us your staff members as part of your life.”

“You always looked after us like family.”

“You always said to have fun at work because we all worked so hard.”

“The world is a better place for having Sisto in it. He was one of the greats.”

These are just some of the incredible tributes that have poured in for Sisto Malaspina, co-owner of the famed Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar in Melbourne, since he was killed in the terror attack near his café a few months ago. His staff and customers alike were heartbroken when he died. He clearly inspired love, loyalty and respect.

I’ve been reading a lot about Sisto – how he was born in a small town in Italy, the youngest of six children. How he immigrated to Australia to start a new life in the early 60s. How, with his friend Nino Pangrazio, he took over Pellegrini’s in 1974 and transformed it into an Melbourne institution. And how he befriended each and every one of his customers.

And I’ve been thinking… what was it about this Italian immigrant that earned him so much love and respect from his customers? Why was he held in such high regard that his funeral, which took place in Australia’s biggest church, was attended by not just his local customers but also the actors, top business people, footballers and MPs who were drawn to his small but cosy corner café?

This is what I’ve found out:

Sisto had great business sense: He bought the oldest café in Melbourne, located close to the Victorian parliament, which was already an institution, then made even more popular among the city’s movers and shakers.

He was a trail-blazer: By installing one of the first espresso machines in Melbourne, he paved the way for the city’s incredible coffee culture.

He loved what he did: I often say that hospitality can’t be taught, that it’s innate. You have to live, sleep, breathe hospitality if you want to be successful in this tough, tough industry. And Sisto embodied that. In his own, inimitable words: “I enjoy what I do. People say, ‘I didn’t choose, I was chosen’. I wasn’t chosen, I was born into it.”

He was true to his roots and always did what he did best: Sisto seems to have been utterly unaffected by passing trends and fads. Pellegrini’s is a throw back to a 1950’s diner and still serves the same, pure, simple home-cooking that it has done over the past 100 years. He didn’t even change his coffee blend.

He understood that a café is more than a café and a cup of coffee is more than a cup of coffee: A good café is a place of warmth, comfort, relaxation and respite. A great one brings joy on otherwise dark days. Again, in his own words: “Our coffee is more than nourishment to the body, it’s nourishment to the soul. You come to Pellegrini’s, you sit in the corner for a moment of reflection, a moment of joy, celebration.”

He was an all-round decent human being: With his flamboyant dress sense, theatrical manner and charisma, Sisto was a big character. But he was also warm, funny, kind, welcoming and greeted everyone with a genuine smile.

He was a great boss: It’s obvious, given the quotes at the top of this page, that Sisto cared about his staff and treated them like family. It seems he went above and beyond being just a boss. He was a friend, mentor and adviser.

What a man.

So, from one café owner to another, this, Signore, is my tribute to you.