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  Aldo Berni (1909–1997), by unknown photographer Aldo Berni (1909–1997), by unknown photographer
Berni, Aldo (1909–1997), restaurateur, was born on 14 March 1909 in Bardi in northern Italy, the youngest of three sons of Louis Berni, the owner of the Louis Café in Ebbw Vale, Monmouthshire, which served meals consisting of soup, a joint, and two vegetables. Aldo's elder brother, Frank Berni (1903–2000), restaurateur, had also been born in Bardi, on 30 October 1903. Louis Berni was certainly settled in Wales, but in an interview he gave in 1990 Aldo Berni claimed that his grandfather John (in some versions a member of an old Parma family whose forebears had been circus owners) had emigrated from Bardi to Merthyr Tudful in 1862. He said the family ‘had long been caterers and are direct descendants of several of the kingpins behind the once vast network of Italian cafés, still known as the bracchi, throughout the Welsh mining valleys’ (The Independent).

Aldo Berni went to Britain when he was sixteen, as Louis had the boys educated in Italy before sending for them to join the family business (their mother stayed in Italy). When the Second World War came, his brothers Frank and Marco were interned. Aldo, who had a British passport, was called up but exempted to work at a nursery by day, while in the evenings he ran the business—a chain of about six unlicensed restaurants in the west of England. In 1943 Aldo and Frank bought their first licensed restaurant, Horts, the best-known restaurant in Bristol, specializing in oyster soup and Dover sole. Two years earlier Frank had married Lina Allegri, the daughter of another Welsh Italian café-owner, from Llanelli; they had two daughters. On 15 January 1947 Aldo married Esmé Neville de Clifford Clifton (1920/21–1995), daughter of Edward Hinton Clifton of Clifton, Bristol; they had one daughter.

The brothers added more eating-houses to their chain, and when food rationing finally ended in 1954 and the British public went beef mad, the Berni boom began, and they instituted the famous 7s. 6d. set menu of steak, chips, peas, bread roll and butter, and pudding or cheese. This limited menu meant that no trained chef was needed, and most of the normal kitchen staff could be dispensed with. The cooking facilities needed were simply a central grill and a deep-fryer. The only important member of staff was the manager, who looked after the money and hired and fired the waiters. Quality was controlled by giving every establishment a ‘bible’, a large manual of instructions with every detail of the operation spelt out. The brothers replaced tablecloths with place mats and saved, it was said, £700,000 a year in laundry bills. They disliked written contracts and did business on a handshake; few suppliers ever let them down. Unusually for a British catering business, they encouraged their customers to complain if the standards of the food or service faltered, and were concerned that their clientele should perceive Berni Inns as giving good value for money. The inns were mobbed by beef-hungry customers, and the brothers converted as many pubs as they could get their hands on.

The Berni Inns chain evolved and grew until it comprised 147 hotels and restaurants, including the New Inn at Gloucester, the Mitre at Oxford, and several in Japan. The biggest food chain outside the USA, it based its identity not just on the food and the brand name, Berni Inn, but on the furnishings and décor, which were intended to mimic the luxury of American steakhouses: red velvet, stout wooden chairs, and paper parasols for the puddings and the cocktails. Frank, the chairman of the company, was responsible for the strict cost controls that made the chain so profitable, while the more outgoing Aldo was the public face of the company. The Bernis were probably the first caterers to use management consultants in their business. Aldo was generous with his money and helpful to others entering business careers, and earned the gratitude of a large number of younger people. He and Frank took very little out of the business. Aldo continued to live in Bristol, in a four-bedroomed bungalow in Clifton (he spoke with a decided Welsh lilt, but was proud to call himself a Bristolian). He owned a Bentley, but drove it himself, and would do the washing-up if the machine broke down. A passionate golfer, he had a handicap of five, and was an avid reader, browsing in encyclopaedias in his leisure hours. He enjoyed good wine, good food (except for Indian), and dining out. The brothers became millionaires when they went public in 1962, but eight years later they sold out to Grand Metropolitan for £14.5 million. By then Frank Berni had already retired to the Channel Islands. Aldo Berni remained on close terms with Sir Maxwell Joseph of Grand Metropolitan, and continued in the business in a non-executive role until the late 1970s. Berni Inns were later sold to Whitbread, who amalgamated them into their own Beefeater chain in 1990. A contemporary and friend of Lord Forte, whose family had similar Italian roots, Berni said of the Fortes, ‘They were talented; we were lucky’ (Daily Telegraph).

Aldo Berni was, above all, a family man. Sprightly, teasing banter was a feature of Aldo and Esmé Berni's strong marriage, and he devotedly gave her part of his fortune. She died first, in 1995. When her will was published in May 1996, he was not surprised to learn that she left the bulk of her £4.8 million to a home for cats and dogs. About this time, he suffered a severe stroke, and moved into the Avon Gorge Nursing Home, North Road, Leigh Woods, Clevedon, Somerset, where he died on 12 October 1997. He was survived by his daughter and by both his brothers; Frank died at St Lawrence, Jersey, on 10 July 2000.

Paul Levy

Sources  

Daily Telegraph (17 Oct 1997) · The Guardian (17 Oct 1997) · The Independent (20 Oct 1997) · The Times (21 Oct 1997) · m. cert. · d. cert. · Daily Telegraph (12 July 2000) · The Independent (14 July 2000) · The Times (20 July 2000) · The Guardian (1 Aug 2000)

Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph (17 Oct 1997) · photograph, repro. in The Guardian (17 Oct 1997) · photograph, Bristol Evening Post [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£1,226,425: probate, 2 April 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales