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Five Lessons Learned from Growing a Business & Playing with Violets

September 15, 2014 | Frank Bonanno

(this one is by Jacqueline Bonanno!)

In college, my sister’s boyfriend used to down gin and tonics. It was the eighties, mind you, and the tonic was too awful to drink of its own volition–both metallic and cloyingly sweet, it wrought a sort of tinny back-of-the-tongue sharpness from the gin.  For years gin and tonic was, to me, the drink of Wabash College, Tom Cooper (he’s my brother-in-law now, lucky guy), parachute pants and vomit on stained taupe carpet.

Flash forward to 2004, and Thomas Keller is opening Per Se. He decides on a signature cocktail for his New York venture, and chooses, of all things, a gin and tonic.

Doesn’t that sound too basic a cocktail for Keller? Or Per Se? Or a twenty dollar price tag?  We ate at Per Se that year, a group of 22 (the entire staffs of Luca and Mizuna), and each of us ordered Keller’s twenty dollar gin and tonic. The dinner was, of course, spectacular—the company fantastic, the food elegant and intense, the service unparalleled. It was exactly the evening Frank and I had hoped for—inspiring, reassuring, motivating. Later, though, we couldn’t stop revisiting that gin and tonic.  Nearly a decade before the “mixology” movement and the explosion in cocktail culture, Keller took an industrialized drink staple of the 50’s and returned it to its flavorful, beautiful roots. He crafted quinine in-house. He sourced quina roja. He elevated a college staple to a signature drink at one of the best restaurants in the world.

More than half of our clients on any given night order a cocktail. How did we miss something so obvious? So much thought and effort into the food at Mizuna and Luca—constantly evolving menus, finest possible ingredients, impeccable service, lovely dining rooms, contemporary wines and soms to pour the juice–yet we had failed to match our drinks lists to those components. The sweet and sour came from a bottle, bitters strictly Peychaud’s, tonic from the gun. Standard stuff—and “standard” was well below what Luca and Mizuna strived for.

I ultimately cooked our first batch of bitters myself from a recipe hand-written in the margins of my grandmother’s 1929 German cookbook. I wish that this was the part of the blog with beauty and poignancy, in figuring out her penciled hand, translating the German words, reviving her recipe. The point of this blog, though, lies nowhere in the fabulousness of current spirit culture nor the beauty of crafted bitters nor the process of discovery nor the connectedness we find between our pasts and our now.

The bitters was fantastic. I found a tonic, a grenadine —each flavorful and time consuming and utterly exhaustive in the research required to get to the goal. Each a complete failure with our Luca and Mizuna teams. Not a single front-of-house member in 2004 was prepared for the shift that required encouraging a customer to make his own shift in thinking. In restaurants where we made cheese and salumi and pasta and bread and even grew our own microgreens and cultivated an in-house yeast culture—Frank and I could not sell our team on using the same approach to cocktails.

A year passed. Two. Unopened bitters and tonic stood abandoned and unused in a sea of bottles on the Luca and Mizuna bars. We were set to open Osteria Marco.

There is a period when you create your business, and there is a period when you grow that business. When you are growing your business, there is opportunity. Such opportunity.

Here are five small lessons I learned from steeping quina roja and fiddling with violets and helping two restaurants become ten.

Ink Your Vision: Mizuna was staffed with friends and co-workers. Luca opened in the same vein, and with a staff so small and intimate, there were no formalities, few paper trails, procedures that were implied rather than mandated. Opening Osteria Marco provided an opportunity to create a training manual and within its contents to formally compose a mission statement. What were we hoping to do with our businesses? How did we want to be perceived by others in our community? What did we value as traits—qualities by which our hires and our group could be defined? What were the basic expectations moving forward? Frank had a vision, but until this moment it had only been shared personally, over wine, among friends and in lively conversation. The process of putting those sentiments in ink gave us focus, personally and professionally.

Empower Your Charitable Dollars: Until Osteria Marco opened, our approach to charity was: Yes. If you were a client, friend, neighbor, random passer-by—and asked for a gift certificate toward a school auction or charity raffle, we provided it. We supported a hundred different organizations, a hundred dollars at a time—ten thousand dollars, one hundred dollars at a time. Ten thousand dollars is real money—ten thousand dollars could evoke change. In crafting a vision we had an opportunity to examine our community giving. We determined that each restaurant would support one charity, and do so whole-heartedly. We would organize in-house dinners and events and provide food, wine and staffing. Instead of Frank cooking twenty yearly events where random charities received “a percentage” of the proceeds, he could cook at a handful of on-site events where one hundred percent of the proceeds would go to the charity of our choosing.  We still support our regular clients in their philanthropy, but by taking the reins of our own charitable endeavors, we have been able to raise nearly two million dollars for organizations that matter to us personally. That is empowerment.

Hone Your Infrastructure: We want our restaurants to make money, hopefully (cross fingers, spit on brick, what have you), a lot of money. If that is ever to happen, there should be an accountant. We want to make sure every new hire is legally recorded, that accidents are addressed, that there are systems in place for someone who fails to show for work or arrives drunk or late or simply doesn’t adhere to our vision. We need a human resource specialist. We’d like consistent and fabulous drinks: beverage director. That progressive wine program calls for a sommelier. Is catering part of our growth plan? Better get an event planner. Again, the vision statement gave us a tangible way to address what staff we would need to grow, and we hired accordingly. We created an umbrella company, and though Bonanno Concepts was top-heavy initially, the foresight in hiring gave our businesses the muscle to grow.   

Stay Contemporary by Examining Other Business Models: Because we are in the restaurant business, it our job to dine out and take our experiences back to work—as inspiration in moving forward, as lessons in how not to proceed.  Some of the greatest insight, though, comes from outside the Industry. How can Nordstrom customer service translate to OpenTable communication? Zingerman’s introduced us to friendly, happy client emails; Dr I’s approach in his orthodontics inspired a sleeker, more professional business card and web presence; Zenman’s office design jumped us to a more open and dynamic layout of our own. It is our job as business owners to observe how other businesses succeed. If I didn’t like to scour the business field for inspiration, I should probably reconsider my game.

Be flexible (In this part, somewhere, is The Point of the Blog.) I’ll go back to 2004 and  22 service professionals dining at Per Se. On this cold winter night, someone has suggested we drink gin and tonic. This isn’t the season for g&t; we don’t like g; we don’t like t. We are red wine drinkers, who, in the spirit of the evening, try, enjoy, and remember Keller’s signature drink. Flexibility paid off. Later, when I push my own tonic agenda on the same tight and professional group, they are inflexible, and we, as a business, are stuck to some extent. It marks, for us, a period of inflexibility—of team members who don’t want to expand the Mizuna dining room or change the Luca paint colors. Opening Osteria Marco introduces us to a fresh mindset, and we meet, among other fine colleagues, Adam Hodak– who helps grow the Osteria with house made tonic and bitters. Adam perfects those recipes, though; he stops using Oma’s and creates his own, expands into cello’s and vermouth, sodas and ginger beer.  I’m sad to lose this connection with my history, but there is an opportunity here to move into the future and this (inked) notion of beautiful product from well to plate leads us in opening Green Russell and in transforming Vesper Lounge. Ours is a particularly volatile business, our restaurant family young and often merely passing through. Turning over a staff, though, is an opportunity to grow, to reevaluate need and direction, if we are only flexible enough to see it and change with it.

A dining room, a menu, a seating chart should never be fixed. We ourselves are not permanent, our own lives a work in progress. If we are flexible in our habits, working within a framework of a vision that is greater than each of us could ever be alone, we could, perhaps, grow into something great.   And isn’t that, after all, the point of everything?