Business Builders

Timeless Tips from Past Issues #2

Over twenty years, successful restaurateurs have shared proven business building ideas with fellow Independents in La Trattoria. Because many of these ideas are timeless, we are highlighting some favorites here. 


Working Smarter, Not Harder

Here are several ways other Independents have helped their restaurants operate more smoothly over time.


Raising Prep Tables Cuts Back Fatigue

Working long hours in the kitchen often left Chef Ray Hollingsworth’s back sore. However, rather than accepting it as an “occupational given,” Ray began analyzing why he was straining his back…and concluded that standard height work tables are too short for most workers. (At 5’ 8”, Ray had to stoop slightly to work with his hands at table level.)

So Ray had the legs on all his work surfaces lengthened six inches. As a result, Ray’s relatively tall kitchen staff has been more comfortable and efficient (having had fewer days lost to back problems). Some insurance company reps who toured Ray’s kitchen liked the idea so much that they are recommending it to their other restaurateur clients. (Originally published in 9/99) Ray Hollingsworth, Executive Chef, Loon River Café, Sterling Heights, MI


Use “On Call” Drivers To Conquer Delivery Surges

Restaurateur Elizabeth DelloStritto wanted to offer lunchtime delivery. But the number of delivery orders varied enough day to day to make it hard to schedule the “right” number of delivery drivers. Too many drivers on a slow day was too costly and too few drivers on a busy day delayed orders and disappointed customers.

Her innovative solution? Hire fewer full time drivers and make up the difference during peak demand by using “on call” drivers (several retirees with good driving records), who can be paged to make deliveries.

The advantages? Paying a flat $2 fee for the occasional “on call” delivery is far cheaper than paying idle drivers “to fill salt shakers.” Additionally, Elizabeth’s regular drivers like having fewer full timers on the payroll, which keeps them individually busier (and earning more tips). Finally, it affordably ensures that customers can rely on Dello’s prompt delivery service, no matter how busy the restaurant may become. A win win win!! (Originally published in 1/00) Elizabeth DelloStritto, Owner, Dello’s, Auburn, NY


Soft Shredding Secret

Blending distinctive cheese into a more traditional mozzarella or provolone can help give pizza or baked pastas unique flavor and texture. But grinding soft cheeses is challenging because they tend to ball up and cling to the cutting blades, instead of shredding cleanly.

That was the situation at the Flying Pie in Boise, ID, whose signature pies are flavored with smoked Gouda cheese. Manager David Vann’s simple shredding solution? Just before shredding a softer cheese, lightly spray the cutting surfaces with nonstick vegetable coating. The result? Uniform shreds and easier cleanup. Slick fix! (Originally published in 7/07) David Vann, Manager, Flying Pie Pizzeria, Boise, ID


Success Story: Da Mangione, Duval, Quebec

Located in Duval, Quebec, Da Mangione specializes in authentic Italian cuisine, especially Sicilian favorites. Owner Santo Impellizzeri is particularly proud of Da Mangione’s warm atmosphere and personal rapport with customers. At Da Mangione, regulars are treated like family. In fact, many even stick their head into the kitchen before ordering to ask Santo’s father, “Hey Angelo, what’s good tonight?”

Santo believes that being small allows his restaurant to remain personal, an advantage chains don’t have. So instead of expanding the restaurant’s size, Santo’s ultimate goal is to stay small while increasing the strength of his loyal customer base!

Strong customer relationships don’t happen by chance. Beyond focusing on superior food quality and personalized service, Santo uses direct mail to reinforce his customers’ loyalty with information they can use to make dining decisions.

Santo’s direct mail efforts are quite selective. Rather than blanketing the neighborhood with preprinted flyers that would attract the general public, Santo prefers to target existing customers with individualized, hand signed letters every three months. Because he looks upon loyal customers as personal friends, the letters often include information about what’s new at Da Mangione, special holiday hours, and other personalized information his customers appreciate receiving.

Santo also sends Christmas cards, often with personal notes inside. By letting loyal customers know he personally appreciates their business, they in turn show their appreciation by recommending Da Mangione to their friends.

Santo also uses direct mail to encourage his customers to bring new guests to Da Mangione. For instance, he sends personal letters to selected guests good for a 20% discount off their next bill when they bring someone new to Da Mangione. The offer does not limit the group’s size since Santo’s goal is to introduce Da Mangione to as many new customers (who appreciate good food) as possible.

Finally, Santo manages his word of mouth campaign just like any other type of advertising. For example, when a customer presents the “bring a friend” letter, the server writes down the number of new guests they brought onto the letter and staples it to the check. Santo later enters this information into a special log book. Then, by tracking which customers bring him the most new business, Santo can reward their loyalty to Da Mangione during their next visit with especially personal attention (e.g., an extended tableside visit, a complimentary appetizer, or a bottle of wine, etc.)!

Because of the high impact of word of mouth advertising and the relatively low dollar cost of a targeted campaign, Santo’s direct mail efforts are very cost effective. By focusing on letting his individual customers know their loyalty is appreciated, Santo is not only building a solid, stable restaurant business, he is also making his customers feel great through personal recognition in the process. A win win situation for everyone involved!


Training a World Class Waitstaff

In this story, originally published in February of 1995, professional manager Lino Mirabella shares his lifelong passion for training world class servers. As Lino points out, these simple techniques can further improve table service in restaurants of any type or size.


Key Ideas: Improving Table Service

A sign of great service is that guests are so satisfied they hardly realize they have been served! That kind of satisfaction creates strong, lasting customer loyalty.

Lino Mirabella grew up in a strong service tradition, working with and being trained by some of the best professional waiters in Italy. Now, as the manager of Primavera, a fine Italian ristorante in Caesar’s Casino in Atlantic City, Lino focuses on satisfying some of the world’s most exacting guests. After all, high rollers, especially those who have just “donated” several thousand dollars at the tables, expect royal treatment in the casino’s finest restaurant.

Here, Lino shares some of the ways he trains his staff to provide world class service at Primavera.



New employees cannot know what you expect until you clearly communicate those expectations. So having them “train” by shadowing existing employees is often ineffective, especially when that gives up a chance to reinforce your key service messages. Besides, shadowing average employees encourages average performance!

Instead, Lino strongly believes that great service is an art best taught by a designated “maestro” who not only demonstrates what to do, but explains why each step reinforces guest satisfaction. By the way, the best maestri are often not owners or managers, but exceptional servers who are also patient teachers!



In training new employees, Lino stresses establishing a “one to one” connection with each guest. For example, because it is a greater sign of respect to speak to someone side by side, vs. across the table, he asks his servers to stop next to each guest to take their individual order. Of course, direct eye contact and an upbeat attitude are also important.



Observing proper service etiquette helps maximize guests’ enjoyment of the meal, minimizes unnecessary interruptions, and helps servers maximize their tips!

Employees delivering food to the table should know without asking who gets each plate. This is easily achieved if the person taking the order always writes a #1 next to the guest seated closest to the door, then a #2 next to the person on their left, etc.

Beverages are traditionally located to the right of the guest, so always serve and refill glasses from that side. This avoids spills or distracting customers by leaning in front of them.

To avoid tipping over beverage glasses, serve entrées from the left (including soup). Plates can then be cleared from the right.

Be polite to guests, but also respect their privacy. Keep banter with them to a minimum unless the guests first initiate the conversation.



While employees should leave their personal concerns at home, everyone has the occasional bad day. So rather than chastising troubled employees, Lino believes it is more effective to pull them aside, explain that he has noticed they are unhappy, and send them home to “regroup.” This spares customers from dealing with unhappy employees. And because Lino’s team appreciates his compassion, they return with redoubled commitment.



Lino says there is no “magic” to establishing an attitude of “great service” among your employees. With patient training and discipline, great service can be achieved (and appreciated) in restaurants of any type or size!


Increasing Your Quality Advantage

Fellow Independents share unique ideas for further enhancing the flavor and consistency of their food!


Oven Cooking v. Sautéing

Sautéed dishes are often popular because the technique uniquely draws out and mellows robust flavors from garlic, onion, and other traditional Italian seasonings. However, as accomplished cooks know, a sauté station demands full attention by an experienced hand to achieve consistently flavorful results.

To achieve extremely consistent sauté time and temperature, Chef Franco Onorato modified many of his sauté station recipes to be skillet baked in the oven. By leaving sensitive time and temperature monitoring to the oven and a timer, Franco not only achieved identical flavors every time, he freed his attention for other productive tasks, thereby leveraging his most constrained resource…his time! (Originally published 11/01) Franco Onorato, Exec. Chef, Glen Tavern Inn, Santa Paula, CA


Widen the Quality Gap

In response to rising food costs, pizzeria owner Rick Rhein had watched other area restaurants experimenting with cheaper, lesser quality ingredients. Rick decided that instead of seeking cheaper alternatives, he had far more to gain by further upgrading his own ingredients, thereby widening his food quality advantage vs. lesser quality competitors.

For Rick, reevaluating his existing ingredients was an eye opener. For example, Rick had long assumed the private label flour he had been getting from a national distributor was top quality. But when he compared it side by side against the best manufacturer brands, it wasn’t nearly as good as he remembered. His decision to upgrade his flour became even easier when he learned he was already paying nearly as much for the lesser quality private label as other distributors were charging for the All Trumps brand. (Originally published 10/08) Rick Rhein, Owner, Mama Roberto’s, Mentor, OH


Increasing Flavor Consistency

In the kitchen, what’s “most efficient” in preparing food doesn’t always taste best. This restaurateur discovered that her marinara sauce tasted slightly different, depending on whether it was held “at temperature” longer than an hour or two (i.e., more “cooked”). While the sauce tasted good both ways, some customers might notice the differences over time, so she set out to minimize this unintended variation. The problem was most obvious on slower nights when a single 12 quart pan of sauce might last all evening (instead of being restocked several times as on busier nights).

She asked her cooks to fill the sauce pan only halfway on slow nights. But they soon slipped back into what was easiest for them (i.e., starting with a full sauce pan meant not having to refill it later that evening).

Rather than fighting human nature, she replaced her 12 quart sauce pans with 6 quart versions. Physically limiting how much sauce could be held “at temperature” forced her team to refresh it twice as often, cutting average warming time (and flavor variation) in half! (Originally published 8/05) Anonymous


Maximizing Flavor While Maximizing Speed

riginally featured in January of 2000, restaurateur Guy Ciccone differentiated his Italian menu by specializing in fresh wood grilled foods which could also be prepared “to order” quickly (and therefore cost efficiently). Especially interesting is how Guy installed HOT water faucets over his range to keep his pots of boiling pasta water topped off and productive.


Success Story: Guytano’s, Charlotte, NC

Just off the trolley line in downtown Charlotte, NC, chef Guy Ciccone has transformed a 100 year old brick warehouse into a “theater” where Italian cuisine is flavorfully prepared “to order” for as many as 200 to 300 guests at a time. While his high ceilinged, presentation style kitchen is flanked by real theater curtains and an overhead red neon sign reading “Cooking with Fire,” Guy creates consistently superior quality food by choosing dishes that (1) feature the freshest tasting ingredients and (2) can be prepared to order via fast, extremely consistent methods.

With his dramatically “theatrical” atmosphere raising customer expectations, Guy must select menu offerings worthy of a place in the spotlight. Therefore, Guy focuses first on recipes featuring the freshest fish, meat, and seasonal produce, dramatically prepared (e.g., over Guytano’s oak fired grill). These show stoppers are complemented by housemade pastas, housemade cheese, and housemade Tuscan bread served with Guytano’s signature butter whipped with honey and roasted garlic.

Believing that food superiority depends on ingredient superiority, Guy has appointed a single “quality expert” on his kitchen staff to inspect all incoming ingredients upon delivery. If a fresh item is not at its best or there has been an unauthorized brand substitution, Guy’s quality expert refuses that item and it goes right back onto the Distributor’s truck. As a result, Guytano’s is assured of starting with the highest quality ingredients.

In selecting menu items, Guy feels that fresh flavors are best preserved when cooked to order…so he requires menu offerings to allow rapid preparation without sacrificing consistent results. That, and streamlined kitchen equipment/kitchen procedures, have allowed Guy’s staff to cook to order for large numbers of customers. To support that quality objective, Guy regularly observes each prep station to make sure it is still best configured to ensure a smooth workflow.

As one example of high kitchen efficiency, Guy’s fresh pastas are ready to serve after a quick dip in one of several large pots of water, kept at a constant boil. To keep these pots at maximum productivity, Guy installed HOT water spigots directly over the range top so that boiled off water can be replaced with just a turn of a handle. This has two benefits: (1) It eliminates carrying heavy pots of water to the stove and (2) preheated water means that recently refreshed pots will return to boiling (and productive use) much faster than if cool tap water were heated from scratch.

The beauty of Guy’s carefully organized approach is that guests can sit back and enjoy what one local restaurant critic described as “a sense of drama” that’s memorable every time!