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Frank Simonetti Featured

9:58am EDT July 22, 2002

Frank Simonetti says he has three heroes: Groucho Marx, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Orson Welles.

“Each one of them took the best of what they had and went as far as they could with it. They were all great at what they did,” says the owner of Frank’s Diner at the North Market and Damon’s franchises in Gahanna and Pickerington. “I’ve always appreciated people that make the best of what they are or what they have—what God’s given them,” he says.

Simonetti, who initially wanted to be a teacher, says he found his God-given gift during a summer job he took while attending college in New York.

“I thought teaching was the most honorable profession in the world. I always have—I still do,” he says. However, when this son of an Italian father and Russian/Prussian mother, both of whom loved to cook, went from waiting tables at a friend’s restaurant that summer to taking over for a chef who quit, he knew his life was headed in another direction. After all, Simonetti, now 54, has worked in restaurants since he was 12.

“I realized I had a gift that I could cook, and that’s when I decided I was going to develop it,” he says.

He didn’t stray far from his belief in the benefits of teaching, however, and sought apprenticeships under chefs throughout the country, including at such famous venues as Tavern on the Green in New York, where he was kitchen manager, and Chasen’s Restaurant in California.

“I did nothing but whip and chop and peel for a year before I could do anything,” he says, admitting that’s how he earned his wings.

He even traveled to France, Italy and Austria for a year to learn more after selling out of a restaurant venture in California.

“I’d go to restaurants and if they wouldn’t hire me, I’d offer to work for nothing just to get the experience,” he says.

He was seven years into a stint in Colorado when, at his nephew’s wedding in Columbus, his brother Gene asked if he wanted to go into the restaurant business here.

The two opened Simonetti’s Many Moods Cafe in the Continent in 1979 and, a year later, agreed to a partnership suggested by Irving Rossman, who owned a rib joint at Broad and James called Damon’s.

At that point Simonetti faced a difficult decision: stay in fine foods, or “do this rib thing.”

“I thought if I was half the chef I thought I was, I could do anything. I could take this rib thing and turn it into a growing concern,” he says. He did. In the nine years that followed, Damon’s grew by 20 restaurants under the leadership of Rossman and the Simonettis.

In 1989, Simonetti and his brother sold their interest in the chain that has now grown to 130 restaurants. Simonetti kept two: sentimentally, the original at Broad and James, which he later moved to Gahanna, and one in Pickerington. He’s still working to bring Frank’s Diner, which opened in 1996, to profitability, but hopes that his plans to add a private entrance will bring more customers—since people mistakenly think the diner closes when the North Market does—as will the nearby development of Nationwide Arena. Simonetti’s three businesses currently net $5 million annually and employ nearly 200.

The value of teaching resurfaced abruptly in Simonetti’s life about two years ago when he began to lose some interest in the Damon’s operations.

“Sales were slipping all of a sudden. Things weren’t rolling along as they usually do, plus competition stiffened,” he says. “I was basically letting employees run the business without the direction from me they wanted and needed.”

Without Simonetti as their teacher, employee morale slipped. It was a rude awakening for Simonetti. He knew he needed to reinvest—financially and mentally—in the businesses.

“Knowledge doesn’t do anybody any good unless you share it,” he says.

He returned to making his presence known at the restaurants, taking check-signing privileges away from employees, personally managing all the cash flow aspects and ensuring that managers had the tools—and know-how—they needed to be more productive.

By mid-1998, he began to see an upswing.

“I’ve made this business and I built it. I wasn’t going to let it dwindle to nothing, which is where it could have gone if I just kept my back turned,” he says.

Simonetti’s also sharing his expertise outside his business, serving as president of the Central Ohio Restaurant Association and as a board member of the Greater Columbus Hotel and Motel Association and the Ohio Restaurant Association. In addition, he regularly participates in career days at Westerville schools.

Cameron Mitchell, who Simonetti succeeded at the helm of the local restaurant association, notes Simonetti’s creativity and passion for food.

“I find he’s always in the middle of things somehow, someway, and always trying to push the envelope and further his career in the restaurant industry,” Mitchell says. “And I think he’s done a terrific job at it. Last year when I took over the restaurant association, I really wanted to turn it around and move it forward, and I think Frank, in his presidency this year, has done a phenomenal job of keeping things going in furthering our association and our industry in Central Ohio.”

Simonetti coordinates the catering for the annual North Market Apron Gala and is a member of the Columbus Italian Club and House of Hope, an organization that runs rehabilitation centers for indigent men and women.

Asked what he considers to be his greatest accomplishments, the normally verbose Simonetti shrugs and pauses.

“I’ve got a life,” he says, referring not just to his family and home, but also to his businesses and employees. He carries in his date book a sort of photo biography—a stack of pictures, actually: his wife of 15 years, a 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, an 80-acre farm in Knox County and a Harley-Davidson Heritage Softtail, which he’s ordered anew since it was stolen last summer.

“My dream when I was a kid was to open my own restaurant, and I’ve more than accomplished that,” he says. “To obtain a childhood dream like that is more than I could hope for.”