Anatomy of a restaurant launch
As James Blandi, owner of LeMont restaurant and now Viaggio as well, learned the hard way, success the first time around doesn't guarantee a second successful venture.
By Daniel Bates
Like many entrepreneurs who find success the first time, James Blandi Jr., owner of LeMont restaurant on Mt. Washington, wanted to duplicate his success. And he figured that, with all of the lessons he had learned, he would find that the second time around would offer a much smoother road.
But in the process, Blandi joined the ranks of others doing it again who have learned that's not necessarily so.
Blandi, 32, literally grew up in the business, watching his father, James Blandi Sr., build LeMont into one of the region's premiere four-diamond, fine-dining restaurants. The younger Blandi graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, attended the Florida International University of Hospitality Management, worked in hotel operations, spent time as a chef in Italy and eventually returned to LeMont as Sous Chef in 1988 and as his father's protege.
Several years ago, the elder Blandi turned over the business to his son, while continuing to serve as mentor and adviser right up until his death last month. The younger Blandi wasted little time after he took charge in aggressively breathing new life into a restaurant that had seen better times.
He completely redecorated the place, developed a new menu, and, ultimately, brought back the success of its heyday.
"He thought I was nuts when I wanted to gut LeMont and start over," Blandi says of his father. "But you must be willing to take risks to reap the harvest."
And reap he did. Blandi says the restaurant served upwards of 100,000 customers last year, up 15 percent from the previous year.
But like many driven, high-strung, detail-fanatical entrepreneurial types, Blandi wasn't satisfied with LeMont alone. He says he has had many ideas for new restaurants over the past five years, and that it was time for him to bring one of them to life.
"It had been a wonderful few years for me there, but it was time for me to go out and do more," Blandi says. That was the fall of 1996.
Not long afterward, with help from restaurant brokers Terry and Ned Sokoloff of The Specialty Group, he found a building for sale on East Carson Street on the South Side (near the Birmingham Bridge) where Cafe Giovanni had been located, and over the course of the next eight months, he transformed the century-old brick building into Viaggio, a restaurant serving "authentic Venetian" cuisine.
As Blandi, a hands-on, self-professed detail person (right down to the elevator walls lined in wooden cigar-box lids), says, "It's the architecture, the ambience-the way everything is just old and historical that really lent itself to feeling at home-the allure and romance of Italy."
But it was the food first, he says. "When you conceptualize something, you build the concept from the cuisine and not afterward. Then you build the restaurant around the kitchen."
He says the food reflects a "flair" of Mediterranean, along with spice combinations from 12 other countries-"something Pittsburgh's never tasted."
But the admittedly nightmarish problems and delays along the way didn't occur with the food. They came with the building itself-and Blandi's near obsession with details.
Blandi is the first to admit that, while the details can be what sets apart a successful restaurant from the unsuccessful, they also can bog down the planning process. Take the bar, for instance. He wanted his to offer a wide variety of specialty drinks, from frozen vodka-based drinks and those with fresh fruits marinating in them, to an entire bar area for martinis, another for single-malt scotches, a variety of micro-brewed beers, and port wine as well as grappa. He also wanted a cigar lounge complete with an old commercial wooden icebox that he had converted into a humidor.
"The environment has to be achieved-the abiotic personality must be reflective of the cuisine," Blandi philosophizes with an insistent air of confidence. "You have to take that look and feel and add the tables, the chairs, the bar, add some marble to really achieve that. Then you take into consideration the trends in the industry."
In the end, though, all of that took much more time and at least $250,000 more than he had planned. The delays and extra capital eventually got to him, Blandi concedes.
"I was right in the thick of it when I found out it was going to cost me a quarter of a million dollars more than I planned on," Blandi says. "I lost a lot of faith. I wanted to dump it. But my wife Catherine got me to pull my head out of my ass and forge ahead."
And forge ahead, he did, finally opening the restaurant in November with a large invitation-only charity fundraiser.
But even after the opening, he faced some serious personal crises which, he admits, take their toll on one who lives and breathes business. Among them was what he describes as a life-changing experience with his Corvette. One morning, tired from the long work hours he put in the previous day, he lost control of his Vette and flipped it. He obviously survived, but not without some excruciating injuries to his legs and a long gash across his scalp which took more than 270 stitches to hold together.
Then last month, after a long illness, Blandi's father and lifelong mentor died, leaving him alone to run the show.
Viaggio at a glance
Blandi located his new restaurant on the 2300 block of East Carson Street, in the former Cafe Giovanni restaurant as well as the adjacent former Duke's Bar. Long before the restaurant was opened, he hired a general manager, an executive chef (Paul Bates) and wait staff, whom he trained largely at LeMont. All told, he employs 20 full-time people and another 12 part-timers.
The restaurant seats 250 and, like LeMont, offers valet parking for dinner guests.
The problems actually began even before the closing on the properties, which reportedly took seven hours to complete and involved the creation of three separate corporations. But most of them had to do with the building renovations, which Blandi oversaw as general contractor. That is one area, he says, where he may have done things differently-and worked with different people-in hindsight.
His real problems started when he began to uncover the old brick walls inside the buildings. That's when he says he found that one of the buildings had no supporting walls in the back. That, of course, had to be resolved.
"The cost overruns came when I got behind the walls," Blandi says. "Knowing now what I know, I could have saved $100,000 in the process."
Among the many details Blandi concentrated on were the tin ceilings, art, table arrangements and furniture.
Blandi will not discuss his finances, other than to say he spent more than $250,000 over what he expected. But he also chose to purchase his two buildings rather than lease space on the South Side. While the money proved a setback, it didn't keep him from opening last November.
Others in such a situation, however, often aren't as lucky. "People think they can go in with enough capital to get started, but they have unrealistic plans, or they don't plan far enough in advance," says Terry Sokoloff, the North Hills-based restaurant broker who also provided some public relations for Blandi during the course of the Viaggio launch. "I think there also are so many unforeseen issues that can arise, and they aren't prepared to deal with it."
Sales to date
Again, Blandi won't discuss specifics, but he does note that he is "overly pleased because I am exceeding my expectations by 25 percent in sales." He claims he is filling 950 to 1,000 seats a week in his restaurant.
Sales and marketing
Rather than focus largely on heavy advertising and other traditional marketing strategies, Blandi points back to his attention to detail-a factor that he says plays a m ajor role in the failure of other restaurants in the region.
"The mere fact that I created a concept with all of the inclusions is probably one of the strongest marketing approaches," Blandi says. "We're hitting so many people in so many ways."
He puts considerable weight also on word of mouth from his early customers.
That, of course, doesn't discourage him from aggressively seeking public relations. He claims his and Sokoloff's efforts have landed 28 articles about him and Viaggio before the restaurant even opened.
If business continues to grow the way it has been, Blandi says, he expects to break even in three to four years. The trick, he says, is to continue to "do the things they look for-this concept feeds their needs."
And then there's the general trend in Italian food, he says. "Italian food has been No. 1 over the last 20 years, and I predict it will last for at least another 40 years."
Blandi sees two challenges ahead. First, he says it's always difficult to keep good employees in the restaurant business. "People are people, and good people are hard to keep because they always go where the dollar is," he says. "Then it's a matter of keeping them going and keeping them motivated."
The other challenge is just getting conservative Pittsburghers to accept such new concepts in the region. "Pittsburgh is chronically five years behind the times," Blandi says. "I had people calling me saying 'Why are you doing this? You're just going to fail.'"
Given Blandi's drive, however, such sentiments simply motivated him to dig in his heels and press forward. Says Blandi: "I will never conform to the traditional Pittsburgh restaurant. I would go down with a sinking ship before I do that."