Business lessons from Bastianich
The general public knows him as one of the judges on MasterChef, and Italians know him for his “creative” use of the Italian language. But, more than anything, Joe Bastianich is known as a man behind some of the recent successes in food and wine in Italy and the United States. In fact, today his last name is a leading “brand” in wine and fine dining in the United States.
Bastianich’s roots can be traced back to Istria, which is where his parents Lidia and Felice are from. They immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, and over the decades, they became important businesspeople in the American food world. He left his job on Wall Street as a broker for Merrill Lynch in the 1990s to transition into this business, and it seems it was a successful gamble. Today the Bastianich family manages 30 restaurants around the world — 11 in New York alone and one in Italy (called Orsone, it’s located in Cividale del Friuli, and has just reopened after a major renovation).
The family’s business ventures also include wineries in Italy and Argentina, lines of sauces and pastas, cookbooks and travel agencies. The empire has 3,000 employees and annual turnover estimated to be $250 million. According to the website Celebritynetworth.com, Bastianich himself earns about $15 million.
The businessman has worked with chef Mario Batali — as a partner in the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group — to open restaurants in New York that have gone on to become famous. These include Babbo and Del Posto. The two have also partnered with Oscar Farinetti to open new Eataly stores in the United States.
In Italy, his two companies — Società Agricola Bastianich and Bastianich Estates — reported revenue of €3.8 million and profit of €494,000 in 2015 (data from Cerved).
You are a television star, businessman and musician. Which role do you prefer?
To be honest, my favorite role is probably the one I have today. A lucky man who is able to combine his passions with business in the same life. Restaurateur, author, triathlete, television personality, musician. These are all sides of the same coin, of being myself.
What are the secrets of a successful business, especially from the financial side?
A business plan just to name one. Doing research and creating a solid financial plan is the basic first step. Many people think it is easy to open a restaurant, but, believe me, it’s anything but.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to enter into this industry?
I often tell those who would like to embark upon this type of journey to imagine having a million dollars in cash, throwing it in the street and setting it on fire. Just to give them a realistic idea of what to expect. It takes a lot of passion, but you also have to pay careful attention to your objectives and financial resources.
Did participating in MasterChef help your business?
Yes and no. A show like MasterChef certainly gives you incredible visibility, but on the other hand, it opens you up to judgment and criticism that isn’t always fair.
When I opened Orsone, some guests showed up with chronometers in hand to see how long It took to get their food on the table or have a glass filled…it certainly might have been entertaining for them to finally have the opportunity to criticize a judge, but I think that it takes all of the joy and excitement out of going to a restaurant. It is no longer a pleasure, and it isn’t a pleasure for the front of the house and kitchen team either — the people who work hard to provide an experience that they hope is always better and better.
Do you think chefs like Carlo Cracco, Antonino Cannavacciuolo and Bruno Barbieri are right in “moonlighting” by going on TV and doing commercials?
Having the opportunity to communicate about what you do is a great privilege that also brings with it a great deal of responsibility. Finding a balance is the key to success. I think it is undeniable that shows like MasterChef have helped the entire industry, from more people signing up for cooking schools to consumers putting a greater focus on food in the last few years.
How do you see the restaurant situation in Italy, especially as compared to other countries?
I think that Italian cuisine today is looking outside its borders more and more, trying to bring a more exotic and international flavor to a country that has food traditions that are beyond compare. But, if I may, I have some advice for anyone who wants to take on other cuisines aside from Italian.
Do a lot of research, travel and forget about the trends that seem to have become popular in the “Bel Paese” — from north to south — without putting the blame on any one of these trends in particular. C’mon though…maybe it’s because I’m American, but this gourmet burger trend is played out. If you want to do American cuisine, for example, there are many other things that Italians would find interesting.
Between Italy and the United States, how many restaurants and companies do you manage?
My partners and I manage more than 30 restaurants in the world. Not counting the role I play at Ricci in Milan, we only have one in Europe: Orsone in Cividale del Friuli, overlooking the vineyards of our family winery.
How did you get Americans to fall in love with Italian wine?
I think we took the most important step in 1993 when we opened Becco. We had a wine list with a selection of all Italian wines at a set price of $15, which was an incredibly low price for a wine served in a fine restaurant in New York. So we introduced Americans to the Italian wine market, even small producers or unknown labels, allowing them to try different types of wine. What’s more, I don’t think there’s anybody in New York who has opened more bottles of wine from the Friuli region than I have. In terms of the most popular labels, the big wines from Piedmont – including vintage wines – can’t be beat.
You and Mario Batali are partners in Eataly in the U.S. Did you expect this success?
We knew that the opening of the first Eataly in New York would be a success, but we certainly would have never imagined just how successful it has been. In the last few months, Eataly – and my mother Lidia is also a partner — has opened in Chicago, San Paolo and, recently, we’ve also opened a second store in Manhattan. Then Boston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Toronto…
Oscar Farinetti has said that you are thinking about joining together to create a company in the United States. Why?
The idea behind that is to create a global team in order to be able to work in a unified way on projects.
What did you learn from your parents about business? Is it that the American Dream comes true?
In our case, absolutely. Keep in mind that my family were Istrian exiles, forced to leave their land after the war in order to make a future for themselves. This is especially true for my grandmother and my mother who really went through a lot. Since they came to America (Lidia, my mother, was only eight), they’ve done everything to give me and my sister Tanya a better life. I owe them a lot, and they are still my greatest source of inspiration today.
What has changed about the new Orsone after the big renovation?
After three years of this wonderful adventure in Friuli Venezia Giulia, we decided to make a change, getting back into the game, by coming up with a new concept that combines our personalities, mixing past and present, tradition and innovation, local characteristics and an international focus. We wanted to reopen the doors with a new idea, a place for everyone that could be frequented all day, welcoming those that are looking for a quick lunch at an affordable price, those that want to end the day with a drink in front of the fire or in the garden as well as those that want to enjoy a hamburger and a beer or a complete dinner with a vintage wine. They could even stay overnight in our bed & breakfast. This is a new challenge that we couldn’t wait to get started on.
Do you have other projects in the works?
In 2013, my family and I created the Bastianich Scholarship Fund. This is a fundraising event held every year at Del Posto to help provide disadvantaged kids with scholarships to the Fordham Preparatory School, which is where I went. It is one of the best schools in New York City, and is located in the Bronx. So far, we’ve been able to send four students through all four years. Another charity initiative we started in 2014 in Italy is the Bastianich Music Festival. This event takes place in Cividale del Friuli the first weekend in August, and it combines the tradition of American music festivals with the local traditions of Friuli (especially winemaking considering the festival takes place in Bastianich’s winery).