Joe Bastianich grew up in restaurants, ever since his parents ran Buonavia in Forest Hills, Queens. Now the prominent Restaurant Man runs Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group with acclaimed chef Mario Batali and mother Lidia Bastianich. Their restaurant portfolio spans from New York, where they run restaurants like Babbo and Del Posto, to Hong Kong, where Lupa recently debuted. They’ve also helped take Eataly global while teaming with Nancy Silverton on Mozza, which has outposts in L.A., Newport Beach and Singapore. As the business has grown, he and Batali have piled up accolades, including Bon Appetit’s 2005 Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional and the James Beard Foundation’s 2008 Outstanding Restaurateur Award. When he’s not building hit restaurants or spending time with his family, Joe Bastianich is one of the judges on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup, where he and Fort Worth restaurateur Tim Love vie to invest in viable restaurant concepts. Before the start of Season 2, I spoke with Bastianich over the phone, and he shared valuable insights.
What do you remember about your very first restaurant experience? As a customer or in your family’s restaurant, what comes to mind?
I remember coming home after grade school and coming to the restaurant and being put into the office in the basement and sleeping on bags of flour in the dry storage room until my parents picked me up and took me home after the restaurant closed.
What time would that have been, what time of night?
Two, three in the morning.
The very first restaurant you opened was with your mother, Becco? Correct?
Looking back, considering all you’ve learned over the years, what would you have done differently when opening Becco?
I would have done it exactly the same because it was a perfect restaurant, and it’s still a perfect restaurant.
What was the last restaurant you opened, and what was the biggest challenge for you?
The last restaurant I opened was in Hong Kong, and the biggest challenge was the distance.
Which was the restaurant?
Lupa Hong Kong. And to get more to the point, going to a market like China, the cultural differences come into play, and adapting Italian food for the Asian market. It’s not just the restaurant, it becomes a cultural issue, and learning how other people consume in their restaurant.
What is your favorite aspect of running restaurants?
Feeding people. You can nurture them. You can make them happy. You can bring them joy. You can, in a small way, make somebody’s day better. The restaurant business is about creating happiness. If you love to make people happy, you’re the right person for the restaurant business.
What is the one overlooked aspect of restaurant operations that too many people neglect?
That’s the whole point of the show, “Restaurant Startup.” That margin of profit or profitability is the fundamental aspect of the restaurant that people sometimes forget and why some restaurants go out of business.
Has there ever been a restaurant concept you passed on that you now regret?
Many, but I’ve also in my 30, 40 restaurants made many good decisions. You can’t do every deal.
In what ways do you and Mario Batali complement each other? Why are you such a good team?
He’s delusionally optimistic, and I’m severely realistic.
How would you characterize the Los Angeles restaurant scene, versus New York? In what ways are they similar or different?
New York’s the greatest restaurant market in the world, but Los Angeles is really in the golden era of restaurants because the ethnic diversity and the amount of young people who are doing great food. Los Angeles is a growing, cutting-edge restaurant city, and New York, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
How many more projects can you possibly take on?
I have lots coming, many more…We have Eataly Freedom Tower opening in September, Eataly Sao Paulo in April, Century City Los Angeles in ’16, and Boston in ’17. Also, Eataly London, in a partnership with Selfridges