Friday, June 12, 2009 | 3 a.m.
Joe Bastianich doesn’t wear Crocs or have a famous catchphrase, but he is one of the most influential restaurateurs in the country.
B&B Hospitality, which he owns with celebrity Chef Mario Batali and his mother, Lidia Bastianich, has some of the most popular restaurants on the Strip.
He talked to In Business Las Vegas about his philosophy, which includes creating an authentic Italian dining experience with fine wine as an integral part of the meal.
IBLV: Let’s start with a brief background on you and the company.
Bastianich: We have a restaurant company called B&B Hospitality Group, which is Mario Batali, my mother, Lidia Bastianich, and myself. Together and separately we own about 20 restaurants throughout the United States, mostly in the New York City tri-state area, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
We have three restaurants in Las Vegas, and we started here about four years ago. We have two restaurants in the Venetian, one called B&B Ristorante and another, Enoteca San Marco, and Carnevino Italian Steakhouse in the Palazzo.
More than probably anyone else, you have cultivated the marriage of wine and food. Can you talk about that?
I think, being Italian and living in Italy, the sensibility of Italian food and wine at the table is kind of the way it’s supposed to be done. In our restaurants we’ve taken things that are very prominent in the Italian culture and turned them into businesses. Really promoting, in the restaurant setting, the consumption of food and wine together as an experience. Whether it is in the most casual setting such as a wine bar or in a more formal setting like a steak house, it’s always about the culture of food and wine at the table. It’s very Italian. It’s the way things should be done.
Which came first, your interest in wine or your interest in food?
Well, both actually. My parents immigrated to the United States after World War II. They made wine and had restaurants. My grandfather and his father all made wine, so wine was always an integral part of our lifestyle. We came here, we were immigrants, and my father and mother started doing the only jobs they knew how to do, which was working as waitresses and cooks in restaurants. They opened their first restaurant in Queens in 1968, the year I was born, and I literally grew up in restaurants. That was our way of life. We didn’t go home after school; we went to the restaurant. We worked in the restaurant, we ate in the restaurant and kind of all I ever knew was restaurants.
I went to college and after a brief stint on Wall Street got back into restaurants. I really fell in love with wine when I was young, living in Italy and learning how to make wine. I almost saw the restaurants as my vehicle to getting into the wine world. That was my strategy — to approach the wine world through restaurants — and that’s what I did. I opened my first restaurant in 1991, Becco Restaurant in Manhattan, the theater district. Then I started hooking up with Mario (Batali) in 1997. We opened Babbo (Ristorante in New York) in 1998.
I went back to Fruili, which is the region where my parents came from in Italy. I was able to buy some ancestral vineyards, put some properties together and start making wine. I made my first commercial vintage in 1998 under the Bastianich label, and then it went on from there. In 2000 we acquired a property in southern Tuscany and started making wine there in 2001. Then we had a project in Argentina, a joint venture that happened in 2004. And just last week we acquired another property in Barolo LaMora (Italy), a property called Brandini. So the wine thing just keeps rolling on, as do the restaurants. And there are more things coming in Vegas, too.
It’s got to be very rewarding to go back to your ancestral home and do this kind of work.
It’s great. It’s allowed me to kind of come full circle and reconnect with where my family came from. Not just for me, because I’ve always kind of had an affinity for it, but to keep my kids really tied in. Wine is one of those things that speaks transgenerationally, and it really takes them from the crazy Manhattan world because we live in Italy during the summer, and it takes them back to where their roots are.
What is it about wine that makes people so passionate about it?
It’s one of those things in life that is truly represented on many levels, aside from being a beverage that you can have with or without food. It’s intellectual in your ability to understand it. You have to learn another language to speak about it. To truly understand it, you have to understand the socio-economic history of the world and the wine region, so it involves education. It kind of brings together the best of what’s out there in the world. It’s a common denominator that unifies so many people who have the passion and pursuit of it, because you truly do fall in love with it. Wine itself is alive in the bottle and evolves and is a living thing. On the winemaking side I think that the cycle of the vine and winemaking is maybe one of the only things in life that kind of transcends our own humanity in the sense that the cycle is longer and bigger than we are. Everything in our life is about immediacy, tomorrow, today, the next hour. Instead of being the master of our universe, it’s something that we can observe and partake in instead of controlling, and I think that’s powerful.
How did the partnership with Mario Batali come about?
We were both living in Italy in the ’80s, he was cooking and I was making wine, and we knew each other. We used to hang out in the early ’90s; he had a small restaurant, I had a small restaurant and we kind of got together in ’96 or ’97 to do Babbo, which was our first joint venture. It was a dream — like what if we could do the perfect restaurant?
How often do you get to Las Vegas?
I try to get here about once a month. I swing through Los Angeles, so I have a whole loop I do out here.
What is your role in the restaurants?
I always come from the wine side. Mario takes care of the food and the kitchen. My real role is kind of like CFO of development, you know, all of the (stuff) that I don’t want to do, but I have to do now that the company is so big. What I would love to do is be like the wine guy: Direct and help stylize all of the wine lists and wine experiences at the various restaurants. Service and conceptualize new experiences in food and wine, be creative on the dining room floor. That’s what I’d love to do.
You are well known within the industry, but clearly Mario is the face of the business. Are you OK with that or have you thought about raising your profile a little bit?
Oh yeah, it’s perfect. We have a good relationship because I don’t want to be him and he doesn’t want to be me and that really makes it work.
How has the Las Vegas market been for you?
You know, it’s been challenging, but we’ve been surprised at how resilient the restaurants have been compared to everything else we hear around town. We’re still going to make good margin, and I think this kind of shakeout is good. The cream will rise to the top, and people who really know how to run restaurants will be standing. We’ll consolidate our consumer base, and the market will turn around and we’ll be in a better position to take advantage of it. We’ve been through this before. I’ve been running restaurants for a long time.
Has the economy affected covers or your average check size?
Average checks are definitely down; big bottle sales are down, big wine sales. Average checks are down countrywide; people are spending less. It’s down categorically, so it’s not so bad and it could be worse. You can try to build your client base, reward them and do everything you can do to make people come back to your restaurant and when they are there, you get blown away.
Have you made any adjustments to the business model because of the economy?
We’ve lowered some price points on wine and foods and maybe some value — priced deals like the burger bar. Just trying to make things more accessible for people at different price points.
Are there a lot of comps in your restaurants here?
I think through the casino hosts they take care of the high rollers, but I’m a little naive to the whole comp world out here. I come from the school where this is what we do for a living and we don’t give it away. To give it away devalues it, and if it is truly good, you don’t give it away.
How is this market different from your other markets — New York and Los Angeles for instance?
Oh, it’s so different and there is a lot to learn about it. It’s almost counterintuitive. What you think about Vegas in the beginning winds up being just the opposite. It is about word-of-mouth, there are a lot of regulars who come back every year. It is about product consistency. It’s not like there is a whole new batch of fresh faces who are going to eat in your restaurant every night. It’s a lot like running a quality restaurant anywhere else. You have to give people a quality experience every time because they are going to come back and they are going to tell their friends, and that’s what builds the business.
These are upscale properties in Las Vegas, but it is a different business model because there are a lot of conventiongoers through the week. But on the weekend it’s more of a VIP crowd. How do you cater to both?
I think everyone is a VIP in Vegas, even more so than in New York. Whether it’s the conventioneer, because he is trying to impress a customer or the weekender because he is here to party. I think people come here because they want to be treated well, and in New York it’s not like that all the time. A lot of times in New York people want to be left alone, and here we’ve found that people really want to be acknowledged and they want that VIP treatment, and we’re all about giving it to them.
There are some new resorts coming on line by the end of the year in Las Vegas: CityCenter is almost assured now and possibly Fontainebleau as well, although that is a little less certain. Are you concerned about added competition in a down economy?
People are going to places that they know. What we’ve found in New York is that the first thing people cut are the new experiences. They go to places where they’ve been that have a track record before they go try something new. So to open up in this market is something that would be very difficult. Of course, it depends on the price point. We are not doing anything over there, we are doing another thing here with Nancy Silverton, our partner from Los Angeles, a kind of luncheonette style, in the Venetian and that should hit in about a year.
What other opportunities are you looking at here?
We’re looking because these are when the best deals are getting done. Of course, this economy is going to turn around and we plan to be there in a year or two when it does. It takes a certain amount of brass balls to think about making huge financial commitments and signing leases when the economy is in this kind of situation, but it always has turned around and I’m sure it will again.
What makes for a great night in the restaurant business?
You have a great night when the restaurants are buzzing and you’re doing business, and everything’s firing. Good bottles are going out, people are laughing and having a good time, the room looks bright and there are a lot of hot women and a good-looking crowd. If at the end of the night everyone is happy and had a good time and you’ve kind of orchestrated it, there is a lot of satisfaction in that. That’s the best moments of being a restaurateur: When you sit back at the bar and have a glass of wine after a night like that, that’s a high point.
If ever there was a Renaissance man, it’s you. With the food and wine and the intercontinental lifestyle, you’ve got it pretty good, don’t you?
I’m just lucky that I get to work at all these cool things. I get to make a living in a real way doing the things that I love with the people that I love. So I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world.
Are you a whimsical guy? Do you decide to just do things on the spur of the moment or is it planned?
I think there is a lot of fantasy in how we conceptualize these things, but it is rooted in the experience and knowledge of what it takes to do it right. I think our restaurants are fun and interesting because they trade between whimsy and reality. When those two come together in the right way, that’s when you have a fabulous restaurant. Restaurants are entertainment, at the end of the day.
What’s next for you?
We are opening two restaurants in Singapore with the Sands folks, so that’s pretty exciting. We’re opening up a Mozza Pizzeria in Corona Del Mar in Orange County (California) and a fabulous new concept in Manhattan called Eataly, which is a risto-market. Imagine an 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods with all the various departments, but with all Italian focus, and each department has its own restaurant.
Is this a one-off or a concept for something bigger?
One exists in Italy and one exists in Tokyo; we’re doing the first one in New York. It’s kind of a whole new way of reconceptualizing what it is to dine and to shop.
What has been your experience working with Las Vegas Sands (executives)?
They have gone through some difficult times, but they’ve always been very fair to us. We deal with Rob Goldstein, who is a senior vice president, and he’s been supportive and we appreciate their friendship and partnership going forward. We wouldn’t do restaurants with them if we didn’t. We have the three restaurants here that they are partners in, so we’re very closely associated with them and they are good people going through tough times like everyone else.
Any parting comments?
I’d like to end it on a note of optimism in the sense that we are all here busting our (behinds) because we think this market will turn around. I love Vegas because it’s the perfect product; it’s what people need. I love to come out here and I think everyone does. Vegas of today is so fine-tuned and so evolved to give people what they want that it’s too strong of a concept to be down for very long.