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The family business

They run different kinds of restaurants in different parts of the country, but these restaurant families share many of the same conflicts, challenges and joys that go along with working together in a family business. We asked them how they deal with diverse work styles, maximize individual strengths, delegate responsibilities and foster communication and trust among themselves and their employees. It’s all part of what it takes to survive and thrive in the family business.

Arpaia family

Two generations
Cellini, Davidburke &
Donatella, Anthos, Fiorini
Founded 1973, New York City
Lello Arpaia, 65, started his first restaurant in Long Island, New York, soon after emigrating from Italy. Earning acclaim, he made his move to the Big Apple, opening Lello’s in 1973. Lello’s two children continue his culinary legacy.

As kids, Dino and Donatella Arpaia “lived behind the store,” breathing in the business and the wonderful aromas emanating from their father’s Long Island restaurant. Summers were spent in Italy with their mother’s farming family. “I loved Italian food and culture, but my father discouraged me from the restaurant life,” says Donatella. “He thought it was too hard.” Instead, Dino was groomed for the business and she became a corporate attorney. Ten years ago, Dino, now 43, took over dad’s New York City restaurant, Lello’s, and re-opened it as Cellini’s. Then one night Donatella filled in as hostess. 

“My passion was instantly reignited,” she admits. So at 25, she put in a bid for a vacant restaurant space and “let fate decide.” Her bid accepted, Donatella partnered with her father and in 1998 Bellini became a reality. Five years later, she opened Davidburke & Donatella and in 2007, Anthos followed—both with partners outside the family. Father and daughter drew on each other’s strengths along the way and “remembered to keep the love there” even when things became stressful.

Gonzmart family

Five generations
Columbia Restaurant
Founded 1905, Ybor City, Florida
Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr. opened the Columbia as a café to serve Tampa’s cigar factory workers. Casimiro Jr. passed the business on to son-in-law
Cesar Gonzmart. Today, it is the world’s largest ongoing Spanish restaurant with six additional Florida locations.

It’s not for the fancy titles that five members of the Gonzmart family work long hours operating the Columbia Restaurant Group: Richard Gonzmart did away with those titles years ago. His own business card now reads “Fourth Generation” as does his brother Casey’s; Andrea Gonzmart, sister Lauren and cousin Cassandra share the title “Fifth Generation.”

“We take pride in these titles; not many companies can make the same claim,” says Richard. “Besides, it creates issues when you give family members titles.”

Now 54, Richard started working in the business at age 12, supervised by 19-year-old Casey. “I quit three times that first day,” he recalls. But the Columbia was in his blood, ever since age four when grandpa Casimiro Hernandez Jr. put him in charge of checking fish eyes for freshness. More recently, he’s “brought the restaurant into the 21st century,” preserving its legacy while meeting the desires of today’s customers with fresh touches.
His daughter Andrea, 28, has created her own legacy in the form of unique—and very profitable—retail outlets at each location. She admits that she sometimes butts heads with her dad because “we’re both very strong-willed. But we’re able to put it behind us at the end of the day and not let it affect our personal relationship.”

Monette family

Three generations
Flagstaff House
Founded 1971, Boulder, Colorado
Perched on a mountainside 6,000 feet up, Flagstaff House was originally built as a cabin in 1929. It was transformed into a summer-only restaurant in 1954 and expanded into a twice-as-large, year-round operation by current owner Don Monette in 1971.

As teenagers bussing tables at Flagstaff House, neither Mark Monette, 45, nor his brother Scott, 42, thought they would end up partnering with their father. “I never pushed them into the business,” says 70-year-old Don Monette. So Mark went off to train with a master chef in France and cook in New York City restaurants and Scott earned a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management and worked for Marriott and several fine-dining operations.

Eventually, clean Colorado living and the opportunity to join the Flagstaff House were hard to resist; Mark returned in 1985 to become executive chef and Scott moved back in 1993. “The GM had just quit and Mark asked if I could fill in for the short term,” Scott reports. “I wasn’t sure how the family thing would work out, but I gave it a try.” The first few years were the toughest, as everyone adapted to different work styles and roles. “The secret is to keep everything out in the open. If you let feelings stew, they grow into bigger problems,” he says. Adds Mark, “I helped Scott get more intense and he helped me mellow out.”

Each brother has initiated upgrades in service, menu, training and technology, and when extra help is needed, Scott and Mark’s teenage sons (including Adam, below) pitch in. Don now travels to wine auctions and food shows, confident that “my sons can carry on the legacy.”

Phillips family

Three generations
Phillips Seafood Restaurants
Founded 1956, Baltimore, Maryland
Phillips Crab House was started in Ocean City, Maryland, by Brice and Shirley Phillips as a way to sell surplus crabs from Brice’s father’s processing plant. The small carryout quickly grew to 1,400 seats, was renamed Phillips Seafood Restaurant and, over the next 51 years, expanded to nine locations along the East Coast.

The first Phillips restaurant was a seasonal operation, and second-generation Steve Phillips literally moved his wife and children into the place for the summer. Thirty-year-old Joanna Phillips starting out blowing up balloons for young customers, then moved up the ranks to prepping take-out orders and waiting tables. Today, she is director of marketing for Phillips Foods Europe—part of the global food processing and restaurant company her dad has built. Brother Aaron heads up operations in Mexico, brother Brice works in product development for Phillips Foods in the States and cousin Jeff is a chef in Ocean City.

Joanna never assumed a know-it-all attitude when she came on board full time. “I established credibility with other employees by letting them know I was there to learn and support them,” she says. Her “biggest deal” so far: developing the Phillips Website to give the company a “face.”

Sixty-year-old Steve Phillips sets a high standard for family members but also respects their differences. “I sat down with my children and clearly defined their roles and job descriptions to make sure their paths don’t overlap,” he explains. Challenges do come up, but the rewards have been “tremendous.”

Thanas family

Five generations
Lou Mitchell’s
Founded 1923, Chicago, Illinois
Founder William Mitchell’s son, Lou, remodeled and renamed the five-stool Mitchell’s in 1953, incorporating his first name. These days, patrons from near and far mob the Chicago landmark on Route 66.

Customers get free donut holes while they wait on line at Lou Mitchell’s for belly-filling breakfast skillets, blue-plate specials and overstuffed sandwiches on homemade bread. And Milk Duds are handed out to all the ladies and children. Both traditions were started by “Uncle Lou’”—a gracious, gregarious guy who was a stickler for quality. Although the second-generation restaurant owner never married, he considered the Thanas family his “cousins,” and they took over the ownership of Lou Mitchell’s in 1992.

“In Greek, we call these relatives ‘koumbari,’ which means ‘better than blood’ because they made a choice to join the family,” explains Heleen Thanas, 54. She and her 73-year-old mother, Kathryn, and 47-year-old brother, Nick, serve over 500 meals a day. They also operate a Lou Mitchell’s at Chicago’s Midway airport.

And this year, Nick’s 14-year-old daughter, Faye, began an apprenticeship.

Kathryn Thanas attributes family harmony to absolute trust in each other and an agreeable division of labor; she oversees the office and sidewalk cafe; Heleen and Nick share GM responsibilities. Kathryn’s advice: “Step back and let your children fly.” Everyone in the family is working toward the same goal, doing whatever is required and contributing their diverse talents, she adds.             

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