Gino Reale knew what it meant to work hard. Growing up in New York, he remembers how his father, because of a limited education, couldn't ever seem to find a decent job. And he recalls how the entire family moved down to Texas in 1981 to make a better life, which meant opening a small pizzeria. A relative held every job in the place, including Gino, then 15 and elbow-deep in dish suds. "We worked 24/7," Reale says, "and killed ourselves." The family had what Reale tactfully calls a "leave of absence" in 1988, but by 1994, they were back in the biz, eventually opening Reale's Pizza & Cafe, today one of the most popular Italian restaurants in Austin.
Yet all the hard knocks were still barely preparation for what happened two years ago. First, a Tony Roma's opened its doors just down the street. Then an Olive Garden cut the ribbon. Not long after, a Carrabba's sprouted around the corner, and then a Zio's. A Buca di Beppo down the road completed the assault. "It was an explosion," Reale remembers. "Suddenly I've got five Italian chain restaurants around me."
Which is to say, suddenly Reale and his family had a big problem. They needed a plan, but that wasn't easy. After all, there was no way an indie of their size could match the capitalization of a national chain, nor the money it spends on real estate, marketing, or menu development. So this family restaurateur decided to use the only weapon he did have—his family.
Because Reale is of the firm opinion that "real Italian food is made by real Italians," he decided to take that message to the public. He made it clear to them that if they wanted a convenient bite, they could go to the chains, but if they wanted truly authentic Italian fare, they'd have to come to him. "These are my family's recipes," he says. "Half my family's from Sicily and the other half's from Naples." Both of Reale's parents still work in the restaurant, as do his wife, three sisters, and aunt. "I like to say that my family is on the menu," he adds.
Reale came up with catchy phrases the public would remember, including "Your Home Away from Rome," and spent $10,000 on a homespun TV ad that starred his relatives in their roles of cooks, seaters, and greeters. "Every morning, we're here," he says. "They see me standing up and say, 'Hey, that's the owner.' People see that we're real people. Who is Carrabba? Who is Olive Garden?"
Reale's spots ran for seven months, spurred on by the 30% dip in business he felt immediately after the chains first opened. But after that, Reale's numbers began inching up. Today, he's seeing 10% year-over-year revenue increases. Reale says that the public understands the difference between a chain and an indie, and will go out of their way for something authentic. "People feel a sense of ownership with us," he says. "We're a unique restaurant. We're the real deal."