July-August 2020

Bethesda Interview: Riccardo and Roberto Pietrobono

The brothers who own Olazzo, Gringos & Mariachis and Alatri Bros. talk about the stress of the pandemic, pivoting to takeout, and how they’re handling the county’s phased reopening

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Riccardo (left) and Roberto Pietrobono at Alatri Bros. in Bethesda. Photo by Violetta Markelou

On the morning of May 15, the temperature was heading toward the mid-80s on the kind of sunny spring day when, in the before times, public spaces would typically fill with people jogging, strolling, window-shopping and gathering at sidewalk cafes to have lunch, sip cocktails or scroll through Twitter. Brothers Riccardo and Roberto Pietrobono would be getting ready for brisk Friday business at their five eateries: Olazzo in Bethesda and Silver Spring; Gringos & Mariachis in Bethesda and Potomac; and Alatri Bros. in Bethesda.

Instead, the restaurateurs were preparing for an 11 a.m. Zoom interview to discuss how things have been going since Gov. Larry Hogan shut down on-site dining in Maryland restaurants and bars on March 16 because of COVID-19. Among the topics of conversation was the financial assistance that’s been provided to some restaurants through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The Pietrobonos had received PPP funds for each of their five restaurants five weeks earlier.

Roberto, 48, and Riccardo, 42, are first-generation Americans—their parents, Renato and Iole, now divorced, are both from Alatri, Italy. The family lived in Wheaton until 1977, when they moved to Glenmont. Their older brother, 51-year-old Romano, is in construction. That came in handy—as did Renato’s trade, bricklaying—when renovating the five restaurants, saving them money that would otherwise have gone to outside contractors. Roberto caught the restaurant bug at 14, when he started working as a dishwasher at a restaurant near their house. He was a server for more than a decade at various restaurants, among them Mamma Lucia in Rockville and The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Washington, D.C. Riccardo was drawn to cooking as a kid because Jack Tripper, the main character on Three’s Company, was a chef. When Roberto opened the first Olazzo, in Bethesda in 2002, he roped Riccardo into being the chef there.

Roberto has a hand in all of the decision-making for the businesses. He participated in the Zoom interview from the back steps of the family beach house in Ocean City, Maryland, where he’s building a basement apartment. “My dad has diabetes and is high risk, so he has been pretty much isolated [in Glenmont]. The apartment is a way for him to get out of the house and do something.” Roberto’s three-hour drive to and from his 16th Street Heights home in D.C. gives him the opportunity to listen to music and try, usually without success, to take his mind off the possibility that he’s going to lose everything he started 18 years ago.

Riccardo mostly oversees back-of-the-house operations for the two Olazzos. During the Zoom, he sat on the living room sofa in the Bethesda home he shares with his wife, Marissa, and their 10-month-old daughter, Everly. He got up that morning at 6:30, when Everly did, and took care of her until Marissa came down to feed her and start her workday, now from home, as a project manager for the State Department. Riccardo usually gets to Olazzo Bethesda around 12:30, but that day he had to go in early. “We don’t have a manager now. I had to be there for the seafood delivery. We don’t have a nanny anymore, so I come home when Marissa takes calls for work,” he says. Then his job is to play with Everly, whose current favorite pastimes are banging blocks together and doing housework. “She has a cloth and loves wiping stuff.”

After the mid-May interview, Bethesda Magazine spoke with Riccardo and Roberto again on June 4, a few days after Montgomery County began Phase 1 of its reopening, which allowed restaurants to offer outdoor dining if they followed certain guidelines, such as social distancing.

How did you get into the restaurant business?

Roberto: I was living in Huntington Beach, California, from 1998 to 2001 doing day trading, but also working as a server in a friend’s restaurant there. I came back to Maryland because I wanted to open a sushi place. But then I realized we should do what we know. We grew up eating pasta six out of seven nights a week.

Riccardo: I had been out to California to visit Roberto and started working in the kitchen of the restaurant that our friends opened with their mom. Roberto was best friends with the older brother, and I was best friends with the younger brother. A lot of their mom’s recipes are now on the Olazzo menus. When we opened Olazzo, I was still at the University of Maryland. I finished my B.S. in marketing while at the restaurant.

Do you own any of your restaurants’ buildings?

Roberto: Our family owns the building that Gringos Bethesda and Alatri are in. It’s one building divided into two restaurants. The landlord in Park Potomac is Foulger-Pratt. In Silver Spring, it’s Wolpoff Properties. At Olazzo Bethesda, we expanded next door, so there are two individual buildings and two different landlords, run by Conley Management. We own the restaurants, but have a partner, Marc Miranian, in the two Gringos & Mariachis. Marc, who’s a good friend, really runs a majority of the Gringos operations day to day. He’s the one keeping it together through all this.

How were things before COVID-19?

Roberto: A couple of the restaurants weren’t doing great. In Silver Spring, they were doing a big construction job for the last two years, so we basically had no parking there. Alatri took a little while to pick up business. We’ve never been the best at social media and promoting ourselves—we always depended on word of mouth—and never really did much advertising.

When did you become aware of the virus?

Roberto: In late January, I knew there was something going on. Half of our family is in Italy, and we were talking to them. It was coming in Seattle. It was a slow process, but you knew it was going to come. You were just hoping that you could stay open until it would be locked down. It was a nervous situation. We have family members in Italy who had the virus…that made it very real for us.

Did you start to prepare before Gov. Hogan closed restaurants on March 16?

Roberto: We were telling staff in those two weeks before the shutdown that we can shut down any day, so make sure you save your money. That was over two months ago, so nobody really knew the seriousness of it to that extent. Dr. [Anthony] Fauci on March 8 said you should not be wearing face masks.

Walk us through the shutdown.

Roberto: We furloughed most of the front-of-the-house staff right away. We were told it was better to do that because they could collect unemployment. Otherwise, you’re stringing them along and they’re not making any money. You become the shell of the company that you were because you’re taking off most of your staff to try and stay open, and you don’t have any income coming in because business is dropping off 80%, 90% the first week. Now it’s consistently about 70%. Obviously, you can’t support people like that, so you furlough them. That’s what many restaurants did. You look at [famed New York restaurateur] Danny Meyer—he shut down right away, and he has the best lawyers, so you think they know something you don’t know. You were just out there fending for yourself and being like a detective figuring out how to protect businesses and staff.

Riccardo: [State officials] basically told us that day that at 5 o’clock [p.m.], you’re done with on-site dining. Takeout was still allowed. We were worried about the inventory. We ended up doing a 30% discount to try to get rid of stuff. And [did] donations. There was a lot of uncertainty, and you didn’t know if you were going to be shut down completely at some point. Then distributors started cutting back on their delivery days, raising their minimums, and they were out of product. After the first couple of weeks doing takeout, I found myself going to [wholesale food supplier] Restaurant Depot often and limiting the menu as much as we could. But we’re getting used to it. Meat prices have gone up a lot. You just hope that the supply chain keeps coming. Maybe you have to double your order so you don’t wind up being out of something. When your business drops 80% and your food costs go up, that’s another problem. And it’s hard to get to-go packaging. You have to order a ton of it, and the suppliers don’t have it.

How many people were on the payroll before?

Roberto: Approximately 100 on the payroll among the five restaurants. Now it’s probably between 50 and 60. People are getting over $1,000 a week on unemployment, guaranteed until the end of July. Some people told me that collecting unemployment isn’t who they are—they want to work. Some people chose not to work because they’re looking out for their health or they have parents at home. Some people decided to take a break or might have been in school, so collecting unemployment was the right decision for them.

Did you experience anything like the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief as you processed the impact of this virus?

Roberto: Yes. The fact of the matter is, in four or five months you don’t know if it is going to reoccur. I personally have thought about walking. Up to four of my five restaurants. Just walking. Quitting. It’s not what I signed up for. Hire, rehire, this and that. It’s not what anybody signed up for, but it’s definitely not what I signed up for. I don’t want to run a grocery store. I signed up to open a restaurant. There’s [business interruption] insurance that we paid that at this point they’re not covering, and I’m not optimistic that they will.

How do you deal with the stress and maintain perspective?

Riccardo: I’m trying to deal with multiple restaurants and juggle the family life at home. My wife is scared that I’m going to get the virus at work and bring it home. It’s a lot of stress on everybody, but you can’t be stressed out in front of your child, you know, so having Everly—playing with her and taking care of her—is a stress reliever.

Roberto: Before all this, I was starting to get into spiritual health and meditation. I decided to start one new thing a week, like taking up salsa dancing and learning to play guitar, to keep my mind active and have less stress. And then [the virus] came. The idea of this virus affects your mental health. I want to get back into those things I was doing to relieve the stress, but there’s no time right now.

You kept all five of your restaurants open by pivoting to takeout.

Roberto: We always had takeout. It wasn’t the biggest part of our business, but we’ve always had it. It may have been easier for us to shut down, maybe even collect unemployment ourselves. But you know what? There are people who depend on the business, and remember, at the time there was talk of opening up on Easter. You just didn’t know. So if you can keep it going and maintain that continuity then that, to me, seems to be the best of a worst scenario.

You have a loyal clientele. Have they been helpful?

Roberto: Very. They’ve been very generous with tips. If it wasn’t for that, we would not have been able to supplement the income the servers, bussers and bartenders make. Their jobs changed to handling phone calls, taking [takeout]orders, packaging food. Before the virus, the hourly wage for tipped workers was around $6. We had to raise it to $15 to $20 an hour to make it worth people’s while to work rather than go on unemployment. But then the tips were so good that we could adjust that rate, because there’s no way we could have maintained that higher hourly rate indefinitely.

How have your landlords been?

Roberto: It’s still up in the air, to be honest with you, because of the PPP money. I’m not one to ask for anything, but a few have been a little bit more generous than others, say with rent abatement for a month. One said, ‘Pay what you can pay.’ Some haven’t done anything—no reprieve, no help. But you don’t know what’s going through the landlord’s mind. You say, ‘You know, he should be giving a break,’ but being a landlord is its own business, too. If I’m in their position, do I do anything?

There are issues with the PPP…

Roberto: Big issues. We’re in week five of [our] PPP, and not even the best accountant in the world knows what’s going to happen because they’re changing the laws all the time. Like right now, the new one they’re trying to pass will extend it to January. But people who have gotten the PPP were told they had eight weeks to rehire 75% of your staff, and 75% of the money had to be for payroll and the other 25% was going to your landlord and utilities. It should be used to cover being coronavirus compliant. The hand sanitizer things cost, like, 250 bucks each, for example. There’s another stress because I don’t want a loan. I’d rather not have it if I’m going to owe someone money. I don’t really blame people; it was [a program] made overnight. But if they don’t change it, come July there is going to be a big catastrophe because that’s the only reason restaurants are open at this point.

You have been critical in the past of the county’s Alcohol Beverage Services department (formerly the DLC). How would you rate the service of ABS during the pandemic so far?

Roberto: I think they’ve been very helpful. They allowed carryout cocktails. They’re going to allow drinking [in] the streets. I appreciate that they’re trying to do that for us. We had our initial meeting about closing off the streets and having restaurant seating. You know what’s going to happen. There are going to be people sitting on the street, people are going to walk by and say, ‘Hey! I haven’t seen you in forever!’ What are you supposed to do? Walk on by? No. It’s going to be people congregating. Then people will take pictures [and post them to social media] and say this is what’s happening, and then they’re going to get backlash for helping us out. But I need to expand our seating in order for us to survive, so there’s no right answer.

What else should government do to help restaurants stay afloat?

Roberto: More money needs to be paid out in PPP for it to have any relevance. At the very least, it needs to be extended. The county should give owners multiple tax breaks. Not just some chickens*** tax breaks—real tax breaks. The [ABS] should give licensees 50% off all purchases. Through this pandemic, their sales are going through the roof. Creating a big discount on liquor that would increase profits would give owners a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a small one. The state needs to loosen restrictions on what alcohol companies can give to restaurants as giveaways.

What will reopening look like for you?

Roberto: We probably won’t reopen Silver Spring in the summer. That will be takeout for the foreseeable future. Potomac has [a] big outdoor space, and so do the Bethesda places if they open the streets. As far as specifics, it’s hard to plan when there aren’t guidelines, or they change all the time. We’re trying to look ahead. Customers will go where they trust the most. We got masks and gloves, but a face shield does a better job of covering everything, so we already have branded face shields. That sucks because a lot of these kitchens are really hot, with no ventilation.

Riccardo: They get fogged up, too.

Roberto: Do dividers make people safer, or do they cause more germs? Until there is clarification, to chop up your restaurant into plexiglass segments doesn’t make sense. I assume the first phase won’t have any bar seating. If there will be bar seating and it’s 6 feet apart, that would be three seats in our bars and it’s not worth it, so we won’t have any bar seating at all. What you have to do to outfit for reopening is very expensive.

Riccardo: And is it worth it, all the money you’re going to spend to set up a restaurant to have six tables a night?

As people get comfortable, there could be social distancing issues…

Roberto: People are shaming restaurants. Like down in D.C., [people] posted pictures [of crowds] congregating outside Red Light and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, but when you’re running on a shell of a staff and you have, say, two people taking orders, you can’t have people going outside and telling people to move. They’re going to say, ‘F*** off!’ What are the restaurants supposed to do? Tell grown people to move every five minutes? We’re running on 80% less than we were, so where are you finding these people to be like crossing guards? That’s not our job.

Have 18 years of experience given you an edge over other restaurants, in terms of staying open?

Roberto: We’re probably in a better position than a lot of restaurants. Say a restaurant just opened, spent a million dollars, which is normal, and they spent their whole life savings and they opened three months before this and all of a sudden they owe their landlords. And most of the landlords aren’t giving any breaks. You have personal guarantees on some of these leases. And some of these landlords are pretty vicious. They’ll hold you to it, they’ll sue, and then not only are you going out of business now, you are under a personal guarantee for the extent of that lease, which puts you in an awful position. You’re destroying a livelihood forever. And you’re telling me you’re not going to have mental duress in that situation? I would think about jumping off a bridge myself. Sometimes you have to be thankful for the terrible position you’re in. People getting the coronavirus and dying are a lot worse [off].

As brothers, do you always agree?

Roberto: They always say working with your family is tough. If you get along with your partner every day, you’re in the minority, whether they’re family or not. You’re making the best of bad decisions. You have one of us saying, ‘Why not just shut it down?’ The other wants to stay open. But who’s to say the one that wants to shut it down isn’t right? Everyone has an opinion about everything. You can’t say who’s right and who’s wrong, but yes, it puts a strain on [the relationship]. It has made the business a lot harder to operate.
Riccardo: You’re brothers, so you try to work through it the best you can. We argue more because we’re brothers, and we trust each other more because we’re brothers.

When you were allowed to offer outdoor seating in June, which patios did you open?

Roberto: Only the two Gringos & Mariachis locations. Because of table spacing, observing 6-foot distancing, it makes no sense for us to open the patios at the other restaurants. At Olazzo in Silver Spring, we’d only be able to have one or two tables for two and maybe two tables at Olazzo in Bethesda. Should I bring in a server for two tables? We combine the Alatri Bros. patio with the [adjacent] Gringos patio in Bethesda. With distancing, we have about 30 seats at nine tables there now. A little more than that at Park Potomac. We don’t seat parties over four people. Our policy is to do a 90-minute limit per table when we have a wait, which we haven’t had yet.

What precautions are you taking?

Roberto: The customers wear masks for the most part. Servers have to wear them, and gloves. Some staff wear face shields—that’s up to them. In the summertime, that will get hot for everyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people passed out at some of these places. We offer single-use menus or a QR code to scan. We give the option of sealed plasticware or individualized silverware in paper bag wrapping. We offer plastic or glassware. We decided to do first come, first served—taking reservations doesn’t make sense with just nine tables.

How is it going?

Roberto: We’re trying to see what the demand is. Our friends with [reopened] restaurants in other states say it started out slow, but people become more comfortable going out. Right now, we are open from 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 9:30 on Saturday and Sunday, but our hours have changed, like, three times over the last two months. It hasn’t been that busy and we’re fine with that. We didn’t really promote it too much because we didn’t want to be overwhelmed. Plus, there were protests going on [after the death of George Floyd during a police arrest in Minneapolis]. A lot of restaurants were boarding up and not even opening, because nobody knew what to expect. We opened, and everything was fine. People are just happy to sit outside.

In this area, spring and summer rain has always been a problem for outdoor seating, but it’s another disaster when you have only outdoor seating.

Roberto: Correct. The public is congratulating us like it’s a grand reopening. In reality, it’s more juggling staff, more unknowns. It’s like giving us crumbs, and we should thank [County Executive Marc] Elrich? For some restaurants, it’s no crumbs at all. It needs to open up. It’s the best of the bad answers.

Food writer and cookbook author David Hagedorn is Bethesda Magazine’s restaurant critic. The Bethesda Interview is edited for length and clarity.