Family-owned restaurants in the Woodmont Triangle section of Bethesda have relationships with customers that span decades.
But many of the small, family-owned spots lack the marketing budgets to generate new customers, so they brainstorm inexpensive ways to get the word out. “Even with 20 years at the same location, people come in and say, ‘I didn’t know you were here’—and they live in Bethesda,” says Amsellem of Tragara. “You have to put your name everywhere.” Amsellem is thinking about using e-mail to inform regular customers about specials or upcoming events.
Traettino, owner of Positano, has purchased a 25-acre farm near Tappahannock, Va., where he grows 10 varieties of grapes. He hopes to open a winery and to sell the wine he’ll make at his Bethesda restaurant. That, he believes, will attract attention—and customers. Trattoria Sorrento has “opera night” the first Thursday of every month. Soprano Diane Abel invites the crowd to join in and sing with her.
Greg Hourigan, the owner of Hard Times Cafe, says he sponsored more than 45 fundraisers in 2007, gave away scores of gift certificates for school and church auctions, and he reels off a list of the local schools he regularly supports. “On weekends, I have a wait for high chairs and boosters. It’s like a kindergarten in here,” Hourigan says. “We’ve found our niche and become a neighborhood place.”
Once the small restaurants get new customers, they say they keep them with a combination of good food and a warm, inviting atmosphere. “You don’t just come for the food,” Dahan says. “It’s the service— the experience of coming to Le Vieux Logis. People become friends, not just customers.”
Says Namin, of Red Tomato Café: “Customers look for a place they can put on their weekly route. It’s up to you to keep your customers on a weekly basis. We recognize our regular customers, we’re familiar with their special needs; that’s how we can separate ourselves and can survive with chains.”
‘We’re like their family’
It’s 9:45 p.m. on a Friday, and the dinner scene at Sorrento is winding down. Dominic Sergi, the owner’s son-in-law, has pulled up a chair at the end of the table where Mary and Mario Bruno of Olney have finished their dinner in the now-nearly- empty restaurant. Dominic’s wife, Melinda, is still waiting on customers as the Brunos describe the fresh food and warm welcome they’ve enjoyed consistently since they started coming to the restaurant about 15 years ago. Sofia Sergi, 5, wants to know how old she was then. “That was before you were even born,” her father says. That gets her attention.
As Dominic starts to recount his father-in-law Carlo Di Simone’s story of coming to the U.S. from Italy and eventually opening a succession of Italian restaurants—including Sorrento—Sofia goes to get “the book.” The leather-bound album contains photos of Di Simone and his ice sculptures, wedding cakes and other creations when he worked for Braun’s Fine Catering in Hyattsville from 1968 to 1971. Sofia picks up the narration as the Brunos nod knowingly. Says Mary Bruno: “It’s not like a business. We’re like their family.”
At Tia Queta on a Monday night, the Ireland family of Bethesda has stopped in for a bite. When Ann Ireland delivered daughter Evelyn 12 years ago, her husband, Patrick, brought Tia Queta carryout to her at Georgetown University Hospital. “We used to bring her in the baby carrier and put her on the table,” Ann says, gesturing at Evelyn.
Melissa Ballinger, a Bethesda resident, wanted to open a restaurant in her own community, and was drawn to Woodmont Triangle’s eclectic feel when she established Mia’s Pizzas in 2006.
Her lively restaurant is filled with families munching on her creative pizzas and cupcakes. “People come in and see their neighbors and friends. It’s an atmosphere of, ‘Hey, how are you?’” Ballinger says. She has met many of her neighbors by chatting with her customers. “I’ll tell them where I live, and they say, ‘That’s where I live!’ They say, ‘Oh, you have the dogs!’ ”
Tolling away, night and day owning a restaurant is hard work. Many owners work seven days a week. Some simply laugh when asked about vacations. The first time Montesinos and his wife, Mary Ellen Lee, tried to get away after opening Tia Queta, they got as far as the airport in Longboat Key, Fla. They arrived to find a message that their chef was in the hospital with appendicitis. Montesinos flew home. “That set the course,” Lee says. “After that, we knew we could expect anything.”
Because of the demands of the job, many small-restaurant owners say their kids aren’t interested in taking over the family business. After Montesinos spent two decades of paying for private school and then college tuition for his two sons, his burden is about to ease. His oldest, Roberto, 25, will graduate from law school at Boston College in late May. Son Andrew, 21, is a junior studying political science at Vanderbilt University. The boys are not interested in going into the restaurant business, and that’s fine with Montesinos and Lee.
After years of working from dawn to late in the night, “it’s time for us to enjoy a little bit,” Montesinos says. “One of my goals was to see my kids graduate; then things will be easier [financially]. I don’t want to sell my building, but if some guy wants to rent my restaurant, that would be fine. Let us see what happens.”
Bethesda resident Lisa Nevans Locke has written for The Washington Times, New York Daily News and Journal newspapers, and is co-editor of Going Places with Children in Washington, D.C.