The team behind Carrabba’s is creating success in changing times (PHOTOS)

Mandola’s Italian Kitchen is a new restaurant concept from Damian Mandola and Paul Avery, the team behind the success of Carrabba’s Italian Grill in the 1990s. Today’s consumer is different, the economy is recovering from the coronavirus pandemic and restaurants are closing in record numbers.

To open a new concept, with plans for multi-state expansion, is now a bigger challenge than it was 25 years ago. Yet Avery and Mandola are convinced they have a winning formula and are willing to gamble on it. They also have industry experience, and the confidence needed, to make it pay off.

A recently released study by the National Restaurant Association reported one in every six restaurants, across the country, has closed long-term or permanently. Additionally, findings show the restaurant industry lost $165 billion from March through July and is on pace to lose $240 billion, in sales, by the end of this year. Since the beginning of the year, scores of restaurants in the Tampa Bay area have closed for good, including Café Ponte, La Tropicana Café and Armani’s.

Avery, also CEO of World of Beer, is convinced Mandola’s has the right combination of quality, value, atmosphere and multiple revenue streams needed to thrive, regardless of economic conditions. In challenging times, people often look for comfort and Italian food can provide that comfort.

“Our price point runs from $9 to $15, so it’s a tremendous value, especially for the quality of the food we offer,” says Avery.

Mandola’s fast-casual concept means guests order from a counter before seating and food runners deliver orders to the tables. This allows a location to run efficiently, with a smaller staff than a typical casual dining restaurant offering a full-service wait staff. That helps to keep expenses low and generate better profits. On top of that a managing partner program, similar to a program offered at Carrabba’s, is in place at Mandola’s locations. Skin in the game provides managers incentives to focus on success for their operating unit.

Another source of revenue for Mandola’s Italian Kitchen is their takeaway business. According to Avery, “Italian food travels well, so it lends itself well to take-away.” He disclosed that in the first week of the Riverview operation, 30 percent of total revenue came from takeaway orders. Furthermore, many people arriving to pick up orders stayed to have a drink at the bar before taking home their meals. A marketplace, located inside the restaurant, offering bottles of wine, boxes of pasta, Italian specialty items, cookbooks and t-shirts contributes additional revenue.

A lot of attention is paid to the guest experience. Customers order from a counter and then take a seat in the dining room. The Riverview location is bright and airy, with tables and chairs painted in the colors of the Italian flag, red, white and green. Mandola family photos line the walls, connecting customers through shared familial experiences. Families are important to Damian Mandola. Many of the recipes come directly from Damian’s family, who has been serving classic Italian American comfort food for decades. Middle-class families can dine together affordably while strengthening family ties. “I like when the dining room is full, loud with laughter and conversation,” says Mandola.

Items on the menu include Italian American classics like Spaghetti and Meatballs, Fettuccine Alfredo, and Eggplant Parmigiana. Mandola’s also offers salads, pizzas, and panini. Along with traditional favorites, Mandola’s showcases creativity with items like the Parma Pizza.  Mozzarella and provolone cheeses along with prosciutto top a thin crust before arugula tossed in a lemon vinaigrette and shaved parmesan cheese are piled on top. The bright green with strips of thin parmesan creates a beautiful presentation.  One bite fills your mouth with crispy crust, creamy cheeses, salty prosciutto and peppery arugula. The lemon vinaigrette is bright and helps clear your palate and set you up for the next bite. It’s a delicious change of pace.

The chicken Piccata is another example of the lighter side of Italian cuisine.  A large chicken breast is pounded thin, then lightly sauteed in lemon-butter and white wine sauce until the flavors dance across the pan.  Then it’s finished with capers, and chopped Italian Parsley, and served with fettuccine alfredo.  It’s a perfect combination. You get the light, flavorful chicken kissed with lemon and bright from the brine of the capers. The pasta is richly indulgent from cream and cheese.

For dessert, gelato is offered in several flavors, elaborately displayed in a large dessert case, strategically placed so diners pass by it on the way out. It features Italian cakes and cookies, a hard-to-resist temptation for a little dolce vita take-away and another important revenue stream. Cannoli shells fill a large glass canister, ready to be filled to order with a sweetened ricotta filling. This is a point of quality control. The best cannoli are filled to order, ensuring the shell stays crisp to the last bite. It’s a small detail, but an important one.  Details matter to Damian Mandola.  Details differentiate his business from other restaurants and drive repeat customers.

In any economic condition, controlling labor cost is a key to profitability. In November, the citizens of Florida voted to raise the state’s minimum wage. Starting in September 2021, the minimum wage will increase from $8.56 to $10.00 per hour.  Then it will rise by $1.00 per year for the next five years, finally settling at $15 per hour in 2026. This will impact the bottom line for many service-based industries, including hospitality, whose labor cost is often directly tied to the minimum wage. Some companies will offset minimum wage increases by reducing employee hours or cutting back on employer-sponsored benefits. Other companies may offset the increase by increasing prices and passing it to the customers. Price sensitive customers could react by finding more affordable alternatives. Avery is concerned over increased labor costs and its impact on corporate-owned start-up businesses, like Mandolas.  “Historically, we’ve avoided expansion into states with high labor costs. Florida has traditionally had a friendly business climate. We will see how that goes,” he says.

As restaurants close across the country, others open, born into a world that has been forever changed by COVID-19, technology and changing customer demands. To survive, restaurants will need to focus beyond the food they serve, putting safety and health concerns on the front burner. They must also find creative new ways to connect with customers, provide a unique experience and add more value.

For now, Avery and Mandola have found a winning formula in Mandola’s Italian Kitchen. Affordable comfort food, in a family-friendly setting, works in today’s America.

“People love Italian food,” says Mandola. It goes beyond the food to the Italian culture, and as Avery puts it, “Everybody has a little Italian in them.” For those just finishing a meal at Mandola’s, that is especially true.

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