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At Bella, love of restaurant business offsets challenges involved

By Rod Lee

After “fifty years in this business” including an early stint with a cruise line, Giuseppe Calapai knows something about the hardships associated with being a restaurateur.

  As the owner of Bella Restaurant on the Victory Highway in Glendale, Rhode Island and before that the Blue Grotto in downtown Providence, he has learned what it takes to succeed.

  Even with his son Gio aboard as chef and his daughter Sarah as manager, Mr. Calapai still puts in sixty hours a week. He makes it a point to be on the floor, greeting customers, asking how they are doing, if the food meets their expectations.

  “This is the hardest business in the world. You have to love it,” he said in a small office near the bar and dining room of Bella on October 24th, in discussing the challenges facing the restaurant industry heading into 2020. The foremost of these in the opinion of many of the area’s restaurateurs is the cost of labor, driven by demand for a higher minimum wage.

  “To keep good people you have to pay,” Mr. Calapai said. “I have people work for me for twenty years. Why? Because I never look for the minimum wage but in the end people have to survive so I never paid anyone ten dollars an hour (but typically more). A lot goes up and down, you have to eat some of the cost and keep your prices as low as possible to keep the customer. Do you change the menu, no, you take a hit if necessary. You keep the people and you keep the quality the same. The most important thing for me is quality.”

  Born in Messina, Sicily, Mr. Calapai launched an Italian restaurant, in Bella, which opened in September of 1998 and that would be considered upscale by most standards. Bella is beautifully appointed with linen tablecloths, soft lighting, a warm atmosphere and higher-than-average prices but for Mr. Calapai it always comes down to delivering “hospitality.”

  He says “my job is to make people feel good. I am not about the politics. This is a destination place. People don’t come here by mistake. They come from Providence, Warwick, Cranston and Narragansett. I go around, here, this smells like food. You come in, you see what I’m talking about. I created something special but I never would have done it without my son with me, this is something extra. Without him, he is the most important piece, and my daughter.”

  The ever-escalating cost of finding, hiring and retaining the good people Mr. Calapai alludes to is nevertheless a major concern for restaurateurs like Michael Winslett at Samuel Slater’s at Indian Ranch and Dan Gonya of the Table 3 Restaurant Group in Sturbridge.

  Mr. Winslett and Mr. Gonya say it is hard to cope with rising labor costs.

  “There are always challenges we face in the restaurant business,” Mr. Winslett said. “Something that comes to mind is the hike in the minimum wage [which] directly affects small businesses like ours…ultimately it affects the bottom line [for] businesses that operate at extremely low profit margins. This inevitably translates to higher prices for the consumer.

  “Minimum wage jobs used to serve as a stepping stone for teenage kids and motivation to further their education and gain experience. They were never intended to be a means to support a family. Recent studies show that this will actually result in higher unemployment and less money in the average worker’s pockets.”

Speaking for the Table 3 Restaurant Group, which specializes in the revitalization of local restaurants (e.g., Cedar Street Grille, Cedar Street Café, Avellino, The Duck and The Barn at Wight Farm), and which operates on the motto “a restaurant meal should be among life’s most memorable experiences,” Mr. Gonya said  “I’m sure it’s the same for many businesses outside the restaurant industry as well. Increased labor costs from higher minimum and competitive wages, increased fees like the Employer Medical Assistance Contribution for employees on Mass Health, the new payroll tax for Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave and continual cost increases in the costs of providing health-care plans to our employees. Couple this with a tight labor market and the limited ability to pass cost increases to the consumer via increased menu prices and you have a situation where already slim margins for most restaurants are seeing further erosion.

“In a nutshell…the tightness in the labor market is making it difficult for many restaurateurs to have enough qualified employees and the cost of those employees continues to increase without a viable way to pass the costs along, making it tough for many to hold on to reasonable profit margins.”

This is the dilemma restaurant owners and managers in Central Massachusetts and northern Connecticut and Rhode Island are dealing with; and it’s not getting any easier.

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.