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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 14, 2018 2 months ago

Second time around proves successful for restaurateur

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A restaurant consultant's first attempt at ownership didn't work out. Now he's back, with a potentially vibrant concept.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Restaurant consultant Louie Spetrini moved from Los Angeles to the Tampa Bay area to help open Sea Salt, a fine-dining hotspot at Bill Edwards’ Sundial shopping and entertainment complex in downtown St. Petersburg.

That was four years ago. Spetrini, 59, fell in love with the Sunshine City and never left. Now he's the managing partner of Nueva Cantina, a nascent local chain of Mexican restaurants. The model, a relaxed, family vibe with a tagline of "That Mexican Place," has done well enough that Spetrini and his partners are priming for their third location in three years. 

“We believe in our product, and we see how quickly people are grabbing on to what we do.” Louie Spetrini, managing partner of Nueva Cantina

Nueva Cantina also represents Spetrini's ability to overcome a setback and turn a risky location into a hit. 

On the setback, Spetrini’s first go at restaurant ownership in the area, post-Sea Salt, didn't pan out. That was with the Lobster Pot seafood restaurant in Redington Shores. He came up with a new concept for the eatery and changed its name to Cocina Aqui & Tequila Bar. But the venture didn’t meet his expectations and he sold his share back to his partner. It's since closed. 

It was there, though, where Spetrini met Paul Daubert, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, and Rocco and Erin Rinaldi, frequent Cocina Aqui customers. Now Daubert is with Nueva Cantina, and the Rinaldis are partners in the budding chain.  

The first Nueva Cantina location, meanwhile, represented a dilemma for the restaurateurs. At 1625 Fourth St. S. in St. Petersburg, it's right in the middle of a tough area of the city, but less than a mile from booming downtown. “I saw major potential," Spetrini says. "I knew I would have challenges, though — it had been a Mexican restaurant for two years prior to me taking it over, and people didn’t think very highly of it. The previous operators had run it into the ground." 

But there were some advantages: The site offered plenty of on-site parking — a bonus in cluttered downtown St. Pete — and room to add a patio with outdoor seating, which Spetrini made a priority, along with upgrading the kitchen. It also sported hand-painted murals by local artists the Vitale Brothers.

With that as a backdrop, Spetrini, taking a cue from a popular restaurant industry trend, launched a food truck to help spread the brand and let people know the old joint was renewed. That was a significant move. "It was very successful," Spetrini says. "We completely turned the restaurant around." 

Nueva Cantina partners Louie Spetrini, left, and Rocco Rinaldi. Courtesy photo.

Spetrini and the Rinaldis have since opened a second Nueva Cantina, at 4918 S. MacDill Ave. in South Tampa, with a third is on the way in Largo in the second quarter of 2019. The Vitale Brothers were contracted to create artwork for those locations, too. 

Daubert’s menu emphasizes central Mexican cuisine but is diverse and reasonably priced to appeal to families. The chef has also partnered with St. Pete-based Reva Foods to create a line of Nueva Cantina sauces. Spetrini is working on three deals — "one is a big one," he says — to have the sauces sold in local stores, further boosting the burgeoning chain’s local cachet and adding an additional revenue stream.

Spetrini declines to disclose revenue, but he says Nueva Cantina’s St. Pete location has doubled the projections of his pro forma since opening two years ago. He expects similar performance, if not better, from the South Tampa location, in which he and his partners have invested $300,000 for upgrades and renovations. The trio have leases on the land at both locations with options to purchase.

But just because they’re moving fast doesn’t mean Spetrini and the Rinaldis look to get rich quick.

“Our philosophy is not to wait for huge profits to come in,” Spetrini says. “Being that the concept has been so well received, it’s about getting back our original investment on one location and immediately going after the next location. The profits will eventually come from all of them. We’re running with the enthusiasm that people have shown toward this brand. We believe in our product, and we see how quickly people are grabbing on to what we do."

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