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Skill, Luck and Divine Intervention

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  • | 9:23 a.m. January 6, 2012
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Company. Naples Flatbread and Wine Bar
Industry. Restaurants
Key. Efficiency and productivity is key to reproducing a restaurant concept.

To understand the success of Naples Flatbread and Wine Bar, peek into the kitchen.

Most notable is what's absent: Gone are the fryers, broilers and flat grills that are the workhorses of most restaurant kitchens. Instead, there's a wood-burning stone oven, panini presses and two sophisticated ovens that can cook food to precision at the push of a button.

Naples Flatbread's kitchen costs less to equip, it takes less time to clean and it's easier to operate. The kitchen can feed 75 patrons with as few as two food preparers, delivering consistently prepared food with lower labor costs.

Efficiency and productivity aren't limited to the fast-food industry. “I've designed the concept to be easy to operate and easy to open,” says Ralph Desiano, the 48-year-old restaurant industry veteran and partner in Naples Flatbread.

With two well-established restaurants in Naples and Estero, Desiano and partner Jim Wilburn plan to franchise Naples Flatbread next year. Wilburn is the CEO of Winnercomm, a sports-production marketing and advertising company in Tulsa, Okla.

What makes Desiano so confident he'll succeed is that Naples Flatbread restaurants were successful despite the severe recession that decimated rivals. After all, he launched the concept in early 2009, a dark time for American business. And both restaurants in Naples and Estero thrived in spaces that were previously occupied by and surrounded by failed eateries.

Desiano explains his success this way: “Skill, luck and divine intervention.”

Restaurant veteran
Desiano knows the restaurant business. He rose through the corporate ranks of T.G.I Friday's and Uno Chicago Grill chains, learning to reproduce successful restaurants throughout the northeast. He moved to Naples during the boom to help Mel's Diner with expansion plans.

The economic downturn short-circuited Mel's plans and Desiano left the casual eatery to consult with other restaurants. Meanwhile, he plotted Naples Flatbread, an idea he'd conceived and dreamed of years earlier.

In late 2008, during the height of the financial crisis, Desiano flew to Tulsa to help Wilburn turn around a struggling restaurant there. In the car back to the airport, Desiano says Wilburn offered to become a partner in Naples Flatbread.

Desiano and Wilburn spent about $250,000 to convert a failed restaurant into Naples Flatbread in Naples. “I can't tell you the number of people who said I was insane to open up at that time,” Desiano says. “It went in one ear and out the other.”

Besides opening the Naples restaurant during the financial crisis in February 2009, it opened in a less-than-desirable location where two neighboring restaurants had already failed and at the tail end of the winter tourism season. “We did not open as strongly as I had hoped,” Desiano acknowledges.

Desiano had originally planned to open in Naples in the fall 2008, but slow permitting by bureaucrats there delayed the opening by four months. (By contrast, opening the second location in Estero was much easier. “Lee County rolled out the red carpet,” Desiano says.)

Despite the delayed opening in Naples, summer business turned out to be stronger than Desiano had expected. That's because he and his wife Palma were there every day to greet customers. “My wife and I were both in the restaurant, night and day, seven days a week,” Desiano recalls. That was a plus with Naples' older clientele, who tend to repeatedly frequent the same places.

In addition, Desiano hired staff for ethics and personality, not past experience. “We're hired people with little or no restaurant experience,” he says. Smart, outgoing people who never learned bad habits at poorly managed restaurants make better employees and learn the ropes within a week, he says.

On the competitive front, many restaurants were failing in 2009 and few entrepreneurs were opening new eateries. “We developed a local base,” Desiano says.

Meanwhile, Desiano didn't skimp on promotion. “We spend at least 4% of sales on marketing,” he says. This includes radio, television and Valpak coupon advertising.

Desiano is reluctant to cite the company's revenues because of legal issues related to franchising, but he says the Estero location at Miromar Outlets posted sales of $1.5 million this year, its first full year in operation.

Flex casual
Besides the easy-to-operate kitchen, the restaurant is designed to be busy for both lunch and dinner. Being busy at dinner is not the hallmark of the “fast casual” restaurant business, which generally tends to attract a bigger lunch crowd. It's what Desiano has coined “flex casual.”

For lunch, which costs $6 to $10 per entree, customers line up and order at the counter and a waiter brings them their food once it's prepared. By contrast, dinner entrees cost $8 to $15 and a waiter serves patrons tableside.

The decor is modern and there's a wine bar in the middle of the restaurant. Half-price beer and wine draws the crowd during happy hour, which contributes to the festive atmosphere in the evening and draws in customers.

The menu features flatbreads with toppings ranging from prosciutto ham to lobster, a departure from the predictable fast-casual fare. “They can get something a little more exotic,” says Desiano.

Franchising flatbreads
Desiano plans to start selling franchises early next year and the franchise documents have been drafted. Each franchise will cost $40,000, plus 5% of sales for royalties and 2% for marketing. “We're looking for experienced franchisees and restaurateurs,” Desiano says. “I don't think it's going to be really tough.”

Desiano is seeking a proven operator because he wants the initial restaurants to be successful. “My goal is to cut a deal with one solid group to launch this thing,” he says.

Desiano estimates it will cost $100,000 to $250,000 to retrofit an existing space for a Naples Flatbread and $400,000 to build one from the ground up. “There are second-generation sites out there,” he says, referring to empty restaurant spaces in or near many shopping centers.

Meanwhile, Desiano plans to retain the Florida territory. He's exploring Tampa and Sarasota, among other locations. “I've got people to bring on as I need,” he says.


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