- February 24, 2017
The 2008 blowup in the financial markets was the final shove for Dan Bavaro: He quit his gig at the helm of a multimillion-dollar chauffeured car company in New York to start a specialty pizza company, in Tampa, from scratch.
“I left a substantial amount of salary in the Northeast to come down here and make pizza for nothing,” says Bavaro. “It was a risk across the board.”
Bavaro's company in New York, Time International, which he founded in 1998, had an army of 50 drivers who catered to a wealthy and elite customer base. Passengers included top Citibank and AIG Insurance executives, and destinations ranged from airports to the home of Bill and Hillary Clinton in Chappaqua, N.Y. But Bavaro was burned out. The company was weighted to a few large corporate accounts, and the business had to reshuffle to survive the recession.
A onetime amateur boxer who dropped out of high school in 10th grade before later going back for a GED, Bavaro sold Time International and followed his passion into the pizza business. The result, seven years later, is Bavaro's, a food company with $5 million a year in sales and a mix of revenue streams, including jarred sauces and restaurants. Bavaro invested at least $1 million in the business in 2016, partially from loans through Clearwater-based USAmeribank, toward two new restaurant locations.
The core challenge now: capitalize on growth opportunities without too much of a strain on resources — capital and/or people. It's a challenge Bavaro learned how to handle, he hopes, from his experiences at Time International. “It's important to take your time,” he says, “and not get ahead of yourself.”
The flagship Bavaro's opened in 2009 on Franklin Street in downtown Tampa. Sales at that store have since grown, on average, 20% a year, Bavaro says.
The next location was in Winter Springs, an upscale Orlando suburb. A third store, on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg's Edge district, opened in June and the fourth store, in sought after space at Tampa International Airport's redesigned Concourse C, debuts in August. More locations could be forthcoming statewide, says Bavaro, possibly including downtown Sarasota. The company has about 100 employees.
Bavaro, 37, credits the success, beyond a core group of strong managers and employees, mostly to two factors: the decision to sell a line of gourmet pasta sauces and the core product, a Neapolitan style of pizza eaten with a fork and knife, not handheld.
Bavaro spent a year making trips to Italy with his wife, Anna-Maria Bavaro, to learn about Neapolitan pizza and source ingredients. He met with oven makers, tomato growers and flour companies. Today the restaurants use imported hand-milled flour mixed for pizza and Mozzarella di Bufala cheese.
Bavaro's pizzas are baked in imported Stefano Ferrara pizza ovens imported from Naples, Italy, that reach up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Built entirely by hand, the ovens weigh at least two tons, cost around $16,000 and are shipped by container from Italy.
Bavaro's also sells a line of four sauces in more than 2,000 stores, including Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Costco. The sauces provide a competitive branding edge, Bavaro says, in addition to $500,000 a year in sales.
Bavaro's other edge, he says, is his outwork-everyone-else attitude he learned from a mentor in New York who compared hustle to the U.S. Post office. “If it's raining or snowing or whatever, you gotta get out there and work,” says Bavaro. “The day you stop is the day your business dies.”
— Mark Gordon