Dan Bavaro grew up on the mean streets of Freehold, N.J., a locale any self-respecting music fan will instantly identify as the hometown of Bruce Springsteen — and to hear him tell it, his early years could easily be summed up by the gritty yet poignant lyrics of the Boss.
“If I didn’t decide to change my life, I’d be dead or in prison right now,” says Bavaro, a high school dropout. “I stopped caring about school at the age of 12. I was out on the streets hustling. School was like punishment.”
Those street smarts served Bavaro well when he decided to leave the old neighborhood behind to start a limousine company in Manhattan. “I learned the transportation business from the old timers, the guys on the street that they don’t make anymore," he says. "That kind of experience is for a certain kind of person and it’s an education that can’t be taught in school.”
The company became a success. Bavaro even landed some big-name customers. “The founder of CitiGroup was a client of mine … DeNiro, Pacino … all my clients,” he recalls.
In 2005, a larger competitor came calling with a buyout offer Bavaro couldn’t refuse. He sold the company and decided to try his hand at the pizza business, importing a special Neapolitan-style oven from Italy. His vision for a chain of high-end pizzerias didn’t fly in New York, though, so four years later, he packed up and headed south to Florida — determined to make a fresh start at age 30.
With three Bavaro’s restaurants in the Tampa Bay area and one on the way in Sarasota, Bavaro seems at peace with knowing what he doesn’t know. “What it says in the book is what it says in the book, but where you sometimes — in my case, most of the time — find success is by doing what’s not in the book.”