Independent restaurants, even in a market dominated by national chains, can find ways to stand out. ‘We’re made one guest at a time,’ says one successful restaurateur.
Two brothers from New York City who brought their Italian cuisine pedigrees to the restaurant business in Port Charlotte say they’ve figured out the puzzle to growing their independent restaurant company’s share of a market dominated by national chains.
Independents, say David and Dennis Valentino, gain a lasting foothold in the Southwest Florida market by giving customers a gratifying dining experience and the right amount of original ambience. And, of course, tasty, authentic fare, say the two sons of a Brooklyn restaurateur who opened Donato’s Italian Restaurant in 1996 in Port Charlotte.
Big chains like Olive Garden and Outback can rely on marketing. But what customers say about you is the marketing medium for independent restaurateurs, David Valentino says. “We’re made one guest at a time,” he says.
A corporate lawyer earlier in life, he and Dennis Valentino, a former Charlotte County firefighter, initiated most of the growth after partnering with long-time chef Mark Costanzo. Together, they’ve built their self-funded, five-location, 200-employee D&D Restaurants into a $10 million-a-year enterprise.
And they aren’t done yet. “We haven’t tapped out the growth” potential, David Valentino says.
D&D is staying with the Italian cuisine and high-end steak concepts that have propelled double-digit sales growth. “It is our best play to continue with those two brands,” Dennis Valentino says.
The brothers came to Port Charlotte early in the past decade via Scotland, where they ran a small inn and restaurant owned by their recently deceased father, Daniel Valentino, and mother, Sandra Valentino.
They took over Donato’s in 2003 and moved it to its larger location at 1990 Tamiami Trail. “More than anything, we were looking for a project to do together,” David Valentino says of teaming with his brother to keep Donato’s, a family name, in the Valentino family.
The brothers expanded their venture in 2010, when they opened Bocca Lupo Coal Fired Pizza next door.
David, 48, and Dennis, 42, held back on further growth until 2013, when they enlisted Costanzo and opened PRIME Serious Steak at 19665 Cochran Blvd. in Port Charlotte. Two years later, they brought their pizza restaurant to North Port, in south Sarasota County, opening a second Boca Lupo Coal Fired Pizza at 4301 Aidan Lane.
Meanwhile, the success of PRIME Serious led in 2016 to a second one. The newest location is at the Westfield Sarasota Square Mall, at premium real estate next to Costco.
The 57-year-old Costanzo, a graduate of Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales, oversees the steakhouses. He sees them as a tweener — distinct from both the top such as Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and midground Outback and LongHorn occupy. It’s a big gap, Costanzo says, “and that’s where we want to fly.”
For the original ambience it requires, D&D, strives for interesting but fun. Donato’s, for example, is deceptive from the outside, David Valentino says of the unassuming exterior in a strip center location. Inside, he says, “reflects the nostalgia of my parents’ generation.”
A walk through a tunnel-like entrance to the restaurant is accompanied by the sound of a subway train overhead. In the dining room, wall murals of Brooklyn apartment houses with fire escapes and rickety window air conditioners lead to a ceiling of painted stars. The flooring is cobblestone. “It’s murder to clean but neat as heck,” David Valentino says.
David Valentino says Donato’s is “closest to my heart,” but names the Port Charlotte PRIME the company’s main moneymaker. The freestanding building in Port Charlotte represents D&D’s first location ownership. That location and the newer one in Sarasota, which grew revenue 25% last year, have been “an enormous success for us,” David Valentino says.
Costanzo says he worried the first couple years of success in Sarasota came with being the new “bright shiny penny” in town. But sustained strength through nearly half of 2018 shows otherwise, he says.
The PRIMEs specialize in char cooked aged beef, custom cut in the dining room behind glass. Hundreds of wine selections line the walls at both locations.
“There is an elevation there without the elevation price,” Costanzo says. “You can still get a nice sirloin for 17 bucks.”