Mr. Cardona is CEO & Co-Founder of Epicurean Group (L'Artusi, dell'anima, Anfora, L'Apicio & Epicurean Events). He began his career in the Finance sector with Zacks Investment Research in Chicago. After 16-months, Mr. Cardona was made Associate Vice President. Having an undeniable connection to the hospitality industry and a passion for food and wine, Mr. Cardona decided to leave his career in Finance early and return home to Albany, NY to assist his father and two brothers with the expansion of Cardona's Market, his family's Italian specialty store that was founded in 1945.
How did you get into the culinary industry?
I’m not a chef, but I grew up in the food industry working in my family’s specialty market/catering company in upstate NY. I continued working in the hospitality industry while in college, to pay for school (bartending and managing one of the school's eateries). Coming out of school, the last thing I wanted to do was work in hospitality, so I went into finance, but shortly after starting in that industry I realized it was not what I loved and next thing you know I am leaving my well-paying finance job to pick up server shifts at a restaurant while working days at a wine store for $12/hr – the rest is history.
Tell us about Epicurean Group. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
We opened our first restaurant, dell’anima, while I was still holding down a full time job in the wine industry, and once we decided to open our 2nd restaurant (L’Artusi, just one year later), I left my ‘day job’ to focus on the restaurants full time and that’s when we officially formed Epicurean Group. By forming the group (which includes Epicurean Management and Epicurean Events) we are able to support our creative efforts with solid operational infrastructure (processes, training, etc.). It’s definitely not the sexy side of the business, but ultimately by forming the group at a relatively early stage, we were able to provide a stronger platform for our people to be creative, evolve, and have more opportunity for growth and expression. We’re still in the early stages of the group’s growth and the vision is still evolving as the goals of the people involved with the group evolve. But as we evolve, we will remain dedicated to our people and always look internally for inspiration and to help steer the direction.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
Following trends is not the long term strategy of our group (for better or for worse) – don’t get me wrong, it’s important to stay relevant, but we’re more focused on executing what we know best as opposed to capitalizing on trends.
Epicurean Group’s motto?
Warm, Real, Dynamic
Your greatest success as Co-Founder/CEO of Epicurean Group?
We employ 200+ people and sincerely strive to make a positive impact on each of those people’s lives - so the thought that we’re a positive part of many people’s lives is very fulfilling.
Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
Our first (3) places (dell’anima, L’Artusi and Anfora) were all pretty immediately successful, but then we took an opportunity to open a restaurant in a hotel about (4) years ago and it ended up closing after 9 months – I learned more from that experience than I had in the 5 years prior – I could get into specifics of what I learned, but it would take up pages. Ultimately the biggest take away was that I realized how little I really knew – you don’t learn much from successes and I’m much more diligent now in my analysis of new opportunities and I question a lot more (and take my time).
Your advice to an aspiring restaurateur?
Take your time, don’t be afraid to fail, there will be unexpected surprises, don’t worry, it’s how you deal with them and adjust and learn from them that ultimately counts.
Describe the ideal experience at an Epicurean Group restaurant.
Well, our group mission is to uplift the spirit – and that is derived from our sincere hope that everyone who enters an EG restaurant ultimately leaves feeling happier/better than when they came in. It can be from the food, from a great drink, a smiling server, anything - as long as we uplift your spirit then that’s the ideal experience. That being said, for me, sitting at the chef’s counter at dell’anima, watching the kitchen crew put out food at lightning pace and overseeing a buzzing restaurant – that is still my favorite EG experience!
How do you motivate your employees?
I’d point to our annual Not My Day Job Event as a good example of how we strive to motivate our employees – taking a sincere interest in and investing in their goals and dreams, regardless if they are relevant to our business/industry or outside our industry. You show your people that you sincerely care for them, the individual they are, and they will stay motivated to work hard and honest for the group.
If you could only eat and/or drink one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
What literature is on your bed stand?
I’m all over the place with what I read and often have a number of books in rotation - currently A. J. Leibling’s The Sweet Science; Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and Game of Thrones Clash of Kings (guilty pleasure!)
Role model - business and personal?
Personal is easy, that’s my father – he’s taught me how to be a good dad, and that’s ultimately what’s most important to me. For business, I’ve been lucky enough to have many people take interest in my professional development and can’t say that I have one specific individual that I’d call my role model, there are many whom I lean on for direction/advice
Some partners and me have a warehouse building in Bushwick, The Vazquez Building, which we’ve made into a flexible-use event, exhibition and creative project space – and it’s allowing me to be exposed to some amazingly talented artists. My head is organized like an excel spreadsheet (haha), so I greatly appreciate collaborating with creative-minded people like chefs, artists, performers, etc.
Favorite travel destination?
My eldest daughter lives in a small town in Michigan and I am there every 5th or 6th week – there’s not much of a culinary or entertainment scene there (though Ann Arbor is great and relatively nearby), but it’s my favorite place to travel for obvious reasons. Fair Harbor in Fire Island is my happy place – our family spends time there every summer.
What's next for Epicurean Group?
We have some exciting projects/opportunities in the works, but most immediate is the seasonal outdoor restaurant Alta Linea that we’re opening at The Highline Hotel in May!
After leading a successful re-branding and expansion of the family business, Mr. Cardona moved to New York City to pursue a career in wine, first landing at Italian Wine Merchants ("IWM") where he spent four years working closely with IWM founding partner Sergio Esposito. Mr. Cardona held a number of different positions with IWM including Sales Manager, Director of Operations and Director of International Sales. Mr. Cardona spearheaded several Marketing and Business Development initiatives at IWM, most notably the build-out of IWM's Bottle Asset Fund and the opening IWM's first international office in Hong Kong.
While working in full time capacity at IWM, Mr. Cardona opened his first restaurant, dell'anima, in October of 2007 with partners Joe Campanale and Gabe and Katherine Thompson. Following the immediate success of dell'anima, the team decided to open their second restaurant, L'Artusi, in December of 2008. It was shortly after the opening of L'Artusi that August left Italian Wine Merchants to focus solely on the development of his own company with a focus on the Food, Beverage & Hospitality industry. With the formation of Epicurean Capital and Epicurean Management Company ("EMCo."), Mr. Cardona was able to solidify both a flexible pool of dedicated capital for new business initiatives and the foundation of an experienced management team to successfully operate and brand existing and future businesses.
Mr. Cardona has since partnered with long time industry veteran Ron Levine (President of EMCo.) in September of 2009, adding invaluable experience to the organization. In May 2010, together with partners Campanale, the Thompsons, and Director of Operations Kevin Garry, the team opened Anfora, a wine bar specialized in natural and amphora-aged wines.
Mr. Cardona holds a B.S. in Business Management from Cornell University, with a concentration in Food Marketing. Mr. Cardona sits on the board of Wellness In The Schools, and is actively committed to an initiative to develop a curriculum focused on expanding the perspective of the world's children, not the least of which is his 10-year-old daughter, Kailey.