Chef Frank Bonanno: Founder of Bonanno Concepts

My NativeAdVice:

Bio: Frank Bonanno’s restaurants have become the most fertile training grounds for upcoming restaurateurs and chefs in the western United States.  Since Mizuna’s inception in 2001, thirteen of our restaurant family members have gone directly from an experience working alongside Frank to opening a restaurant of their own. Frank gives site chefs the freedom to explore ingredients, to participate in menu items, and to creatively work toward rendering the exotic into the familiar. Frank’s front of house operations reflect that balance of creative collaboration and professionalism, working together to create Bonanno Concepts, a chef driven family dedicated to satisfying meals, outstanding service, education, and community.

How did you get into the industry?

I’ve always cooked. I cooked for my family and friends growing up, I cooked my way through college, and when I graduated and I couldn’t find a job in my finance field, I cooked because working on a restaurant line was way more fun than being a bank teller. Eventually, I went back to school--this time to learn how to cook properly--and because I was into it, I paid attention to what the instructors at the Culinary Institute had to say. When I graduated from the CIA, I worked my way to an executive chef position, and ultimately married my finance and cooking backgrounds to open a restaurant, Mizuna. Now, Bonanno Concepts has six restaurants, two bars, and a deli. Each venue is unique in style, setting, food and drink-- and we’re still growing. I love going to work every day, and I still get to cook. It’s a fantastic life.

Any emerging industry trends?

This isn’t a trend in New York, where the geography is so much tighter (so by necessity the food industry has been leaning this way in the City for some time), but nationally, we’re distinctly favoring smaller, neighborhood spaces and industrial markets. Smaller grocers, smaller restaurants, smaller bars. Neighborhoods are starting to develop their own characters, where homes are within easy walking distance from places to pick up bite or a sip or something to cook or uncork. I love that urban areas--Anaheim, Austin, Dallas, Chicago, Philly, Denver--are reclaiming old abandoned factory areas and travel depots and filling them with food and drink and farmers and makers. Cities are just springing back to life, embracing diversity. It’s a wonderful time. .  

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

The “industrial market” boom that I noted above can be a real opportunity for novice restaurateurs. Think about it: here’s a rare chance here to try out an idea with a tiny staff and really small business footprint--400 square feet or less. You can test drive a lease that’s under two years, someone else usually carries the financial impetus and liquor license risks. It’s a fantastic way to stick your toes in the water to see if you're ready to dive in fully--rent out major square footage, buy chairs and tables and ovens and burners, design signs, menus, uniforms, and training manuals, apply for a liquor license, hire management teams, lose your hair and sleep, learn meditation and relaxation techniques, deepen your wrinkles. . .   

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

My original business concept back in 2002 was to open a small, elegant, upscale French restaurant with my best friend. Just the two of us working our butts off with a group of like-minded friends. That was Mizuna, and things went well. We opened another. Now I run a fleet of elegant little restaurants with a family of friends, all of us happily working our butts off. Our vision is to have Denver be a hub of gem restaurants with super food and thoughtful service. We want to infect Denver, if you will, with great food and great service, not just by opening new bars and restaurants, but by inspiring our team members to go forward and open their own little gems--and that’s happened. Eleven former Bonanno Concept employees have spun out to open their own places so far.  Next up for my team: a French bistro, very casual, but beautiful and service oriented (because casual shouldn’t mean that the service suffers). After that--I’d like to offer up microcosms of all of the concepts I’ve done so far, maybe in one spot. Wouldn’t that be cool? Go here for hot fried chicken and take it around the corner to sit down and enjoy a pull of your favorite local beer, then walk back to try maybe a bite of a tagliatelle that you saw someone roll only moments ago?? But that’s just a fantasy. We’ll see what comes. I’m up for anything. I’m not even 50 yet. You all have a lot to teach me still.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

French 75 is up next--that’s the bistro version of Mizuna. We’re opening in the Spring of 2017 and I’m so excited I just keep cooking French food to keep the momentum going. My family is getting tired of me testing out crab cake recipes, which is silly, because honestly, who gets tired of a crab cake? Not me.  The scary thing coming up in the year or two ahead for me is this prospect of investors. I love opening little venues, but I really do have this idea of one location--a market if you will--where you could try some of this, some of that, sit down for a beer, walk away with a bag of treats for tomorrow. That kind of square footage is out of the realm of anything I’ve done before, though, and it would take investors who believe in me, and partnerships with like-minded business people. It’s a leap. For them. For me. All of the Bonanno Concept growth so far has sprung from the success of the restaurants. Each restaurant funds the opening of another, and any partnerships are the results of opportunities I’ve provided people I want to bring up with me--but that’s perhaps (hopefully) about to change. There are some really big projects on the horizon. It’s horrifying and thrilling.  

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

All of our growth is structured around key people. You can carve your path at Bonanno Concepts in nearly any direction. On a site level, that translates to ongoing education for everyone in spirits, wine and food. It means individual chefs and bartenders are empowered to create dishes and menus. There is no micromanagement, only the occasional reigning in. We have active profit sharing at each venue, and it’s structured in such a way that back and front of house are compelled to work together. On a group level, the focus on key people means that if someone is interested in growing, just describe what that might look like and I will try to make it happen, because if you grow, I grow. One manager wanted to work with video production; we ended up making an icookbook together. A part time data entry person wanted to plan events--she’s now our Chief Operating officer, and her replacement for data entry became our Human Resource Officer (and ultimately our Corporate Event Planner). Both of those women have percentages of restaurants. An opening back wait at Osteria Marco is about to unveil a line of bar products. I’ve tried to listen when someone pitches a plan, and I’ve tried to give them just a little bit more than they even knew they wanted. It’s a strategy that hasn’t panned out every time, but mostly I’m just going for a restaurant family here, maybe because my own family is in a different city and so is Jacqueline’s (she’s my partner at BC). We come from big families, and we crave that energy, and as it is with families, there can be dysfunction. But I’m aiming for Bonanno Concepts to be a place to learn and grow, for Bonanno Concepts to provide a culture of excellence in food, spirits, service, and philanthropy. If you succeed with me, that’s pretty awesome. If you succeed after you’ve crossed my path, that’s pretty awesome, too.  

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

This very moment, heading into 2017, has the most insane hiring challenges I’ve ever faced. Anyone who reads trade magazines has heard the song, but there is a genuine shortage of cooks. I’m so deep in the difficulty of this moment, I don’t even know what there is to learn from it. (Anyone got a guy? Send someone my way and I’ll cook something delicious for you . . .  )

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

First, I want people to be excited to come into one of my restaurants. I’ll circle the block sometimes, to see if a venue lives up to that--what does it look like from the outside? Is it well lit? Maybe a little steamy in the winter? Fans going in the summer? A hint of music, the right music? Is everything sparkling? Is the staff moving about, opening doors, polishing stemware? Is there a vibrant energy? Yes?

Good. Let’s forget about the middle, because the guest will if the end looks like this . . .

Later, on the way out the door, are people even happier still? I might circle the block again to look for the signs. Are they laughing? Relaxed? Are doors being held open? Are tables cleared and empty? Just as importantly--does the staff look happy, still moving about, opening doors and polishing stemware? If everyone looks happy, no, wait--if everyone looks satisfied--just fat cat sitting in a sunny window after a full plate of bacon and dreaming about warm milk satisfied--then it’s been an ideal experience.

How do you motivate others?

I work really hard and I listen. I think it’s great encouragement to be heard, to feel you are being heard. If you’re in the throes of a push on a Friday night and it feels like the ticket machine will never stop clicking (will never stop clicking will never stop clicking clicking clicking . . . ) it helps to know the guy that runs the place is doing the same thing somewhere, has done it a hundred times a hundred times before, has earned his cuts and burns, not just surviving the pushes but succeeding them. That is great motivation.

Career advice to those in your industry?

A tiny story about a person I know, who I’ll call Bob. Bob is the son of a friend of mine. He went to college and got fantastic grades, used those grades to study in foreign country, earned a master’s degree. He comes back to the States and would be an asset to so many organizations--but not just yet. Bob hasn’t had a steady job or career--although he had the ethic to work in college, the positions were sporadic or part time. He hasn’t earned his mettle. No matter his degree or language skills or age or travel, Bob is qualified for an entry level job. Bob and I discuss this, and he makes these points: that he’s 30 years old, that he speaks several languages that he’s in love and will not work more than 40 hours a week--especially for roughly the kind of money he made waiting tables in high school. I respect his perspective, but if it’s money he’s looking for, and a long term career at a higher wage, he’s trapping himself and that’s a pity.

My career advice to any person just starting out in any industry is this: keep your nose down, work super hard and learn something every day. There is always something to learn. You will never be the smartest person in the room. Work and work and learn and learn and suddenly, you’re too exhausted to have spent money and too smart to have talked disparagingly about the people around you, and if the person you’re in love with is the right person, they’ve been doing the same--so you’re both beat and sleeping well, you’ve learned a skillset that’s unparalleled, and there’s money in the bank and you’re ready for the next challenge.

Keep your nose down, and work and learn, and the money will come.