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Business Spotlight: Restaurant Lifer

Gilardi’s owner nears three decades in the food service industry

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The restaurant industry is all Gilardi’s Ristorante owner James Martin has known professionally, as he started as a dishwasher at 15 years old.

He’s accrued nearly three decades of experience working in restaurants, including Gilardi’s when it first opened in 1998. Martin bought the business for an undisclosed price from restaurant namesake Nicola Gilardi in 2013 at the age of 34. Gilardi had suggested the idea over drinks one night after Martin’s work shift ended. Martin was working at the time as a server at Nicola’s Ristorante, a second eatery started by Gilardi in 2011.

“Owning my own business has always been a big goal of mine. I had been writing business plans for about 10 years and had almost gotten a (Small Business Administration) loan three times,” Martin says, noting the fourth time was the charm. “(Gilardi) knew I was trying to get my own restaurant going.”

Changing the name was never a consideration, he says.

“Gilardi’s had a lot of goodwill, and it was a well-known name,” he says. “It didn’t make any sense for me to purchase this business and not purchase ‘Gilardi’s’ as well.”

Still, changes did come for the Italian restaurant, including its menu, which Martin says remained the same for 15 years prior to him becoming owner. Daily appetizer, soup, salad, fish and steak specials were created, he says, giving the kitchen a lot more flexibility.

Part of that flexibility was achieved through Martin’s adoption of a farm-to-table concept. He and the staff grow seasonal crops and herbs in a garden on the property. Cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, basil and oregano are among items grown and incorporated into dishes on the menu.

“For example, this time of year, for a caprese salad, everything comes from my garden except for the mozzarella and olive oil,” he says. “At the end of the day, fresh, local produce makes better plates. Anytime I can do that, that’s the route we go.”

Terrell Creek Farm LLC has supplied Gilardi’s with goat cheese since 2013, says Lesley Million, co-owner of the Fordland-based company.

“We have worked with James since we had enough cheese to sell to restaurants,” Million says, noting Martin has a standing order of about three pounds every other week. Terrell Creek’s wholesale price for restaurants is $14 per pound, she says.

“He’s been buying from us longer than anybody else has,” she says, adding Gilardi’s was the first of Terrell Creek’s 20 restaurant clients.

Progress interrupted
Martin says the menu and garden additions fueled revenue growth for Gilardi’s.

“The business grew so quickly once I took over. Our sales the first year was about 30% above the year before I bought it,” he says, adding revenue grew annually up until 2020.

Martin says the restaurant closed for about two months last spring amid the coronavirus pandemic and then reopened only two nights a week for preorder carryout over a six-week span. Year-over-year revenue dropped 40%. Catering, which pre-pandemic was roughly 20% of annual revenue, fell to 5% last year, he says.

“Then we slowly started opening up again. I brought my employees back and for the first week or two we did only Friday and Saturday,” he says, noting days were added to the schedule in subsequent weeks.

The business received help from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan program and Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding.

“I don’t really talk specifics on money,” he says of the financial assistance Gilardi’s received. “But I will say without it, we wouldn’t have made it. Not a chance.”

Looking ahead
As the last quarter of the year arrives, Martin says catering jobs are starting to increase and customers are returning. While revenue is still down roughly 25% from 2019, he says that percentage is declining, and gross profit is better than two years ago.

“A lot of that is because I simply raised my prices. Labor is a lot more expensive, and everyone knows food prices have gone up,” he says. “We raised our prices, but we constantly raise the quality of product that person receives.”

One improvement on the way is in front of the restaurant. Martin has installed a concrete pad in the middle of the garden available for a small group of diners seeking five-course, wine-paired dinners. He expects to debut the space in the spring to maximize warmer weather months.

“People will go nuts for that,” he says. “It’s going to be a really good move for us.”

Martin wears a variety of hats at Gilardi’s that go beyond his tongue-in-cheek chef’s jacket embroidered with the name “head dishwasher.” He runs the catering side of the business, orders all the liquor, curates the wine list, helps in the kitchen when needed and serves as property manager, which includes tending to the garden. Since the pandemic, he says it’s resulted in a workweek that regularly falls between 60 and 70 hours. Pre-pandemic, his workload was usually 40-50 hours a week.

Part of it has been by necessity due to a smaller-than-desired restaurant staff. But Martin says he’s also driven to maintain high standards at Gilardi’s, noting he must stay hungry to keep up in a very competitive industry. He plans to stay in it for the long haul.

“Every year, I want my restaurant to get better,” he says. “I want my food to get better, service to get better and want my atmosphere to get better every year. It has to be that way.”

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