Lidia Bastianich's recipe for a family enterprise

By Patricia Olsen

The top chef, cookbook author and restaurateur describes how her complex family business interests are managed.

Like a number of top chefs, Lidia Bastianich has her hand in several ventures. Tavola Productions, her entertainment company, produces her cookbooks and children's books; her TV program, Lidia's Kitchen; and her occasional TV specials.

She is chef/owner of four New York City restaurants—Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto. She is a partner with her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, in Lidia's Pittsburgh and Lidia's Kansas City. With her son, Joe Bastianich, and partners Mario Batali and Oscar Farinetti, she opened Eataly, an Italian food and wine marketplace, in two New York City locations as well as in Chicago and Sao Paulo; more Eataly locations are scheduled to open in 2017.

There is also a line of pastas and sauces, and a winery in Italy with three locations.

Bastianich opened her first restaurant in 1971, with her husband at the time, now deceased. Over time, her son Joseph and daughter Tanya joined her in several endeavors, and today they have a thriving family-owned and operated enterprise.

In a recent conversation, Bastianich explained how she manages this complex family venture. An edited transcript follows.

Family Business: How are your restaurants organized? Is there one holding company?

Lidia Bastianich: We don't have a holding company. We have several partnerships, but each restaurant is viable and responsible on its own. We hold each manager responsible for their efficiency in running it, and for profits and so on. We have our own management company in partnership with Mario Batali, B&B Hospitality Group (for Batali & Bastianich), which manages the accounts, HR and benefits. About 50 employees keep the individual satellite businesses running smoothly. For example, we have new managers meet with HR and get all the rules and regulations managers need to adhere to, as well as advice on starting out.

FB: How do you make decisions about partnering with your children?

LB: I really don't decide. They bring projects to me that they're interested in, and we talk. We're together in some businesses, and there are other partners in different businesses. Becco, in Manhattan, was the first restaurant my son and I partnered in. He and Mario Batali have other restaurants. Joe also has our wineries in Italy. My daughter is my partner in Tavola Productions. She also runs Lidia's Kansas City and Lidia's Pittsburgh, which I have a small part in.

I wouldn't have grown as much had my children not come in with their new energies. I love working with my children as adults. You have your children, you teach them to walk and talk, you send them off to school and hopefully they're on their own as human beings. My son was a trader on Wall Street, and my daughter has a Ph.D. in Renaissance art history from Oxford. It was important to me that they get an education, and I told them to get an American job. Instead, they slowly came back to the business they had been around since childhood. I took it as a great honor that they saw what I started and wanted to continue. They have different strengths, and it was up to me to incorporate them and let them learn what I had done thus far. Then I let them grow, and they have, each on their own.

FB: How were your children exposed to the business?

LB: My son was 4 years old when I opened my first restaurant, and my daughter was born the next year. I think being around food their whole life had a big influence on them. When my children were small, they would go to school and then come to the restaurant and do their homework. My mother, whom we call Grandma, was there. She would take them home and they would finish their homework and go to bed while my husband and I would remain at work. When we took our vacations every summer we'd return to Italy and do research. Our children accompanied us when they were 5, 6 and 7, going to different wineries and meeting important producers. They'd play, but they'd listen to us talk and absorb everything.

FB: How do you keep track of what's going on in all your companies?

LB: We have regularly scheduled financial meetings for the restaurant businesses, where we call the managers together and go over the month's numbers. I also get quite a few reports in my inbox daily. We hold the more creative meetings regarding TV production and my food line as needed.

FB: What are family meetings like? Do they ever include top executives?

LB: We have both. The Internet has greatly facilitated this because we can send reading materials ahead of time for conference calls. Sometimes I meet with one child or the other, because my son and my daughter have different interests. My son has restaurant wines and the wineries, and my daughter has the books and the two restaurants. Or, we have a family meeting. But often there's a mixture of managers and other people and family members at meetings.

FB: Have you used a family business adviser?

LB: No, I use my accountant, who has known the family for years, and I also have a new one coming in. I use a trust attorney for various trusts, and attorneys for the books, the contests and TV production.

FB: Do you leave social media to your children?

LB: No, I'm involved. I do my own Instagram and my own tweets because my TV viewers and my followers realize that it's really me, it's my words. I want to share with them because one of the most important things in any business is to have your customers trust you. I believe I've developed that trust and that we as a family have developed it. I've always impressed on my children that you can't forfeit that trust. Besides my viewers, I feel very connected and responsible to diners who become my customers, and people who buy my books, my sauce and my pasta. As for my personal brand, I want to keep them informed about what I'm doing so that they stay connected.

FB: What do you do when you and your children disagree about something in the business?

LB: It's like with any business. It's important to understand the different roles and act accordingly. I am a mother, but at this point in their life, I am their partner. I think they still respect me, but they have to make their own decisions, and I have to realize that. Sometimes we call in an expert, such as a manager or financial officer, and then we meet as a family and discuss everything. Since they've been so successful, I don't dictate, although when we are talking about subjects other than business, I'm a regular mother and tell them what I think.

FB: Do you manage to put family business talk aside at big family dinners? Who cooks?

LB: We make sure business talk is not dominant at the table. I usually cook, but the kids help because my son's is a family of five, my daughter's is four, and my mother and I make 11. Everyone chips in. Joe makes great salad and likes to grill. Tanya helps with the actual preparation of the pasta, or whatever we're having. Everyone likes to show the new things they've learned. For quite a few years, instead of giving my five grandchildren gifts for Christmas or graduation or birthdays, I ask them where they want to travel. The youngest is 14 and the oldest is 19. Often the discussion around the table is about travel, and the wisdom of Grandma. It's a real Italian family table gathering.

FB: How has your experience as a refugee from Communist Yugoslavia and as an immigrant to the U.S. shaped the way you run your business?

LB: Your experiences make you who you are. Being oppressed had a huge effect. We couldn't speak Italian or go to church. When I was 10, my mother, my brother and I were able to leave and visit my family in Trieste, but my father literally had to escape because the Communists who took over wouldn't let the whole family go. We had just left Grandma in our comfy home, and my friends. It was difficult to find jobs. We had to enter a political refugee camp in Risiera di San Sabba for two years awaiting the vetting process and to prepare for which part of the free world would accept us. I would get in line with a little plate for food. We finally got a visa to come to the United States where we had no one and didn't speak the language. The Catholic Relief Services brought us here.

During my formative years I grew food with Grandma. We had goats and ducks and pigs and made our own prosciutto and olive oil. My grandfather made wine. We had a visceral connection to food from the earth, and then we became dependent on others. In the U.S., we had to rise to the new challenge and the opportunities, which brought us closer as a family. We had a great appreciation of food and the lack of it. I think my drive came from hearing my mother and father talk and ask each other, "Did we do the right thing in coming here? Where are these children going in this new world?" I think my brother and I wanted to prove to our parents that they absolutely did the right thing, that we were ever so happy to be here in this country. We saw the opportunities that some others who had not had my experience may have missed along with a work ethic and the idea of dedicating yourself, always being prepared and also being grateful. All these things have created who I am as a businesswoman and as a person.

FB: Has your family's celebrity changed the way you operate the family enterprise?

LB: I don't think so, because we are focused on customers, as I've always been. I feel that a TV viewer should get a takeaway from the show. They give me that precious half-hour, so they should take away a tip or recipe or technique. Not only am I grateful to my followers, we have a relationship like an extended family, so someone who eats in a restaurant should feel the Italian hospitality and feel good about the experience. They should feel it was a good financial exchange for both of us. In everything I do, I am very conscious about personality. I don't use personality to sell, I use the validity of what I do as a selling point. I'm always aware that I need to earn people's confidence in me and then we'll have a good business relationship.

FB: What have you done to educate the next generation coming up in the business?

LB: Five years ago I started planning for succession. I talk with both of my children, and we talk continuously with attorneys about the future and different trusts, and what we should do. I don't want to continue to work. I want to relax, and I love to travel. We discuss who would like what and who would handle certain things better. As far as the next generation, I leave it up to my son and my daughter to decide, although I do give input. The one thing that's very important to me is that the family always be together and that what we have created and allows us to live well and gratifies us does not interfere with that after I am not here.

I am grooming my children the best way I can in the things I love that helped make me who I am, such as an appreciation for art, travel, music and the opera. I also believe appreciation of family is important, and respect for my 97-year-old mother, who lives with me. I try to impart what makes a caring human being who will ultimately be successful.

FB: Of all your entities, do you have a favorite?

LB: It's like having children. I tell the chefs and managers to think of me as a mother. When one child pulls her apron strings, a mother responds. She loves everybody and sometimes feels that one child needs more attention than others. I tell them that if they feel they need an infusion from Lidia, to just pull the apron string and we'll arrange to be there. I set up regular appointments with them on my own. I want them to feel that I am open and that I am there for them. My role is that of a mentor now, growing or sharing with the people who have worked for me all these years.

I will say that my restaurant Felidia is where I blossomed. In those days female chefs were rare. I cooked regional Italian cuisine, the food that I cook at home, and that's when Julia Child and James Beard and all the journalists asked, "What is this woman cooking? What is this polenta? What is this risotto?" And that's when the opportunities came. Julia Child invited me on her show and her producers said, "You know, you did pretty good." After that I got my own show. Then a writer for Gourmet magazine wrote a story about us and we ended up writing a book together. I saw the opportunities and prepared myself well to make them happen.

FB: What would you advise others who want to open a restaurant?

LB: Number 1 is to prepare yourself. Make sure you know what you want to do and that you have a message people will buy. Then surround yourself with competent people who have the knowledge you lack. I wasn't an accountant when I first started, and I'm still not, but I have a good sensibility when it comes to money. If you're the chef, then who's going to manage your business? Make sure you have a good manager and so on down the line. Also, make sure you don't under-finance the business because that's a sure failure in restaurants. You need to have enough of a cushion to survive almost a year.

Patricia Olsen is a business writer based in New Jersey.

Copyright 2017 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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March/April 2017

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