Savoring the family meeting
A noted TV chef who leads a thriving family gourmet empire offers eight tips for making a family business meeting successful.
It's been well over three decades since I launched my first business—a tiny restaurant in Queens, N.Y. During the ensuing years, I have been very fortunate to enjoy considerable success in that venture and many subsequent enterprises. None of these things would have been possible without the unfailing support, talents, encouragement and dedication of my wonderful family—no fewer than four generations of them.
That family consists of my son, Joseph, 35, his wife, Deanna, and their children; my daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, 32, her husband, Corrado, and their children; and, perhaps most important, my mother, Erminia Motika (Mattichio), who at 84 is the matriarch of the clan—its inspiration and loving, nurturing wellspring. Together, we have built a small business empire that currently encompasses five popular high-end restaurants in three large American cities, food products, a public television show, an international travel company, a flourishing vineyard and a series of cookbooks—a multimillion-dollar company that continues to grow.
It has been an extraordinary journey for the Bastianich family. In 1956, I immigrated to New York from Trieste, Italy, with my parents and my brother, Franco. In 1971, when I was 24 years old, I opened my first restaurant, Buonavia, in Forest Hills, Queens, with my then husband, Felice. It was a small place, with 13 tables accommodating 32 people. I was not yet a full-fledged chef, but I was anxious to learn. I think we succeeded largely because the hospitality business was rooted in our ethnic heritage—some say it's genetic. Italian cuisine focuses on nourishment, but also on the pleasures at the table. It satisfies all the senses: taste, of course, but also color, texture and aroma. You derive a great deal of flavor from a small bite.
Our restaurant was busy from the moment we opened the doors. Within two years, we enlarged our capacity to 75, and within another five years we doubled that. In 1978, we opened a second restaurant in Fresh Meadows, Queens, which also became an instant success.
Eager to join the dining “big leagues” across the East River in Manhattan, we sold both establishments and in 1981 opened a 26-table restaurant called Felidia on New York City's East 58th Street. By then, I was an accomplished chef.
Our family has been thrilled with Felidia's success, but we haven't stopped there. We branched out across the country, opening Lidia's Kansas City in 1998 and Lidia's Pittsburgh in 2001. The James Beard Foundation presented me with its Outstanding Chef Award in 2002 and this year nominated Felidia as one of the top five restaurants in the country.
A partnership with my children
The beauty of our family is that our relationship is built on trust, and we all recognize each other's individual strengths. To my children—who are first-generation Americans—I always stressed the importance of education, and they took my words to heart. My son, Joe, earned a bachelor's degree in political science and philosophy from Boston College. He then went to work as a bond trader for Merrill Lynch. My daughter, Tanya, was trained as an art historian. She received a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University, a master's degree from Syracuse University and a doctorate in Renaissance art history from Oxford University.
In the early 1990s, Joe came to me to inform me of his dissatisfaction with life on Wall Street. What he wanted to do was run a restaurant. As a child, he would do his homework at Felidia and later worked there as a busboy and waiter. I sent him to Italy for a year to gain experience working at restaurants and wineries, learning cheese- and pasta-making, and living the Italian lifestyle. When he returned in 1993, I agreed to become his partner in a new restaurant called Becco, on West 46th Street in Manhattan's theater district. It, too, became very successful. Today Joe runs Becco, and I work with the chef on the food.
One of Joe's passions is wine, and by 1998 he had become a true wine connoisseur. That year, we acquired a vineyard in Friuli Venezia Giulia—a region in the northeastern corner of Italy, where our family's roots are. Under Joe's guidance, 12 people work for the Bastianich winery. For the past three years, Joe's Vespa has won the prestigious Tre Bicchieri prize for wine excellence from the authoritative Gambero Rosso. In 1999, we decided to tackle the retail side of the booming wine sector and launched Italian Wine Merchants in New York City. Joe is the visionary behind the retail wine business.
In the restaurant world especially, nothing succeeds like success. Joe later began a successful partnership with Mario Batali, a noted chef. These two talented, energetic young professionals joined forces and, in some six years, opened five successful restaurants: Babbo in 1998, Lupa in 1999, Esca in 2000, Otto in 2003 and Casa Mono in 2004. I am a partner in Esca. Joe, Mario and I will soon open Il Posto on West 16th Street in the trendy meat-packing district.
Meanwhile, my daughter, Tanya, spent years in Italy doing research and writing her dissertation. While in Italy, she met and married Corrado Manuali, a Roman-born attorney now at the New York firm of Lazare Potter Giacovas and Kranjac LLP. Corrado is now closely involved with all the legal aspects of the Lidia Bastianich business empire.
Unable to resist the “family gene,” Tanya started a travel business with a friend, Shelly Burgess. Their travel company, Esperienze Italiane, grew out of the desire of many of my customers to accompany me on my frequent trips to Italy. It is now an upscale operation for a niche market, providing tourists with the best that Italy has to offer in art, food and wine. It has organized tours for the American Express Platinum Card, New York University's World Class Program, Williams Sonoma and many other corporate clients as well as hundreds of trips for families and couples.
In addition to the travel business, Tanya and Shelly Burgess have developed my website (www.lidiasitaly.com), which draws an average of 65,000 visitors monthly, and a quarterly newsletter that reaches 89,000 subscribers. Tanya, with her artistic sensibility, vision and business acumen, has spearheaded the launch of a line of food and lifestyle products bearing my name, under the tutelage of the new CEO for this division, Christina Johnson (the former CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue). Tanya and I are collaborating on a book for Knopf, For the Love of Italy, planned for publication in 2006.
I see my business as a legacy, a way of life the family will continue into succeeding generations. My five grandchildren, who range from one to six years old, are already involved. For my new public television show, Lidia's Family Table, there will be four generations on the set. We will also be publishing a new companion cookbook based on the show. My previous cookbook, Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen, I'm pleased to say, has already sold more than 300,000 copies. (My first television series, Lidia's Italian Table, debuted in 1998.)
Sunday family dinners at home remain at the heart of my ethnic tradition—a tradition I have worked hard to maintain and pass on to my children and grandchildren. At the table, something happens when we eat together. We receive nourishment not just from food, but from the company, the occasion and sharing the family stories. My grandchildren will remember this. The tradition will give them stability. People who watch my television show often tell me that they miss this family togetherness in their own lives.
How do we all work together?
With all of our family members involved in so many different ventures, you might wonder how we keep track of everyone's activities. There is little doubt in my mind that an essential ingredient of our success has been our enormously productive family business meetings, which we have been holding for almost longer than I can remember. Many of the great ideas, plans and goals that have driven our businesses over the years were born and took shape at these gatherings.
Our family meetings usually come on the heels of a hearty family meal and by now have become something of a weekly ritual. Sometimes I meet alone with Joe and Tanya; other times, all four generations gather together. Key meetings are mandatory and rigidly set in advance, at a location convenient to all that day. Other family get-togethers are more loosely structured. Sometimes our meetings are purely spontaneous.
Here are some tips on how any business family can run—and profit from—meetings:
1. Hold family meetings on a regular basis to keep everyone informed. In our case, every member of the family needs to be fully up to speed on everything of importance that is taking place in each of our business units in order to take full advantage of synergies among our various businesses.
2. Set an agenda with action points—and stick to it. In our family, everyone's input is important, because all of us have been there since the inception of nearly all of our businesses. Make sure that every person at a family meeting has an opportunity to be heard. Let the person closest to the project lead the discussion. Someone must keep a timetable and announce when time is up so all points can be addressed. No outside interruptions should be allowed, except if the children are calling.
3. Encourage family members to voice their ideas, no matter how far-fetched or impractical they may appear to be at first hearing— and always be candid. There should be no fear of penalty for speaking honestly.
4. Invite an expert to attend a meeting to address an important aspect of your business, such as public relations, marketing, business development or the state of the economy. You'd be amazed how willing they may be to help. You might tap into your extended family, perhaps including some of the professionals who are currently serving your business.
5. Businesses can't be static. Innovation is essential to continued success. At these meetings, explore new ideas for business ventures, which can evolve from current initiatives. Out-of-the-box thinking should be encouraged. Our successful line of sauces, a natural outgrowth of our restaurant activities, was first broached at one of these meetings.
6. Invite a valued customer to attend, and ask for a frank appraisal of what you are doing right or wrong. Question that person closely. You may be surprised at what you will learn.
7. Appoint a final arbiter, and adhere to this person's recommendations in the event of a stalemate.
8. Allow teenagers or other younger members of the family to participate. You never know where a good idea can originate—it may come “out of the mouths of babes.” And it's always wise, early on, to give young family members a sense of future ownership and to help them develop a positive attitude toward the business.
I love being involved in a family business. Working with my children and watching them learn and grow has been a wonderful gift. We have accomplished much that we are proud of. We recognize, too, that to grow even more we need to expand, and that means going outside of the family for additional expertise. But the core of our business will always be the family. For this, I am truly thankful.
Lidia Bastianich, who was named an outstanding chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2002, is the co-owner of five restaurants in New York, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. She is the author of Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen and Lidia's Italian Table, companion cookbooks to her public television series (www.lidiasitaly.com).