Called to the Table

by Evelyn Allen

Locals and out-of-towners pour into a restaurant where fire pits and string lights on the patio lend a warm glow to the darkening sky. Conversations and background music blend into a comforting din as Mark Perone ’98 surveys the scene. He steps forward to greet the families and couples laughing and playing on the bocce court between bites of food and then nods in approval as his kitchen and wait staff move at a hastened clip to serve the influx of customers.

Five years after opening the popular Union on Yale eatery, Perone knows the effort that goes into orchestrating such a moment, one in which the front-of-house operations, from the hosts and waiters to the bartenders and floor manager, and the back-of-house team, including the chef, line cooks, and dishwashers, operate seamlessly from guests’ perspectives. “There is far more going on than meets the eye,” said Perone, one among many APU alumni who have carved out successful careers in the restaurant industry, making their marks on a field known even to outsiders as competitive and demanding, albeit alluring. According to research published in the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, some 60 percent of restaurants fail within the first year, and 80 percent do not make it to the five-year mark. Despite those statistics, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Small Business Administration reveal that restaurants involve no more risk of failure than other business startups. Still, for an independent owner like Perone, reaching the five-year milestone represents an unqualified achievement. “Opening a restaurant is one of the most daring things I’ve gotten myself into, and the learning curve was tremendous as a first-time restaurant owner,” said Perone. “We’re still here five years later, and that brings a great sense of satisfaction.”

Much of that satisfaction comes from overcoming the many obstacles to create something extraordinary. “The most important conversations happen around the table, whether it’s at home or at a restaurant,” said Luke Siwek ’15, chef at Hillstone restaurant, part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group, in Phoenix, Arizona. “It’s an honor to be chosen as the setting for one of those moments. When people come out to enjoy an amazing meal, celebrate an event, or take a break from life, it puts a great deal of responsibility on the restaurant to make that occasion all it should be.”

Balancing that commitment to guests with the day-to-day realities of running a multifaceted business requires dedication. “This is a sacrificial business,” said Joseph Bitonti ’03, co-owner of Domenico’s Jr. in Glendora, who joined a family restaurant legacy that stretches back to the 1960s. “When most nine-to-fivers are taking their families out on a Friday night, we’re in the restaurant working to feed them. You give up a lot of family time and miss out on the traditional holidays, because food service is a round-the-clock job, and you have to be able to make peace with that.”

Recognizing the demands the industry puts on personal lives, Jennifer (Keen ’96) Small began exploring the blend of restaurant and family life with a dash of humor through her blog, EmulsifiedFamily.com, which has been regularly featured in The Huffington Post. Married to a career chef, Tom Small (attended ’92-’94), who now serves as chief culinary and operations officer for the Opper Melang Restaurant Group, overseeing 14 restaurants across Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, she sought to encourage others navigating a similar path. “I spent many nights home alone or working the opposite schedule as my husband. Add children into the mix, and this life can really begin to test your patience,” she said. “Connecting with others who help you laugh and support you during the difficult spots reminds you of the blessings that flow from accepting God’s call on your life with grace.”

Most often, that support and laughter comes from family. Bitonti recalled his earliest steps into the business: “Growing up, while most kids were going to the park, I was in a restaurant every day. Now, I watch as my kids play in the back on the giant sacks of flour and jump around my storage room from case to case. That’s my childhood all over again.”

Brothers Michael ’95 and William Kefalas ’96 remember their parents whipping up traditional fare during Greek cultural festivals while they played just out of sight beneath the serving tables. The brothers acquired a love of culinary experiences, and alongside their business training at APU and the many years each spent working in restaurants, it seemed the next logical step to own one. This year they celebrated 11 years of running The Only Place in Town in quaint Sierra Madre, California. “Mike is meticulous and detail oriented; he helps the whole operation stay on task and ensures everything is done properly. I like being creative, finding new ideas, and drumming up business,” said William, describing their dynamic partnership. “Our strengths complement each other and allow us to keep our sanity in a tough business.”

All restaurateurs face the daily challenges of legislative or regulatory issues, employee management, ballooning food costs, and keeping customers happy, but they all admit the real payoff is the unique privilege of watching life unfold around the table. “That is what drives me to make my restaurant the best place possible,” said Perone.

And he is onto something. When done right, restaurant life represents a microcosm of the broader culture, a non-nuclear family united under extreme circumstances. “One of the most compelling aspects of the industry is the many cultures and personalities you’ll find in any given restaurant, especially the kitchen,” said Siwek. “I love that the true diversity of God’s Kingdom is represented in our kitchen, and we’re all there to help each other win.”

And the victories are many. For a restaurant owner, it’s a singular business challenge with myriad variables for which to solve. For a server, it’s the opportunity to earn while extending a gracious hand of hospitality. For a chef, it’s a chance to start fresh, quite literally, each day, bringing delicious new culinary concepts to a hungry clientele. These individual narratives are nourished by all those called to the table.

Evelyn Allen is a senior editor in the Office of University Relations. eallen@apu.edu

Originally published in the Fall '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.