Frank Bonanno now owns eight establishments in Denver, which makes him one busy chef. Between frequenting Mizuna, Luca D'Italia, Bones, Green Russell, Osteria Marco, Wednesday's Pie, Russell's Smokehouse and Lou's, he had some time to sit down with Eater Denver. Bonanno tells us that after opening three restaurants in nine months, he's slowing down to evaluate his businesses, and while Bonanno expansion might be idle for the moment, it sounds like a franchise could be in the future.
How is Lou's doing? The perception for this neighborhood is that it’s expensive. I have family friends that will come in and tell me, “We went to Lou’s and it was so great, but it was like $80 for my wife, myself and my two kids.” That’s a week’s worth of groceries for some people. We’re going to start a family pasta night on Tuesdays where it’s $20 for adults with a glass of wine and free pasta for kids, just to get the neighborhood back. Everyone has tried us and likes us, but it’s too expensive for families. That’s who we have to capture. Our Fridays and Saturdays are great, but it’s brutal on a Tuesday night.
Do you fear that you’re going to compromise the quality of your product by lowering prices?
I made a mistake when we opened here. I made several. When we first opened, the entrée only came with a vegetable and no starch because I wanted to sell you a side of au gratin potatoes. I thought if we just did a really great vegetable with each entrée it would be awesome, but it turned out that people were actually like, “What the fuck? I don’t get potatoes? I gotta buy those?” We rectified that pretty quick. I’m looking at prices now. We sell like no hamburgers. Yea, our burger is a certified 8 oz Angus Harris Ranch burger, but it’s $12. In this neighborhood you can go to Burger King and get a burger for, I don’t even know, $3? So we’re looking back, Lou's is almost a year old. It’s time to make some changes. We’re not going to change any of the entrée prices, or lower the prices, we’re simply going to add other options.
So what’s next for you? Well, we have a proposal to put an osteria out at DIA. That would be the only foreseeable project that I have right now.
So it would be Osteria Marco at the airport? The same concept? Yep, an Osteria Marco out at the airport.
You like that idea? Yes. The space that we’re bidding on is a big space. It’s actually about the size of Osteria Marco. We have a proposal out. It’s a big process. They’ll narrow it down to five businesses that will pitch to the city and then they'll decide what they want. It’s an expensive process because you have to put together everything, and then you don’t know if you’re going to get it or not.
Do you know what your competition is? I don’t. You don’t know who the other four people are going to be. It’s a weird deal at the airport. I’d franchise it to a company that runs it and then take a piece off the top.
So let’s say this DIA thing works out. Could that become a chain concept?
Yea, I would consider rolling out several osterias. I mean, we’ve been approached. We’ve talked to people, but right now we need to step back and look at our businesses. Could we have stamped out a bunch of osterias at this point? Probably. It’s a really solid concept. It’s pizza. Everyone loves pizza and paninis. It’s a great casual way to dine with groups.
How did you open three restaurants in nine months?I have a great team of people. I have a great bank that we work with. Opportunities presented themselves and we took advantage. We started with Green Russell and that was just something we wanted to do that was different from anything that we had, and when we saw the space in Larimer they offered us a great deal and it made perfect sense for the block. We really rushed to get that open. We started construction here [Lou’s] while we were still under construction at Green Russell. The space that is now Russell's Smokehouse was empty until October because Larimer had plumbing they had to do for the block. Once they were finished, and since we were already paying rent on the space, we knew we had to open something to occupy another 3,500 square feet. It was sushi or a smokehouse. What else would work in a basement? It just seemed that the smokehouse seemed to fit more with Green Russell. Sushi is a different beast and to be honest, my wife was like, "We're not doing sushi."
All of your restaurants are so different. If you think back ten years ago, did you imagine that you would have such variety of spaces? No. Ten years ago I thought, “In ten years I’ll be standing at Mizuna, cooking.”
What changed that? When we opened Mizuna I had a partner. You realize very quickly in fine dining that the profit margins are very small. There were two of us trying to make a living. I was starting a family and had just bought a house, so we knew we needed to grow if we were going to make any money. We decided Italian. I love Italian and I am Italian, so we looked at several locations and then by happenstance I was outside one night and the lady who owned the Chinese restaurant that is now Luca was outside. She and her husband were working seven days a week and working 14 hours a day, running that Chinese restaurant. She asked how business was going. I said, “Not bad. It could always be better.” I asked her how her business was going and she said, “Not good.” So I asked if she’d be interested in selling. I asked her what she wanted for it and I think I went about $50,000 less. She said, "Fine." I went down to the basement and wrote a check for $50,000 as a deposit and typed up a contract. I handed her a check that night. That’s when everything changed.
Now that he's in a comfortable spot, Bonanno hopes that he'll have more time on the line at Mizuna, where he says he's still most happy — the place where everything started.
Frank Bonanno[Photo: GreenaliciousAspen]