Restaurateur of the Year: Frank Scibelli

Chances are, one of your favorite restaurants is owned by Frank Scibelli. The forty-four-year-old opened Mama Ricotta's in 1992 and moved it to its current spot in 2001. In 2004, he opened the first Cantina 1511, and last New Year's Eve came Big Daddy's Burger Bar. Each is a roaring success. In honor of being selected as our tenth-annual ROY, Scibelli shared with us some of the wisdom he's learned along the way.


I hadn't really found what I wanted to do, and I started reading all these career books. They all basically said the same thing — do what you love. Well, I love food and I love people. And the intellectual challenge of doing a business. So I did Mama Ricotta's. I figured if it didn't go well, I could always do something else, and no one would know. I was twenty-seven. Nobody would hold it against me if I screwed up. Fortunately, it did well.

My father did not want me to go in the restaurant business. He's like, "I really needed to pay for an MBA for you to start a restaurant?" So, they came to visit. I think we'd been open six weeks, and we'd gotten a really good review somewhere, and it was a ten-table restaurant. I was like, Dad, you guys need to leave. I need your table. And he started laughing.
Early on with Mama's, we were never considered the best of anything because we were more casual dining, and people were more into fine dining. It used to irk me. I found out that a [fine-dining restaurant called] Si! was available and so I bought it. I lost money for two years. That was when I really learned how to manage my money better, by not having it. I was able to sell that and get out of that sort of reasonably unscathed. But I learned from it.

The food part doesn't get old. It's actually one of the things I don't like about how my job has changed as we've gotten bigger, that I do less hands-on cooking and cooking with the chef. Yesterday at Big Daddy's, we were playing around with our grilled cheese, as silly as that is. We wanted to make a grilled cheese that kids would be like, "This is the best grilled cheese." I don't do enough of that stuff.

It's not about what you like. It's about what the customers like. I always used to say when I first opened Cantina, you'd have a group of four people. One of them didn't really want to go eat Mexican so you need to have something that is sort of familiar.

Before we opened Cantina, I went all over the U.S. and went to the big Latin markets in the U.S. I went to Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, L.A., New York, and D.C. I remember being in absolutely the 'hood in Houston in a Latin market with my chef. It was pretty funny. Then, we started going to Mexico City and some other places. Each trip has influenced the menu. Now we're getting ready to change the menu reflecting a trip we took to the Yucatan.

We have filet mignon tacos. We said, okay, how do you take a carne asada taco, and how do you make just this great version of it? When you go in Mexico in the cities, there's always a little chipotle sauce that is on the table as a condiment. So, we learned how to make that. We're doing them in a cast-iron skillet and slicing it with this sauce and some shredded cabbage.

I'm not going to charge you $25 for a plate of pasta that doesn't cost that much. I think people shoot themselves in the foot instead of charging a fair price. I don't want my people leaving and feeling like, "Wow, I paid that much for that?"

I'm always very fearful of resting on your laurels. I think we're fairly successful. But I think there's always someone who is more successful, and so there is always somebody who keeps me in perspective. We've got a long way to go.

On the culinary side, it's just a God-given gift. It really is. Some of the toughest fires I've ever had to make were people who love food, and they just weren't good cooks.

I didn't realize the appeal of burgers. Obviously, I knew that burgers are popular, but it's just all ages, all shapes, all socioeconomic. Everybody is into the burgers. I mean you've got eighty-year-old people in there. You've got little kids in there. Everybody likes burgers.

We're going to be doing the Cantina at the EpiCentre, and it's actually the corner of Trade and College. I think it's arguably the best location in the city. We will be catty-corner across the intersection with Bank of America and across the intersection from Ritz-Carlton and 200 yards away from Bobcat Arena, with a street-level patio…I'm a little scared 'cause it's big financially. It's the first restaurant I have gone in that we're building out from scratch, and it's going to be more expensive, but I just think it's an unbelievable location.

Categories: Feature, Food + Drink, Restaurants & Food