Veteran restaurateur finds new way to fill his Capital Region eateries

Tuesday evenings were typically slow at Bellini’s Italian Eatery.

Tuesday evenings were typically slow at Bellini’s Italian Eatery.

Like many area restaurateurs, Joe Marrello struggled to get diners into his three Capital Region locations during what is ordinarily the slowest night of the week in the service industry. And that was even before the recession touched down.

Marrello wasn’t willing to stand by watching an idle kitchen. With nearly a lifetime of experience in the restaurant business, the 42-year-old restaurateur realized that something needed to be done to improve business.

“You really need to think outside the box,” he said.

Marrello surmised that if he couldn’t bring customers into his locations in Slingerlands, Clifton Park and South Windsor, Conn., he’d bring Bellini’s food to them. In January 2010, he started a promotional deal called “Dinner Table Tuesday,” which offered a two-course meal to feed four at the eye-popping price of $19.95.

The concept was marketed as a way “to bring the family back to the dinner table.” Marrello figured it would appeal to the busy schedule of working families looking for a hearty, restaurant-quality meal at a price they could afford.

At first, the offer met with marginal success. But with more than 2,200 people following the Bellini’s Facebook page, it didn’t take long for customers to catch on.

Today, Bellini’s churns out roughly 300 of the specials each Tuesday from each of his kitchens. Last summer, he started offering the deal at Jacob & Anthony’s American Grille, his new restaurant venture in Saratoga Springs.

Dinner Table Tuesdays are now the third busiest day for Marrello’s restaurant. Increased costs forced him to boost the price to $22.95 in January, but his customers haven’t seemed to mind.

“Still the best bargain in town,” said one fan in a recent post on the Bellini’s Facebook page.

Marrello’s marketing savvy is among the reasons his line of five restaurants continue to register strong sales amid the slumping economy. Nationally, sales declined by 1.2 percent in 2008 and 2.9 percent in 2009, according to figures compiled by the National Restaurant Association.

Initial optimism over sales last year was tempered by a slight downtrend in November. Though consumers seemed to have a bit more disposable income, they remained constrained with their spending, said Hudson Riehle, a senior vice president with the association.

“Like the economy as a whole, the restaurant industry’s road to recovery will be one with occasional bumps along the way,” he said.

The recession has been a bit kinder to restaurants in the Capital Region than elsewhere. Don Benjamin, the director of membership for the New York State Restaurant Association, said the downstate area seemed to have a greater percentage of eateries snuffed out by the economy than the Albany area.

That doesn’t mean the economy has been easy on area restaurants. Benjamin said sluggish sales have forced restaurant owners to work harder to manage their restaurants.

“When business gets bad, the harder they have to work,” he said.

And in Marrello’s case, his ability to manage is evident by the growth of his restaurant and catering business, the Marrello Management Group. He’s opened four area restaurants in eight years and now employs roughly 200 people.

The growing company is a huge departure from the 20-seat diner his father, Anthony, first opened on Delaware Avenue in Albany more than five decades ago. Still, the food offered at all five restaurants pays homage to the quality of his father’s tried-and-true recipes.

“We’re constantly making sure we’re giving customers what they expect at a price they can afford,” he said.

Marrello likes to say the restaurant business is in his blood, and it’s a statement that is believable, given his success. He started washing dishes as a teenager but grew to learn every aspect of the business with his father.

“It was basically hands-on learning,” he said.

Marrello’s flair for the business culminated in him opening a Houlihan’s franchise at Crossgates Mall with his father in 1998. The restaurant’s success became evident in 2002: While the corporation was declaring bankruptcy, his restaurant was thriving. At the same time, Marrello was preparing to open his first Bellini’s location in Slingerlands.

The spot he chose was in a bustling shopping plaza off New Scotland Avenue. Marello grew up near the location and had a hunch that a restaurant there would draw customers from the dense residential neighborhoods surrounding the plaza.

The success of Bellini’s spurred the development of a second location in Clifton Park in 2004. Then two years later, the owners of the Slingerlands plaza approached Marrello about opening another Bellini’s at an outdoor plaza they were building in a suburban area outside Hartford, Conn.

This period of expansion continued with Jacob & Anthony’s opening at the 38 High Rock condominium building in Saratoga Springs last summer. This latest expansion of the business was a bit of a challenge for Marrello, considering the new restaurant was financed and launched in the thick of the recession.

“We went forward to weather the hard end of the recession,” he said.

But more importantly, he didn’t go forward blindly. His company researched the demographics and saw unbridled opportunity in the Spa City location: A restaurant space in the heart of downtown with an expanding convention center located only a few blocks away.

Business at Jacob & Anthony’s — named after Marrello’s son and father — has been robust. Marrello said it’s contributed to a rebound in sales in 2010, after an off-year in 2009.

Part of the appeal of Marrello’s restaurants is their consistency. And he attributes that consistency largely to a pair of managers that have been with him since his first days as a restaurateur in one case and much longer in the other.

Kris Karpierz, who oversees Bellini’s front-of-the-house operations and serves as beverage director, has worked with Marrello since his days at Houlihan’s. Jim Kavanaugh, the director of culinary operations and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was a childhood friend of Marrello’s.

“Their input is critical to our success,” he said. “We talk 24-7.”

In general, Marrello’s concept for success in a down economy relies on a simple business model: Ensuring food is top-quality and affordable. At Bellini’s, most entrées range between $16 and $18; prices are a bit higher at Jacob & Anthony’s, averaging about $22.

“We’re constantly making sure we’re giving customers what they expect at a price they can afford,” he said.

But most of all, Marrello said it’s his company’s attention to customers that sets it ahead of competitors. He said his restaurants strive to serve hot food and cold drinks in a clean environment with attentive service.

“You’ve got one chance to impress customers,” he said.

Categories: Business

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