SpotOn from scratchRestaurant Advisory Council member Dominic Vicari is the second-generation operator of the Joe Vicari Restaurant Group – the home to 25 restaurants and 10 different concepts, primarily in the Detroit Metro area. A family-owned business, Vicari concepts include Joe Muer and Andiamo. For over 40 years, the Vicari Restaurant Group has provided authentic cuisine, impeccable service, and a warm, inviting atmosphere. Dominic has worked every role in the restaurant, from dishwasher to server to general manager. Now, he oversees operations at multiple locations and the group’s technology partnerships.
I had my first restaurant job when I was 10 years old, washing dishes in my dad’s banquet hall. My dad, Joe Vicari, graduated college wanting to get into the restaurant industry. He and his college roommate scraped together the money to buy a Ram’s Horn restaurant. When one of their regulars shared that he was selling his Italian restaurant, my dad bought it. This was the first Andiamo in Warren, Michigan, the first Joe Vicari Restaurant Group restaurant—it still operates today in the same location.
Throughout the years, I’d help out with prep and pizzas, picking up slack in the kitchen. Like many right out of college, I bartended one summer. When I wasn’t in the restaurants, I was playing ice hockey. Ice hockey took me through college and to the minor leagues, where I bounced around different teams. Then my wife and I got engaged, and the unpredictability of a sports career didn’t seem as attractive to me. I became more involved in the restaurants, getting in the weeds and learning every role from back to front. My dad told me, “To be a true owner, you need to know every position, and you need to know them better than the employees you hire.” So I took that to heart, spending two years in the kitchen and rising from entry-level manager to assistant general manager to general manager.
It was never “Here’s the keys, son,” which is something I appreciate. Spending time in the kitchen and learning the food aspect of the business was extremely valuable. It’s such an important part of the business at Vicari Restaurant Group. We really pride ourselves on purchasing and preparing the best ingredients, being a 100% from scratch kitchen, and offering the finest cuts of meat, fresh pasta, and high-quality wine. Take bolognese, for example. It’s not something you can whip up in five minutes by tossing ingredients in a bowl. Bolognese is time-consuming. It requires patience, the right cuts of meat, and fresh ingredients that balance each other out.
Premium ingredients are the core of our business. We run high-end restaurants, which will always be challenging from an operator’s perspective. Profit margins are slim throughout the restaurant industry, but they’re especially challenging for fine-dining restaurants. Instead of compromising on our ingredients, we take a two-fold strategy: ensuring our guests see the value of their restaurant experience and implementing tech to make our operation more efficient and profitable. Read the story.
If I could go around to every table and tell them the story of our restaurant, I’d do it. Until then, my staff members are the faces of the company. You have to have a good relationship with your staff so they know you have their back. We take coaching very seriously. Every Saturday, we meet for “Wine Saturdays,” where we taste our new wines and learn about them. This helps our staff sell better and also shows them we’re invested in their growth. The average diner might not know the difference between the tomato we buy from Italy and another tomato, so it’s our staff’s job to explain it and show the value of the dining experience.
Tech is the other piece of our profitability puzzle. Change is never easy for a 40-year-old family business. But we can’t deny the impact that tech has had on the restaurant industry. From reservation systems to inventory to clock-in management, technology has transformed the restaurant owner’s day-to-day. I still remember writing daily reports longhand on a piece of paper, spending countless hours ensuring the numbers were correct. Tech has helped the restaurant industry focus on the important stuff: being out on the floor, not in the back office doing reports.
Tech has helped the restaurant industry focus on the important stuff: being out on the floor, not in the back office doing reports.
Consider our wine list. We have a couple thousand bottles of wine at any given time. Without inventory software that integrates directly with our point-of-sale, inventory would take forever. Now, it’s seamless. What would have taken me 5 hours a day, I can do in 45 minutes. Technology has also improved the experience for our customers. Online ordering has created additional revenue streams besides walk-ins.
From that first Andiamo location in Warren, Michigan, the Vicari Restaurant Group grew to 25 restaurants and 10 different concepts. We’ve been recognized as a Top 25 restaurant group. We’re proud to still be a family-owned business. Of course, that means there are times when we’re not taking paychecks because it might have been a bad week or month. But it’s more important to have that control that you can make things work—important for our staff and for our guests. We don’t take our business for granted. The restaurant industry is notoriously competitive, and we’re grateful for our guests who keep coming back. We’re hoping the Vicari Restaurant Group will be family-run for generations to come, no matter what changes the tech industry or tomato supply chain throws our way. We’ll be ready for them.