WHAT HE LACKS in formal culinary training, Frank Scibelli makes up for in resourcefulness and business acumen. When Scibelli opened his first restaurant, back in 1992, he was unable to find a source for fresh mozzarella in Charlotte, NC — so he found someone to show him how to do it. Today the cheese is but one reason that restaurant, Mama Ricotta's, perennially ranks as one of the city's favorites. He expanded it in 2001, then added three more concepts: a Mexican cantina (Cantina 1511), a Tex-Mex joint (Paco's Tacos & Tequila) and a place for gourmet burgers (Big Daddy's Burger Bar). Today, he has six restaurants, and he's opening a BBQ place early next year. To ensure authenticity at these diverse concepts, Scibelli has traveled with his staff to Mexico and explored Texas, working with cookbook author Robb Walsh to develop the best recipes. Two years ago, naming him restaurateur of the year, Charlotte Magazine summed up his influence this way: “Chances are, one of your favorite restaurants is owned by Frank Scibelli.” Megan Rowe visited with Scibelli recently.
RH: You have an MBA, right? How did you wind up in this business?
Scibelli: I did business consulting when I first got out of school. I ended up traveling a lot to visit clients, and eating all this great food. Plus, I'm Italian, and food and socializing have always been central in our culture. I was 26 or 27, and I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I love food and people, so I figured, I'll try this and if it doesn't go well, I can do something else.
Mama Ricotta's opened as a 39-seat restaurant back in 1992 (it expanded to 200 seats in 2001). Two years later, I bought a fine dining Italian restaurant. It was probably the biggest failure I had, an absolute money pit. The sellers had cooked the books. Then I started a catering company. We did NASCAR events, social catering and law firm business. At the time, Charlotte was the primary growth area for Bank of America and Wachovia, and I did a lot of that business.
RH: From there, how did you transition into Mexican, then burgers?
Scibelli: I was friends with Dennis Thompson, one of the founders of Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, and he asked if I would like to do a restaurant with him. So we created Cantina 1511. That was seven years ago, and it did well right off the bat. North Carolina didn't have better-quality Mexican food; it was all dive-y Mexican restaurants. We opened the second Cantina two years later. Next, we launched the first Big Daddy's Burger Bar; that was really successful, so we opened a second one a couple years ago. And we recently opened a Tex Mex place, Paco's Tacos and Tequila. They are all in this area. Now we're doing a burger concept venture with Firebirds Wood Fired Grill (where Dennis Thompson is c.e.o. now) in Wilmington, DE. We can't call it Burger Bar because the name is in use, so we haven't decided on a name yet.
RH: Has your consulting experience helped you as an operator?
Scibelli: I think I've used a lot of those skills. In consulting, because you're often evaluating an entire business, it gives you a more holistic perspective than if you are trained as a chef. There's a saying: If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. If you're a chef, it's got to be a food issue. I have an awareness of all aspects of the business. I'm not great at accounting, but I have a talent for marketing our businesses and think I'm good at the operations side.
RH: And how did you figure out the food part of the business?
Scibelli: The recipes I started with were basically family favorites with variations. I also went to Italy and studied, then I went to Mexico and traveled all over to learn. A year and a half ago I took a chef with me to Italy and we worked with chefs at the Culinary Institute of Milan and other places. Early on it was just me. Now we have a corporate chef who has worked for me for eight years. We're on same page from a culinary standpoint.
RH: You expanded from Italian, your native cuisine, to Mexican to burgers. How did you choose these concepts?
Scibelli: In traveling, I was exposed to better Mexican food. And I felt like Charlotte was lacking. I thought “I would love to have that here.” It sounds cliché, but I do food I like. As for burgers, I think you can't go wrong with a great burger. In 2008 that was still relatively new. I have three boys, and they would eat cheeseburgers every day. So I thought, why not do a great one?
RH: If you had to pick one of your concepts to roll out into a chain, which one would it be and why?
Scibelli: I think Big Daddy's has a lot of potential. It does ridiculous numbers for what we put into it and the cost of capital. It has a really broad appeal, I think, because we consciously put a lot of vegetarian stuff on the menu, Kriss Harvey (from Chicago's Butter restaurant), who makes the best ice cream in the country, created our version, and Burger Bar has a cluttered, comfortable feel. We have some sports memorabilia, a lot of rock and roll stuff, corrugated metal walls, but we worked with a designer who added a touch of femininity to it, with the fabrics and color scheme. Moms will take their kids there at 5:30.
RH: What did you learn from your brief experience with fine dining?
Scibelli: You've got to do food that makes you happy, and that should be reflected in the whole restaurant. All of our restaurants are very comfortable and serve accessible food. I'm not a fan of food that is too complicated. We're obsessed with finding the best ingredients. I know local is huge, but I'd rather have the best. So we bring in fish from Boston, and pasta from Italy.
RH: And what kind of local products do you incorporate?
Scibelli: The most common are great tomatoes, jalapenos and basil that we have grown for us, We also use local chicken, pork and beef, but not exclusively. We go through about 2,000 pounds of beef per week per store at Big Daddy's — they can't provide that much. We also buy from a local baker.
RH: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
Scibelli: The part of my job that's really fun is continuing to come up with new concepts. I'm fortunate that they all do well. I've been friends with Chris Bianco (acclaimed chef behind Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco), and we might work together. We're lacking for good pizza in Charlotte.