Emily Bell: What did you study in school? Did you go to culinary school?
Joe Campanale: I actually started in the kitchen. I did a kitchen internship at Union Square Cafe as a sophomore in college. The way that happened took a ton of convincing. I was a journalism minor and studied European studies. Basically what I’d realized was I was writing all my papers for Euro studies about food. I didn’t know why. I just thought it was interesting. I tried to find some way to write about food. One class for journalism was a required class. Everyone said it sucked, the reporting class. I thought, ‘how do I get out of this?’ I went to head of the department and asked if they’d let me do an independent study and go into restaurant kitchen and help out three days a week and write a series of articles. It took a lot of convincing. They were super nervous, and didn’t want me to hurt myself or anyone else.
EB: Would you say this was your entry way into the industry?
JC: I didn’t fall in love with the kitchen. But they were such amazing people. What I really liked about food was entertaining in my college dorm. I had a wine rack in my dorm. I really liked cooking for people and serving people and seeing people—hospitality and taking care of someone through food. Basically when I was in the kitchen, I didn’t like that I wasn’t able to see people enjoying it. When I got back from Italy (I studied in Florence my spring semester), I knew I wanted to work with food. I walked into Italian Wine Merchants and bought a bottle of wine. I thought “This place is great, I love it here, I would love to work here.” On my way out the door I turned around and asked. They hired me first as an intern, then I started to get paid for working there.
EB: You went from sommelier at Babbo to an owner and restaurant manager. What made you decide to make that leap?
JC: My boss at Italian Wine Merchants. We stayed really good friends after I left. I did a wine tasting group at my apartment. I knew that we really trusted each other. I knew we wanted to be in business together at some point, so we’d get together and throw down ideas. One day he gave me a call. He’d heard about space opening up, and did I want to look at it? Open a restaurant with him? All of the ideas we were thinking about, the restaurant wasn’t actually one of them, but I was working at Babbo at the time. The space was perfect, if I’d ever wanted to open up a restaurant, that was the exact area that I would have wanted to be in, the exact size.
EB: How did you go from opening one restaurant to two? What takes you from a sudden restaurant owner to a blossoming restaurateur?
JC: We realized we were turning down more people than we were serving every night at Dell’Anima. Things were going really well, and we started to turn a profit very early on. So we were just beginning our search, just talking about our search, when we heard about space opening up. It wasn’t as well researched, but we were very fortunate. We just heard about these two places opening up. It was a really good deal—a really undervalued space, because it’s West 10th Street, a side block, and it doesn’t have a lot of frontage, but we love it.
EB: How do you get your ideas for your next concept, Anfora?
JC: Anfora was [formerly] a real estate agency, and my cousin worked at the agency. And I was really happy he was there. I heard they were closing and I was super bummed. That lasted a couple of days until we all looked at each other. Dell’Anima was so small, and everyone loves to eat at the bar. Sending people to a bar across street, or to wait outside, we would lose a lot of guests. They’d leave and go somewhere else. And I found that every time I went out to eat or was by myself, I was discovering all these really cool wines that me and my sommelier friends really like. We wanted a place to showcase those wines as well.
EB: How do you come up with the concepts?
JC: They’re concepts that we come up with together. It’s a very sort of democratic approach when it comes to our partners. I like to think Dell’Anima was like a restaurant I used to go to in Florence, which is urban and Italian, but it’s not like the stuffy old Italian. It’s not too hip, it’s a good mix of approachable neighborhood [and] of-the-moment restaurants. L’Artusi was really an expansion on that. Being able to do that and being more approachable. Dell’Anima was so small and the menu was small. A lot of foodies go there, and we wanted to accommodate more people, larger parties, make it a bit more comfortable, have more vegetarian options, that sort of thing. And then Anfora’s the wine bar.
EB: Any stumbling blocks or frustrations in the early days?
JC: The early days I really worked very, very hard. And I still continue to work hard. I worked unnecessarily hard. I didn’t always know the right way to work, in the smartest way. I didn’t give myself enough time away from the restaurant. I live above Dell’Anima, and I think for the entire first year, I didn’t leave the island of Manhattan. I didn’t leave the block either. I made myself very stressed, and put on a ton of weight, and didn’t work out enough, and really just didn’t leave enough. It’s hard to get perspective if you don’t separate yourself. I think I would have tried to have a little bit more balance, step back and get more perspective, getting out the environment.
EB: How do you inspire yet retain your employees?
JC: That’s a good question. And that’s something that I think we’ve been pretty good at. We’re really trying very hard to build a culture. For it to be more than just a job. I’m very proud of the fact that we have someone who deals totally with our social programs – and community development. And someone making the restaurant as green as possible, got us all three star certification from the Green Restaurant Certification, set up CSAs at the restaurants. I think that when you’re part of something like that, you see the restaurant is working towards being green and giving back to the planet and that makes you feel good.
Personally I think that it’s just a realization that you always have to have time for people, even if it seems that they should realize maybe you’re busy. You always have to be open and make time. I try to do a lot of education, always stopping, and trying to give information. People seem to really appreciate that.
EB: How do you define your brand?
JC: We do a ton of stuff educationally, and a ton of training. Everyone who works for us is very well versed. If people care to know a bit more, they can come away with that. When you learn about something it makes you feel more connected to the place, for instance. We have two Italian restaurants. We never, ever stocked Prosecco or Pinot Grigio, not because I hate them, but it’s just part of my philosophy. If someone asks for Prosecco, I’ll introduce them to something that’s new but make sure they’re still gonna be happy with what they’re having. It’s not education as a goal, it’s hospitality as a goal, and education as another tool towards that. That’s why people go to a restaurant, to have fun and have a good time. You have to be very sensitive to that.
EB: What is your customer service philosophy?
JC: Our mission statement is we should try to make everyone feel like a neighborhood regular. We’re a neighborhood restaurant. If you get the feeling that you’re immediately at ease, and comfortable, even if you haven’t been there before, that people are happy to see you, that’s ideal. That feels better than anything else. In terms of being a Beverage Director and sommelier, your primary job is to make sure people are having a fun time, and being taken care of. It’s great if you know exactly every detail, every subsoil vinification, how to serve wine, but the end game, the goal, should be making sure people are having fun, being taken care of. Expertise is just a tool to get to the end goal of making sure people are having a good time.
EB: What are your top three tips for running successful restaurants?
JC: 1. Be open to hearing feedback from everyone, from service to partners to diners. You need to take the time to get their feedback and hear about what’s actually going on. There are people who are getting real information. You can’t talk to every single table, but you can talk to all your managers and servers and see what’s going on.
2. Be open to change. Every time we get a new manager in, they come with new experiences, with their own set of experiences, and so we always ask them to look out for the “wtf” moment. If they see something and they’re like “Why in the world do you do it that way?” Encourage them to do that, and to bring in new ideas. You have to be open to those new ideas. I’ve only worked at limited restaurants. Every time you get more people, you get all their experiences, so make sure you’re open to their feedback.
3. Take care of your employees. Get rid of the barriers for your employees, then everyone else will be happy. You don’t want to put barriers in the way to make peoples’ jobs more difficult.
EB: What is your five year plan?
JC: I want to make sure that Dell’Anima and L’Artusi are around for a very long time. And then I want to make sure that they continue to get better. I think it would be really fun to do more wine bars like Anfora. It’s so much fun, you have so much flexibility, it’s just a blast. And hopefully open up another couple restaurants. [Chef] Gabe [Thompson] and I have a few more ideas. I’d like to write a book, in a few years. I have a few wine book ideas and one on profiling natural winemakers. I’d love to do a cocktail book on the apertivo hour. I actually wrote my thesis on the apertivo hour.