Standing the heat

The kitchen has tested Las Vegas’ Ferraro family, but they have beaten the odds to maintain a successful restaurant

The Ferraro family work together at Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Lounge. From left are Mimmo, Rosalba, Gino and Theresa.

You might call it kitchen machismo.

Gino and Mimmo Ferraro have worked together for years. They are a father-son duo who have spent a fair share of time at each other’s throats over the family business.

There’s a lot at stake in the decisions driving Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Lounge, a Las Vegas institution coming up on its third decade.

As the restaurant’s 35-year-old executive chef, Mimmo has wanted to put his stamp on the menu, incorporating more cream sauces, a change from traditional red sauces his father brought with him from Southern Italy. Gino has had trouble accepting his son’s suggestions — but he’s found himself buckling more and more.

Through it all, the Ferraro family has stuck it out, often having dinner before opening shop, no matter how much the business has tested their relationship.

To Gino and Mimmo, that’s a badge of honor.

•••

Maybe it’s no secret: Most family businesses fail.

Though more than 75 percent of all operations in America are family-owned, only a third of them survive into the second generation, according to the Family Business Institute. Less than 12 percent survive into the third generation.

Jim Hutcheson, a Dallas-based business consultant with Regeneration Partners, has spent the past 20 years helping such families work things out.

If there’s one thing he’s learned through his work, it’s that all families have issues when working together — even if they tell you otherwise.

“Those people are not telling you the truth,” Hutcheson said. “The reality is these things (generally) don’t survive.”

Tensions in family-run businesses often stem from disagreements about compensation, senses of entitlement, performance problems and straight-up conflict — all of which can be corrected with compromise or outside help, Hutcheson said.

The business consultant has worked with one client who spent $10 million of the family’s business money in 10 years at casinos.

“He’s losing a million a year. The company can’t support that,” Hutcheson said. “You can get those kinds of issues. You can’t cover payroll, and it puts dramatic stress on the family.”

The Ferraros never had the luxury of hiring a professional — they depended on their own will to survive.

•••

Gino Ferraro worked his entire life in restaurants.

He grew up in Calabria, Italy, where red sauces reigned and cooking was a way of life. When he moved to New York at age 12, he brought the region’s culinary style with him — a tradition as old as the country it came from.

At age 17, Gino opened his first restaurant in Syracuse, a little Italian place called Caffe Ferraro. He wanted more.

He wanted to spread his Italian tradition to a bigger market — like Las Vegas. So in 1976, two years after he married his wife, Rosalba, Gino sold the cafe to his brother and darted to the desert, where he planned to open several cafes in casinos.

He soon realized Sin City wasn’t ripe for cafes.

Gino turned back to food in 1983, opening Italfoods, a wholesaler that supplied casinos with fresh Barilla pasta, olive oils, cheeses and meats, such as prosciutto.

Two years later, the family opened the first incarnation of Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant. A simple deli and pizzeria, the establishment opened with six tables but soon required more. By 1992, demand grew so strong that Gino relocated to a bigger restaurant on West Flamingo Road.

Ferraro’s soon became the place to go. The line was out the door. And Gino built it all: from the recipes to the music to the way chefs prepared to cook.

His children witnessed him build his empire, a world where he’s the only one with answers.

“With my dad it’s not our way, it’s his way,” said Theresa Marretti, his oldest daughter.

But his way came at a cost.

Relationships suffered. He didn’t have time for sports with the kids. The restaurant ruled his world.

“You have to give up your life for the restaurant,” Gino said. “It’s more involved than being married.”

Gino put in his time. The seasoned chef was set in his ways.

Then his son Mimmo graduated from culinary school and wanted to change things.

But Gino wasn’t having it.

This gave rise to conflict, the basic problem that plagues family businesses, according to Hutcheson.

•••

Domenico “Mimmo” Ferraro always wanted his own kitchen.

The oldest son went from playing in his father’s restaurant, watching him run the show, to studying cooking at the California Culinary Academy, even spending some time in Tuscany.

Not long after graduating, he took over as the restaurant’s executive chef and eventually wanted to bring in a touch of Northern Italy, with its fresh herbs, butters and cream sauces.

Gino didn’t trust it: A successful restaurant is a consistent restaurant. You can’t just change the menu and expect everyone to accept it.

“I had to put the brakes on,” Gino said. “People change recipes from one idea to another and they fall on their face.”

More simply: You don’t mess with tradition in Gino’s kitchen.

The policy, he said, was a matter of maintaining the restaurant’s integrity and quality.

Mimmo kept trying to develop dishes, eventually squeezing them onto the restaurant’s daily special menu. One meal was lobster ravioli, still one of the menu’s most popular items.

“Some days there’s a lot of compromise,” Mimmo said. “Some days there’s no compromise.”

“When it comes to making a decision, it’s mine,” Gino said. “I’m doing the best thing for the business.”

Mimmo wouldn’t quit. He just needed an opportunity to prove himself to his dad.

The young chef saw his chance at the Palm Restaurant in the Forum Shops, during a lunch party for his mother’s birthday.

“They have the best crab cakes,” Gino said as he put in an order.

“I can make them better,” Mimmo said.

So he went back to the kitchen and whipped up his own crab cakes.

When his dad took a bite, Mimmo knew he did well.

“These are the best cakes I’ve ever had,” Gino said.

It was just start he needed. Gino began to trust his son’s choices.

Hutcheson, who once worked with his family’s successful photography business, said that’s the first step to success with loved ones: getting on the same page.

“You establish common ground and a vision for the future,” he said. “That’s the hard part.”

•••

Another common pitfall for family businesses involves performance issues, which can get complicated because the work ethics of two generations often vastly differ.

Hutcheson works with a client in Florida who works 80 hours a week while his son works 50. To the father, that’s a lack of motivation: a performance issue. But to the son, that’s life.

“Those differences in values are what bring these issues,” Hutcheson said. “They’re not devoting everything to it like you did. They decided they didn’t want that.”

Gino Ferraro knows a lot about the toll a business can take on family.

“The restaurant business takes a special person: There’s the passions, the love, the time,” Gino said. “You have to commit yourself to the restaurant.”

The Ferraros’ restaurant has grown beyond your typical mom-and-pop operation: It’s open morning and night, employing more than 65 people.

“You can’t say one person can run this,” Gino said.

Mimmo wants to run the business, but he doesn’t want to run it the way his father did for so many years.

The restaurant has taken over his life, and he doesn’t want that for himself forever.

He’s up before the sun to take his kids to day care, only seeing them for a few minutes. He’s in the gym before 8:30 a.m. He’s in the restaurant before 11:30 a.m. Home by 11:30 p.m., he crawls into bed with his wife, whom he sees only when she visits the restaurant.

“Do I want to live that life when I’m my father’s age? No, I don’t think so,” Mimmo said. “You don’t create a business to have a job. ... But that’s the restaurant business.”

•••

One of the biggest family business killers is succession planning: Who’s going to take over when the parents step down?

If two brothers work together and their dad retires, who will take over? That’s when conflict tends to arise, Hutcheson said.

A Family Business Institute survey once found that 51 percent of business owners believed they had a written succession plan. But when deeply questioned, the survey found those business owners confused stock ownership with business ownership.

When children are involved in a family business, succession planning becomes more difficult. Conflict often arises from the discussion because the children want to know who will take over when the time comes.

In the case of the Ferraros, Gino is uncertain whether the business should continue when he retires. It’s a difficult business for one person to handle.

“I don’t see that right now,” Gino said.

•••

In the decade since Mimmo took over the kitchen, he’s become much closer with his father.

He has his own “Chef Mimmo” tasting menu, a $95 secret item that brings the chef to your table with dishes like lobster, black truffle risotto, and — you guessed it — crab cakes.

Today, the arguments with his father are not much about food as much as service.

Gino works the front door as a greeter and believes the customer should never wait.

“We can’t put out 90 plates in 10 minutes,” Mimmo said.

And sometimes they’re at each other’s throats.

To Mimmo, Gino needs to be more considerate when seating guests. To Gino, Mimmo needs to cook faster.

If the arguments get too heated, Rosalba steps in.

“It’s hard when your kids are involved and your husband is Italian and brazen and hotheaded,” she said.

Along with her oldest daughter, Theresa, the restaurant’s marketing manager, she’s the peacekeeper.

In the past few years, she hasn’t had to step in very much.

In typical Italian families, Mimmo said there’s a lot of hot blood, but he doesn’t have the temper his father has.

“If we both had that temper,” he said, “we would have killed each other.”

Now with his own children, Mimmo understands what makes Gino the obsessed man he is. With a family to take care of, you have to be obsessed with taking care of business.

Sure, their personalities may be different, but Gino and Mimmo say they’re closer than they’ve ever been.

Still, Gino offers the same advice to anyone considering opening a business with loved ones:

“If you don’t have to,” he says, half-joking, “don’t do it.”

Ask Mimmo, and he’ll offer his own twist with a laugh:

“Turn around and run!”

Business

Share