Bob DeZinno Has Owned The Hottest Restaurant In Waterbury, Designed Restaurants Throughout Connecticut, And Is An Expert On Restaurant Marketing. He Takes Observer Readers On A Tour Of The Dining Scene In Greater Waterbury.
If there’s anyone who knows the restaurant scene in Greater Waterbury, it’s Bob DeZinno. For the majority of his life DeZinno has been surrounded by the hustle and bustle of “restaurant life.” He has been involved in almost every aspect of the restaurant business — from management, to ownership, to development and marketing. Bob DeZinno is a true restaurant connoisseur.
With years of experience in the restaurant business, Dezinno shared his knowledge regarding restaurant success and failures: “In order to be successful, the restaurant must focus on the customer,” he said. “It’s all about the customer. There are four important things — the customer, the employees, the restaurant’s ability to be profitable, and product quality. Very well-run restaurants focus on those four items and never stop thinking about them, and never stop working to improve them. When a restaurant fails it’s because someone wasn’t paying attention, they were taking their success for granted. When a restaurant succeeds it’s because their management made it successful.”
Good restaurants in Waterbury have an unusually long life span.
“In this town, good restaurants last forever,” DeZinno said. “Drescher’s and Diorio’s have been here since the 1830’s, and San Marino’s is going on 30 years, and Carmen Anthony’s is going on 12 years. This is the town for a well-liked restaurant, if the people enjoy it, it’ll stay around.”
DeZinno has known the highs and lows of the restaurant business. In the 1980s he owned and operated the Westside Lobster House, which for nearly a decade was the top dog in the city. Capitalizing on his success DeZinno helped launch the Taste of Waterbury, opened Hemingway’s Restaurant in Watertown, and restored the Elton Ballroom in downtown Waterbury. When recession swept through Waterbury in the late 80s and early 90s, DeZinno lost his restaurants. But instead of plunging back into the restaurant business, DeZinno launched a successful restaurant consulting business and during the past 15 years has helped launch several high profile eateries around Connecticut. DeZinno is a entrepreneur with many talents and also began teaching food and beverage management at Naugatuck Valley Community College.
DeZinno now co-owns DT Media, a marketing and graphic design company on Chase Ave in Waterbury. “The best part of building a business is dreaming of ways to get the customer to come through the door’” DeZinno said. “My intent really was to have a marketing firm just for restaurants.”
DT Media has an impressive list of clients including Mercury Fuel and Carmen Anthony Steakhouse, and has launched a unique website, restaurantsct.com, where customers can browse menus online, make reservations and buy gift cards.
“We’ve been online for five years and have fifteen hundred restaurants in Connecticut listed,” DeZinno said “We hold Google’s number one position when you search best restaurants in Connecticut.”
The man clearly knows the restaurant business.
National data says that 85% of new restaurants fail within the first three years, but DeZinno said Waterbury is a different kind of place to do business in than just about anywhere else on earth. “The Waterbury business community takes care of itself,” he said. “It is very networked and reciprocal. Waterbury’s a great town to do business in.”
Others may think differently, particularly ethnic restaurants that open in the Waterbury area. It seems ethnic restaurants are more widely accepted and established in neighboring cities. If you walk down the streets in downtown New Haven you will be overwhelmed with the wide variety of restaurants serving Thai, Greek, Indian, and Ethiopian cuisine. However, if you walk down the streets of downtown Waterbury you’re limited to Italian and Chinese food, and pretty much nothing else.
Demographics play a pivotal role in the acceptance and success of ethnic restaurants. New Haven has Yale University with students and faculty from all across the planet. Travel creates openness and fosters more adventuresome eating habits. Waterbury has residents from all over the world, but many ethnic groups solely eat their own cuisine. Adventure dining in Waterbury is limited, and restaurants offering new cuisine often have a difficult time gaining a toe hold.
Although few people would consider Mexican food a wildly extravagant adventure, Marco Martel had a difficult time getting Waterbury to accept it 12 years ago when he opened Tequila’s Restaurant on Lakewood Road.
“Waterbury is a big Irish and Italian city,” Martel said. “Mexican was out of context. It took time and a lot of education to get people to begin to accept our menu.”
Martel used to visit every table to help explain the choices on the menu, and to dispel the misconception that every dish was going to be fiery hot and spicy. “Some customers were afraid until they tried the food and found out that Mexican food is not that hot.”
Martel credits the Travel Channel for helping to open customers minds. “Now trying different foods is seen as a good thing,” he said. “It is an adventure.”
Martel said some of his earliest supporters were chefs from other restaurants. “They came here to try different food and they helped a spread the word.”
At the heart of the dining experience is food, but Martel said it is important to have great ambiance in a restaurant as well. “Customers want to see something different,” he said. “They want you to take them somewhere and be entertained.”
But to succeed you have to have great food. “Quality authentic Mexican food is the heart of my business,” he said.
Tequila’s is on a busy strip of retail space along Lakewood Road that has Whooster Pizza, Big Franks, Cedars (Lebanese) and Kumo (Japanese). “ The more variety in one single place is better for all of us,” he said. “This way customers don’t need to travel to Hartford or Danbury to try new food. They can stay local and never get bored.”
Soul food is now being offered at the Urban Grill on North Main Street. Owner Rochina “Money” Brown, has brought something new to the city of Waterbury – some good old fashioned soul food with a Starbucks flair. She runs an internet café’ next to the restaurant, which serves iced coffee fusion drinks. The Urban Grill has been in operation for nine months. “The restaurant opened with a great start, but when the summer hit, business started to waver,” Brown said, “but now it’s picking up again right where it started.”
Rochina said the Urban Grill’s success is its ability to stay in touch with the community, and its popular menu. “‘Our breakfast menu does so well, people love the grits. Our lunch and dinner specials, Cat fish and macaroni and cheese are popular as well, and our Banana Pudding dessert is another favorite.”
Smokin’ Kettle, co-owned by Leon and Zina Newman, is another restaurant offering some hearty ethnic food. The restaurant has been in business for a year and offers scrumptious smoked barbecue ribs, cross-fish dooley soup and sweet potato pie. Business is steady, the owners said.
La Cazuela, with a vast selection of traditional Dominican food opened on the corner of West Main and Willow in 2000 as a one room takeout, and has now expanded into a large dining room, a lounge and extensive catering services. The restaurant is now undergoing another renovation.
Addy Vargas-Salazar and her husband, Juan Ignacio, are the co-owners of La Cazuela. Addy has just completed her studies at the Center for Culinary Arts at New England Tech and graduated in October. Starting this month La Cazuela will introduce new dishes as Addy’s goal is to specialize in authentic, traditional Dominican cuisine.
So how does Addy describe Dominican food.
“No fat, no flour, no butter,” she said. “Everything is made from scratch.”
Dominican cuisine uses a lot of garlic, Dominican oregano, red onions, green peppers, sea salt, cilantro and culantro. Caramelized sugar is used to color the meats.
“People often think of Latin food as hot,” Addy said, “but Dominican food is not hot at all.”
A traditional Dominican dish is rice and beans and meat. “We identify ourselves with these foods,” Addy explained.
“There are three colors in the Dominican flag and they symbolize rice and beans and meat to us.”
Addy said she and her husband continue to see new faces in the restaurant as Waterburians are beginning to become more adventuresome in their dining habits.
Two new restaurants in the East End of Waterbury have had different launching experiences in the past six months. Kumo, a upscale Japanese restaurant on Lakewood Road has turned some heads with it’s attempt to bring a New York City dining experience to Waterbury. They describe it as Japanese French-Style cuisine. The owners invested a huge amount of money to completely overhaul the interior of the former Japanica Restaurant, and the effort appears to be working. Marco Martel from Tequila’s has been across the street to check it out and said “The owners have done an excellent job in fixing up the interior,” Martel said. “When you are sitting inside Kumo you feel like you are somewhere else.”
A half mile away on Wolcott Road, a wonderful Thai restaurant, Hataya, has folded up shop after only six months. The owners, Aroon and Soraya Kaoroptham, purchased the former Sun Hing Chinese buffet and transformed it into an upscale Thai Restaurant. Aroon flew his mother in from Thailand to help run the kitchen, and despite sensational food at a modest price, greater Waterbury didn’t embrace the restaurant. The Kaoropthams own and operate the Thai Noodle House in downtown New Haven, a small restaurant that is jammed with Yale students. They had hoped to take the success of their New Haven venture and expand it into Waterbury, but the doors of Hataya have been locked shut for two weeks, seemingly ending their dream.
We asked Bob DeZinno what his take on the situation was.
“It’s really all about the market,” DeZinno said. “If the market’s not really looking for all those really cool ethnic restaurants then they shouldn’t do business here. They’re not going to be successful. It’s really simple, figure out what the customers want and you give it to them. If the casual chains are proliferating in the market then it’s because that’s what the market’s looking for.”
And the chains are doing very well in Waterbury.
“I think the chains have gotten a strong foothold in Waterbury and the public certainly likes them,” DeZinno said. “But every ten years Waterbury gets excited and wants to change itself, and it takes two steps forward and always takes one step backward. And then another ten years goes by and it tries again. I believe we’re in the beginning of one of those new ten year periods.”
Several candidates for mayor this year in Waterbury touted the idea of creating a downtown restaurant district. Can this work in Waterbury?
“I would support the downtown dining district 100%,” DeZinno said. “I’ve had conversations with someone from a city in Massachusetts that I would compare with Waterbury, and he was asking me for some consulting help with something they’re trying to accomplish up there. They have some money to spend, and what they realized was that their downtown makes an ideal dining district.”
The plan developed in Massachusetts would be for the community to lure in talented young food and beverage professionals with the promise of financial assistance. The young entrepreneurs would have drive and experience and would submit business plans to a committee comprised of individuals from the public and private sector. A large corporation that owns a lot of the property would also review the plans, and decisions would be made as to whose plans were best, and who the community wanted to invest in.
“Their idea is brilliant,” DeZinno said. “And I think it’s the only way the downtown dining district will work in Waterbury. There’s been study after study done for downtown Waterbury and every consultant and every designer says put restaurants down there. I think if you look at any revitalized area it’s always started with restaurants that had some ‘nerve,’ and invested in the area. And before they knew it, more and more restaurants came in, and it flourished. If all of these little store fronts could be transformed into these little cool restaurants one after the other, like Bank St., Grand Street, and East Main Street, all within walking distance, we’d really have something.”
Not every restaurant owner in greater Waterbury is keen to have the city help build a downtown dining district. Marco Martel at Tequila’s doesn’t believe Waterbury is ripe for such an undertaking and has declined overtures to relocate downtown. “I don’t think we’re ready,” Martel said. “There’s no parking available and most people don’t go downtown to dine unless they’re going to Diorios, or another well-established restaurant that they’re familiar with.”
But Gianni D’Amelio, who co-owns D’Amelio’s Restaurant on Highland Avenue in the Town Plot neighborhood of Waterbury, believes the downtown dining district would be great. “Minus the parking issue, Waterbury definitely needs a restaurant district,” he said. “Every major city has one.”
Gianni and Giuseppe D’Amelio have transformed an old fashioned Italian deli into one of the finest Italian restaurants in Connecticut. For the past two years D’Amelio’s Italian eatery was voted by Observer readers at the Best Italian Restaurant in greater Waterbury. Giuseppe used the recipe’s his grandmother learned back in Italy, and offered traditional peasant dishes on the menu to their patrons. The result was a home run.
“My brother and I are very hands on,” Gianni said, “our specialty dish, such as Pasta-sacheini, which is made with four different cheeses, is a customer favorite.”
Urban Grill owner Rochina Brown is also keen on the downtown restaurant district. “When more and more sophisticated, upscale restaurants are being introduced to the city that cater to the food connoisseur, as opposed to the fast food industry, more and more people will desire restaurant diversity. I think that a downtown restaurant district would be a wonderful idea.”
Will Greater Waterbury see the revival of an upscale downtown restaurant district? Only time will tell.