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Steve DiFillippo Looks Back on 30 Years of Davio's

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From creative marketing to celebrity visits, lessons learned to dreams of expansion, Davio's owner Steve DiFillippo reflects on the growing restaurant group's first three decades, starting with his purchase of the struggling restaurant when he was just 24 years old and ultimately growing it into a national brand with more locations on the horizon (not to mention an ever-growing spring roll product line).

Steve DiFillippo
Steve DiFillippo

Tonight (Wednesday, October 21, 2015), Davio's hosts a 30th anniversary party at its Back Bay location from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets are available here for $200/person, with 100% of proceeds going to The Greater Boston Food Bank (you may also simply leave a donation for the Food Bank on that page if you're unable to attend the event.) The party promises cocktails, wine, and Prosecco; appetizers, pastas, steak, seafood, and desserts; live music; and the chance to "mingle with local Boston celebrities and sports players."

Does it feel like it’s been 30 years?

30 years. How crazy is that? Hard to believe I’m still here. People say to me all the time, "You know, Steve, it’s been 30 years; when are you going to get out? When are you going to sell, move on?" I’m just getting started. We’ve got a lot going on. I love what I do so much. I’m not going anywhere.

What was it like buying a restaurant at 24 years old?

It’s funny — I think that the less you know, the more you do stuff. Now when I look back on it, I’m like, "What the heck was I thinking?" But at the time, I wasn’t married, I had no kids, I think I had a car — that’s about it. I bought a couple condos in Allston when I was at BU and sold them. At the time, the early '80s, you could buy stuff for so cheap, and then the market was just on fire, so two or three years later, you sell them for twice what you paid for it. That’s kind of how I got the money, and my dad helped out, and it was just one of those crazy things.

I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was a young person; I had my own paper route, and then I had a landscaping business, and I was always trying to make money. My father's a great businessman — he taught me a lot growing up — and my mom was a great cook. After BU, I went to chef school in Cambridge and put it all together.

Also, don’t think Davio’s at the time was what it is today. We’re talking very small; the dining room sat around 60 downstairs and 50 upstairs. I was the chef and general manager at the beginning. We had 15 people in the company, and it’s not like today. Much more manageable. Today I’ve got 850 people, and it’s a whole different story.

How did you come upon Davio’s?

I was actually looking at another space, and the guy who was helping me knew this lawyer, Bill, and Bill was one of the eight owners of Davio’s. The original owner of Davio’s left in '82, selling the restaurant to an accountant and a bunch of investors, so they took over the restaurant, but they really weren’t restaurateurs. One guy was an accountant, one guy was a lawyer, one guy was a construction guy — it was a disaster.

After I was looking at something else that fell through, Bill said, "Why don't you look at Davio's? I’m part-owner, and we would love to have you come in and see what you think. Maybe we can work out something where you buy half of it and then over a bunch of years you could buy us out, something like that."

Sometimes people don't realize that they're the problem — the people running it.

The place was dysfunctional. The was just a disaster. But it has so much potential, and it had a great lease. I said, "Wow, if I can just get rid of all these degenerates..." I didn't want to do the 50% thing; I wanted to buy the whole thing, because the problem was them. Sometimes people don't realize that they're the problem — the people running it. They had to go.

I got a loan and paid those guys off over a bunch of years (one guy wouldn't sell and I had to buy him out later), and I owned the whole restaurant. People ask why I kept the name; I had no choice, because the lease had 17 years to go on it, and there was a provision that if I touched the lease, I could lose it. That would have been a problem because in those three or four years since the lease had been signed, Newbury Street went on fire, and the rent would have been a lot more, so I kept the name. It wasn't a problem; I love the name. When you say Davio's, you know it's a restaurant right away, and it sounds Italian. It's a nickname that they called the uncle of the original owner (whom I had never met, by the way).

What was the most difficult aspect of those early years?

Money. You need money. It’s impossible to open a restaurant with no money. I didn’t have enough money. I used everything I had to get the place, and then it was a mess; it was a dump. Within two years, I tripled sales. If I didn’t do that, I never would have made it.

Even today, with seven restaurants and I’m building my eighth and ninth, it’s always about money. I always try to put as much money together as possible — I never forgot how it was those first couple years of not having enough money to pay bills. It’s probably the most stressful thing to possibly happen to you beside health issues or deaths or family issues. What do you do? You can’t just invent it. It doesn’t grow on trees, right? If you get it to grow on trees, give me a call; I’d like to invest in that company.

Did you find anything surprisingly easy in those first few years?

I was a marketing major at BU, so I’m like a sales guy, and I always had ideas about how to get people to come in. That was probably my easiest thing.

We would put guys in tuxedoes, and we would send them down Newbury Street with pizza (I started this pizza and pasta cafe upstairs.) And we’d go to salons, because when you're getting your hair cut, does that woman or guy who cuts your hair stop talking? They don't shut up; they just talk and talk and talk, driving you freakin' crazy, right? And what do they do after work — they go out drinking, right?

So I wanted to get them to come to Davio’s after work and talk about it during the day. We became the hairdresser place. We hit all the hair salons, invited them all, bought them some drinks, gave them pizza. And I went to all the concierges at the hotels and got them to come in.

It was crazy, and then we got reviewed in the Globe, and then everything just kind of took off.

Can you pinpoint one favorite memory from all of the years of Davio’s?

I have so many stories. When Bruce Springsteen came in for the first time, I was on the phone; this was the Arlington Street restaurant. I’ve met Mick Jagger, President Bush (the first one, not the second), Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brady — it just goes on and on and on, the people I’ve met. But Bruce Springsteen. I’m in the galleria section where we have our to-go shop, and I’m out there on my phone, talking to [Patriots president] Jonathan Kraft about something, and then the general manager comes out to me. They know not to bother me if I’m out there on the phone.

Springsteen's here.

He comes out and starts standing next to me, and I keep turning away from him because I’m talking to Jonathan. Finally he grabs me and goes, "Steve." I go, "What?!" and he goes, "Springsteen’s here." I’ve seen hundreds of Springsteen concerts — it’s huge for me. So I go in, and he’s sitting there at the table with his wife. It’s around 5:15; there’s no one in the restaurant but him. I walk over to him, and I go, "What are you doing?" I just couldn’t believe he was there. Just walked in. Bruce Springsteen just walks in the restaurant. He ends up having a drink, dinner, loves our spring rolls. He's come back a bunch of times.

How have you seen the Back Bay dining scene change over the years, and how have you had to evolve the restaurant to go with it?

What’s happened to Boston is there have been a lot of independents; back 25 years ago, it was mostly chains. There was Charlie Sarkis and his group, and you had Legal — you had a bunch of bigger guys. Now you’ve got a lot of chef-owned restaurants, like in the South End, there’s Chris Coombs, Ken Oringer, guys like that. They were nowhere to be seen; they were probably in high school, junior high. We’ve got individual people who now have their own places, and they’re all creative and they all have their own niche and we’re all friends.

I’m in other cities — New York, Atlanta, about to open in LA — and it’s different in these other cities. They don’t have the same camaraderie, the same friendships that we have. Boston is really remarkable. I’m really proud of the city. So that’s the difference. These individual chefs now have their own restaurants, multiple restaurants, which is really cool. We’ve kind of become our own little chains, even though we hate that word.

What has fueled your expansion to such varied locations? Why Philly, why Atlanta, for example?

I’m building a national brand. There are [only] so many Davio’s you can do in Massachusetts — we have four, and I probably could do a fifth, but to be a national brand, you gotta be in other cities.

When I have a colonoscopy, I always tell the doctor to leave my horseshoe up there, because I’m the luckiest guy in the world.

I grew up in a family that grew companies, and my mom taught me how to cook. I was very fortunate to go to cooking schools and go to Europe, so I’m kind of a hybrid, a businessman chef, which is very unusual. Most chefs are not good business people, honestly, and a lot of front-of-house guys don’t know how to cook, so I’m the luckiest guy in the world because of where I grew up. When I have a colonoscopy, I always tell the doctor to leave my horseshoe up there, because I’m the luckiest guy in the world.

So the plan was always to build a company and grow it into a national brand. It’s so much fun going into a new market. It’s very challenging, and it’s really fun to start all over again and do it. Get the marketing plan going and get out to the hair salons and get out to the concierges...we do the same thing. I’m like a broken record. I just keep doing what I’ve always done, and it just seems to work.

And I have new ideas too; I’m not just an old-timer. We’re becoming electronic — electronic media is so important. It’s crucial. I do a lot of public speaking, and I tell them all the time — a lot of people don’t understand electronic media. If you don’t, then you hire someone who does. It is crucial today.

Do you have any dream cities that you’d love to expand to?

People always say to me, "Why aren’t you in Vegas? Vegas doesn’t really intrigue me too much. My dream cities were New York and LA, and now we're opening in LA [and already have a location in New York]. I’ve always loved San Francisco; I remember going there with my family when I was a kid. I love the West Coast. I see us opening three or four restaurants out there in the next five years.

It would be easier if I can build the infrastructure out there. When you have one restaurant, it’s difficult to have a regional manager, have someone who’s in charge of the restaurants like I have here in Massachusetts. That’s kind of my dream. I think to have three or four restaurants in California would be a pretty amazing dream for me. Being an East Coast, Boston guy who grew up in Lynnfield, MA to be in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, that's just crazy. And I just stay humble, and I just keep doing what I do. I’m just doing one at a time, doing what I love to do.

Bottom line, what gives Davio’s its staying power?

You come to Davio’s, and you get that consistency, and you get what the heck you want.

I think it’s consistency. Are we the greatest food in the world? No. Are we the most beautiful restaurant in the world? I mean, it’s beautiful, the food’s pretty good, we’re kind of expensive — all these things, right? But there are so many restaurants like that. The difference is that you get what you expect. And we take care of our guests. You come to Davio’s, and you get that consistency, and you get what the heck you want.

Looking back, is there a piece of advice you wish you could give to yourself at 24?

I think it comes back to that money question. You just have to put together as much money as you can. When I look back on it, I wish I had done that; I think maybe I spent a little more than I should have. That’s been my regret. That’s what people who get started gotta understand. If you think it’s gonna cost $100,00 or $200,000 or even a million, it’s gonna cost a lot more than that.

If I did it again, I think i would have put together a lot more money, had more of a reserve, and not been so stressed about it. That’s really my regret. Well, there are a million regrets. I laugh at those people who say, "I have no regrets; I wouldn't change a thing." I go, "Well, you're a liar, because that's ridiculous." Everybody’s got regrets. We don’t have all day for all my regrets, but that’s definitely the biggest one.


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