Coming to America: Building the American Dream on Restaurants and Real Estate
When Frank Illiano left his native Italy and came to the United States 27 years ago, he didn't plan to stay. He figured he'd get a business, work for a while, make some money, and head home.
It wasn't long, though, before the American dream took hold. This was a country where hard work and tenacity in business could pay off, for anyone. And even if his English wasn't perfect and he didn't have a rich family, he could make it here--and he did.
He started off with his own Italian restaurant, and then began to add new locations. Life was good. He got married, started a family, and played soccer. And as he was kicking around the idea of starting his own sports bar a few years ago, a golfing buddy told him about The Greene Turtle.
The franchise caters to the sports bar crowd with a restaurant that's part bar and part casual dining. The restaurants are wired with flat-screen televisions on every table. Large-screen-screen TVs broadcasting the big games and all kinds of sports paraphernalia adorn the walls. The sets in the booths broadcast family-friendly entertainment. This allows The Greene Turtle to cater to a broad cross-section of consumers and to move seamlessly through its operating day catering to them, which helps counter slow periods. It's a place you can bring a friend or a family. Illiano liked it and bought in.
Today, he's one of the brand's most successful franchisees, with five bustling locations and plans for four more. He's also expanding his franchise business, adding California Tortilla locations under a new regional development agreement. And he's adding an independent family restaurant to the mix of pizza places he's established.
Illiano, who has been working since the age of eight, still puts in a long, hard week. But it has paid off, and even in these recessionary times, he's managed to keep his business on track and growing.
"In this country, you can do pretty much whatever you want," he says. "As long as you work hard, you can achieve anything."
Name: Frank Illiano
Company: The Illiano Group of Companies
No. of units by brand: 5 Greene Turtle; 9 New York J & P Pizza (not a franchise); 1 California Tortilla with a development plan for 2 more.
Family: Wife, Mia; a 14-year-old son and two stepchildren
Years in business: 40
Years in franchising: 5
Key accomplishments: Opening these restaurants is the best thing we could have done. The key is finding good locations and having a good concept, good quality food, friendly services, and good prices--especially in today's market.
Biggest mistake: We were opening too many restaurants at one point and it was very hard to keep control.
Smartest mistake: That was the first store we opened in Hampstead (Maryland). People said it was too small, it won't support a pizza place, and it's one of the best stores we have.
How do you spend a day, typically? I get up at 5:30 and then take my son to school. I'm in the office by 8. I work the first part of the morning in the office. I also do a lot of commercial real estate, so I go look at different projects.
Work week: Every day it's always the same thing.
Favorite fun activities: I play golf and I'm in an over-40 soccer league on Thursday nights. And for years I coached my son's soccer team.
Exercise/workout: Golf and soccer.
Favorite stuff/tech toys: A SmartPhone from Verizon.
What are you reading? I like newspapers and magazines. I stay on top of some of the market issues.
Favorite quote or advice? You have to work to get to a point. Nothing is free.
Best advice you ever got: You know who your friends are in difficult times.
Formative influences/events: I came to this country and I was going to stay for a little bit and leave. Then I got the restaurant and it was very successful. In this country you can do pretty much whatever you want. As long as you work hard, you can achieve anything.
How do you balance life and work? I try to get home about 5 p.m. and spend time with my wife and son. We go to football and hockey games.
Business philosophy: You have to make sure you do the right things. And you have to treat the employees right. They're the key to success.
Would you say you are in the franchising, real estate, or customer service business? Why? Customer service. It doesn't matter what business you're in, it's everything.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? The restaurant business is a challenge and you want to make sure you always do the right thing.
Management method or style: We have a general manager for each restaurant and we have an office manager. We have a head of operations, a head of training, and we do a lot of training.
Greatest challenge: Right now taxes keep going up and a lot of the business is slow. Things are pretty tough out there.
How close are you to operations? I go to the restaurants every day. I try to make each restaurant once a week.
Personality: Pretty friendly, likeable.
How do others describe you? Probably the same way. I do a lot of community things. A lot of people respect me in the community and we respect them.
How do you hire and fire? The GM hires people. When we hire a GM, I get involved. We want the GM to run the business as if they owned it and get involved in the community. I tell them, you don't see me, that's good news. You see me two times in the same week, it's bad news. At two times, they get scared.
How do you train and retain? We train them on every level; service, food, everything.
How do you deal with problem employees? We write them up. But for some things, there's not a second chance. If you provide alcohol to a minor, even if you're a top employee, you're fired. And that's why employees respect me. We're not playing around. We had one of the best servers serve a minor. He said he was too busy. That's not a good excuse. We catch somebody doing drugs, they get fired. We just can't afford those kinds of things. But if you show up late once or twice, we write you up.
Annual revenue: $20 million
2010 goals: We'll keep the same, make sure we don't drop. We're down three or four percent over last year, which is pretty good in this economy. And we have two more Greene Turtles to open along with another restaurant (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) that is not a franchise.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? Store-to-store sales.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? I probably want to be right here in Mount Airy, Maryland. I want to keep the restaurants I have and add a few more.
How has the most recent economic cycle affected you, your employees, your customers? A lot of people just don't go out to eat like they used to. We had to go back and make a lot of cuts. You have to go back and adjust everything. Obviously, the economy is going to turn around, but right now things aren't very good out there.
Are you experiencing economic growth/recovery in your market? Not really. Where we are right here is pretty steady. We saw a drop over last year, but nothing dramatic.
What have you changed or done differently that you plan to continue in the future? We made some changes, but we never made a change to the quality of the product we produced. We wanted better service from people who provided trash removal and things like that, but we never changed the quality of the food.
How do you forecast in today's economy? It's very hard. If revenue this year is the same, we'd be happy.
Where do you find capital for expansion? Usually through local banks. Now that's going to be very hard. For a lot of first-timers, the banks don't give them the time of day.
Is capital getting easier to access? No. It's very hard.
Have you used private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? No.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place? My long-term strategy: I still want to be in the restaurant business. I just want to keep everything right here in Mount Airy, where I am. I have a lot of real estate in Mount Airy.
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