Family Business

The Caragiulo family is dominating downtown Sarasota’s restaurant scene. What’s their recipe for success?

Author: Molly McCartney
Photographer: Alex Stafford & Matt McCourtney

In 1988, two college boys and their father, a retired New York baker, were looking for the right spot to open an Italian-American family restaurant. They had been driving up and down Florida’s west coast for days. With Robert Caragiulo at the wheel, brother Mark riding shotgun and father Tony in the back, they headed for downtown Sarasota. When they got to Palm Avenue, Tony spotted a “for lease” sign on a shiny, renovated building and ordered Robert to stop the car. “This is it,” Tony announced.

The father and sons signed a lease the next day and opened Caragiulos a year later, in February 1989.

Today the Caragiulos are running some of the hottest restaurants in downtown Sarasota. Robert and Mark, along with three other brothers, own and operate not only the original restaurant at 69 S. Palm Ave., but last year also launched the wildly popular Owen’s Fish Camp in Burns Court, and, more recently, joined with managing partner Nancy Krohngold to open Nancy’s Bar-B-Q on Pineapple Avenue. At both new eateries people wait in long lines for more than an hour to get a seat. And now, plans could lead to yet another restaurant on St. Armands Circle.

“We are in Phase 2 of our journey,” says Paul Caragiulo, 35. “We were in our ‘doing’ phase for many years, and now we are in our growth phase.” This is happening as Paul, the youngest brother, took on a new role May 13 as a member of the Sarasota City Commission, making the Caragiulo name even more high-profile. (See story, page 16.)

Anyone who’s run a restaurant knows that it’s a risky venture, and the majority fail in the first few years. But the close-knit Caragiulos, with their Old-World traditions of family loyalty, a love of food and a roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic, have found the ingredients to success. The Caragiulos’ three restaurants employ about 80 people, 40 at the original Caragiulos, 20 at Fish Camp and
20 at Nancy’s Bar-B-Q. The brothers won’t say how much the restaurants ring up in annual revenues, but they all agree that they are now riding a wave of success after a shaky beginning.

“We went into debt to open the original restaurant,” says Anna Caragiulo, the mother of the energetic gang of brothers. “We mortgaged our house in New York. Some people thought we were crazy. But these are good kids. They needed money to get started. We took the risk because my husband, said, ‘This is what they want, and they’ve always worked, so we should do this.’”

John Caragiulo, 50, the oldest of the couple’s six children, says his parents also borrowed from Anna’s parents and from Tony’s brother. “We probably borrowed somewhere between $150,000 to $170,000 to open the restaurant,” he says. Even with that, the family was operating on a shoestring.

“We signed the lease and started the plans, but had no budget,” says Robert, 44. “Mark and I drove around looking for used equipment. We found a VA hospital near Largo, and it had a kitchen with some equipment for sale. We got a truck, went up there and lugged it back. Mom made the curtains. My father was doing the baking. Everyone pitched in.”

Tony Caragiulo, now 79, set the ground rules. “He told the boys that things would be done the old-fashioned way,” Anna Caragiulo says. “That meant that the debt would be paid off first and then they would get minimal salaries. And the debt was paid off in about 18 months.”

Tony Caragiulo was born in Mola di Bari, a small town in Southern Italy, and grew up working for his father, a baker. In 1958, Tony went to New York City to visit his sister. While there, he was invited to a New Year’s Eve party, where he met his future wife, Anna Testa, the daughter of Italian parents. The couple settled next door to her parents in East Rockaway. Tony worked for several New York bakeries before opening his own Italian bakery in 1963 in Brooklyn.

Soon there was a household of six children: John, Michele, Mark, Robert, Anthony and Paul. All of them helped in the Brooklyn bakery on holidays and on weekends.

“We would fill cannoli, make cookies, clean the pans, whatever,” says Robert.

In 1987, Tony sold his Brooklyn bakery. He was officially retired at age 55, but still full of energy and ideas.

In setting up the papers for the Caragiulos’ family restaurant, Tony created a partnership for the three oldest boys—John, Robert and Mark. He added the two younger boys, Anthony and Paul, to the partnership a year or two later when they began working full time in the restaurant. Daughter Michele, a teacher in New York, didn’t participate in the Sarasota restaurant business.

The five brothers, who have worked together as a team for more than 20 years, say they are too busy to argue much. “We have very few issues,” says Paul.

Or, apparently, rules of operation. “Don’t look for a manual on best restaurant practices,” he says. “Nothing we do is conventional. We’re a family. We just work hard and get it done.”

Still, each brother brings a special talent to the table.

Anthony serves as an assistant day manager at the South Palm Avenue restaurant. Paul typically handles blueprints, planning and permits—“the boring stuff that nobody else in the family wants to do,” he says.

Mark is regarded as the conceptualist and the mastermind behind most of the restaurant themes. “I come from a cinematic background,” says Mark, who has studied acting and filmmaking and directed, produced and edited the 1998 movie Blowfish. “I see a lot of theater in a restaurant, where you are creating a space that will set an emotional tone.”

At Owen’s Fish Camp, Mark worked to conjure up memories of early Sarasota. “The idea of a fish camp is very Florida,” he says. “At the turn of the last century, you would come here for a month or so, rent a cottage in one of those fish camps, go fishing a month or two and then go back up North.”

Mark says he has all sorts of ideas for restaurants he’d like to do someday. Right now he’s concentrating on a deal to open a 150-seat diner on the second floor of Shore, the St. Armands Circle surfing fashion shop. The
theme would be in keeping with the shop’s surf culture apparel and the restaurant would serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. “It is a big project,” Mark says. “And I would love to open in September.”

Robert is responsible for the general management and the financial side of the family restaurant, taking over from John, who now spends more time working in commercial real estate with Hembree & Associates.

“I was meeting a lot of big players, a lot of people from out of town looking for properties,” John says. “My involvement in real estate primarily has to do with site selection for restaurants and hospitality clientele. That could mean anything from a hot dog stand to marinas and hotels.” Lately, he has been called in as a consultant for banks involved in restaurant foreclosures. Still, he continues to be involved in the family restaurant business and often works Saturday nights at Caragiulos. He also helps the brothers with issues involving leases and locations.

The parents say they now have essentially turned everything over to the brothers. “They are doing their own thing and they are doing it well, so we don’t interfere,” says Anna Caragiulo.

But they help however they can. Anna makes biscotti for all three restaurants, as well as the limoncello, their trademark Italian lemon liqueur. And Tony is a frequent customer at Caragiulos. “Dad comes in for lunch, sits at the counter and has a pizza at least every other day,” says Robert. “He likes to hang out here.”

What It Takes

“Be prepared for a lot of hard work. Don’t count the hours. And it’s not 100 percent that you will make money.”

– Tony Caragiulo

“What would I tell someone? Reconsider. It’s heavy lifting and long, hard hours. You have to build and nourish and feed it.”

– Robert Caragiulo

“You are selling a memory. A person will leave with either a very good memory, a mediocre memory or an apathetic memory. Part of creating a good memory is being complete. You do that with details and by showing that somebody loves the space.”

– Mark Caragiulo

“Opening a restaurant can be the most excruciating fun you have ever had. So be sure to define your concept and see how that concept fits into a location you can afford. A precise, well-defined business plan is very important, and having six to 12 months working capital is critical.”

– John Caragiulo

“You have to get some satisfaction from service and hospitality. You have to want to serve. You can’t fake it. And you have to be in a perpetual state of discovery and find what’s new. You don’t do it for a [paycheck].”

–Paul Caragiulo

Political Appetite
Paul Caragiulo’s newest job.

New Sarasota City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, a fast-talking, quick-witted political junkie, is also a voracious reader, a trained opera singer and an Eagle Scout. But it’s his experience as a small businessman that stands out on the board.

“In small business it’s about employing people and having skin in the game,” he says. “I’ve come face to face with the red tape that local government has the power to impose on business.”

His priorities initially will be solving the city employee compensation and pension issues and then trying to create a climate that welcomes investment in the city “instead of creating a discouragement zone.”

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” he says. “You don’t want a lawless, crazy Wild West kind of thing. But you don’t want inconsistency and unpredictability, either.”

Becoming a commissioner is an extension of his profession to serve people, he says, so his biggest challenge will be setting boundaries. “I’ll have to cut my work schedule down significantly, but I’ll still be at the restaurants,” he says. “People have access to me whenever they want since I’m always at one of three places. When does the commission job end and the restaurant job start? I’ll have to figure that out.”

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