Just a two-minute walk down Queen Street South from the Organique Juice Bar I wrote about earlier, UTM grad Jessica Iatomasi and her husband Nicola are looking ahead to the seventh birthday of their Italian casual fine-dining restaurant, Mondello.
Jessica is the general manager and Nic the executive chef. Like Kanwar Gill of the juice bar, they too know the rollercoaster ride that is opening a restaurant, but unlike him, they never expected they would. “The purpose was never to open a restaurant, really,” says Jessica.
Nic worked his way up from apprentice to sous chef at Stage West, the infamous Mississauga dinner theatre that closed almost two years ago after 27 years in business. Then he got his first executive chef gig at a restaurant in Oakville. He and the front of house manager of that restaurant got the idea to open their own place, which eventually became Mondello in May 2008.
“At that time I was in the middle, towards the end of my studies of UTM. So I was very involved in the start-up of this place, but more from the sidelines, more as an advisor. I helped them secure the financing, I advised on the legal matters and tax issues that they might encounter. Just how to manage their cash flow, how to set their books up, things like that that I was strong at,” says Jessica.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Like many partnerships, it didn’t work out in May 2011 and the business wasn’t doing well at the time. It was a huge financial strain,” she says. Mondello, at the time presenting itself as being on the higher end of fine dining (think white tablecloths, small portions, and an exotic menu—Italian with a French flair), suffered from the recession. Nic became the sole owner that year and Jessica continued to help out while simultaneously working at Ernst and Young. As the restaurant grew, Jessica found it difficult to balance both, so in November 2012 she ended her time at the big financial firm and became Nic’s official business partner.
Jessica had a great deal of experience in hospitality, having worked as a server and bartender. She had a real interest in mixology, the social experience, and the industry itself. When she stepped in, Mondello had a small team, limited cashflow, and a loyal, but small clientele that couldn’t sustain the restaurant. “It was sort of barebones,” she says. “We knew we needed a concept change.” They kept the name, but got a new logo, renovated the space, tossed out the fine dining feel—including the dress code—and overhauled the menu.
They started from scratch, using good old comment cards and conversation with customers.
“People had so much to say,” says Jessica. “So if I would get 10 requests for a mushroom risotto in a month, we would sit down at the end of the month, look at those comment cards and say, ‘Okay, people are asking for this, so let’s throw it on the menu and see how it flies.’ ”
Initially the menu changed every four to six weeks. Since the menu has for the most part settled, it now changes every three to four months to keep it seasonal, cost-effective, and creative.
The approach has worked out well. “It’s important to take that very human, common sense approach and build your business tactics around it,” says Jessica.
Like Gill, Jessica loves having a business in Streetsville, with its high traffic and small-town feel that provides a solid customer base where everyone knows one another. Jessica sits on the board of the Streetsville Business Improvement Association as the co-chair of promotions and hospitality director. Mondello also started the annual Taste of Streetsville and Jessica continues to run it through the BIA with the involvement of other Streetsville eateries.
“The most challenging part about it [running a restaurant] is managing your staff. Hospitality has a bad reputation of high turnover. You get your lifers, but most of the other staff, it’s like a revolving door, in and out. We don’t really have that here at Mondello,” says Jessica.
Interestingly, she prefers to hire front-of-house staff that are new to the industry. “I hire friendly people with smiley faces and hospitable natures. People that are hardworking, fast. […] I get a lot of my opinions on [whether] I’m going to give them a shot or not just on how they make me feel sitting down at the interview. I just have them talk to me, because if they’re making me feel good, then chances are they’re going to be good on tables and make my customers feel good,” says Jessica.
It’s clear that Mondello grew in those first four years. But how has it changed since then?
“One thing that really strikes me is, I remember when in the very early stages when there would be absolutely nobody in the dining room on the weekend during the day […],” says Jessica. “I would literally be standing in front of the restaurant trying to talk to people walking by on the street, trying to coax them to come into the restaurant. I’d get two or three tables in and then run in and serve them myself. And then when they were done, I would literally go out and fish for [more] tables.
“And then a couple of weeks ago I was standing at the bar. And it just—you get those moments where things just hit you—and I looked around and the place was a zoo. We have 20 people that work for us now; everybody was all dressed up, everybody was scrambling, we had every table full, the phone was ringing, there was a line-up at the door, […] the bartender couldn’t even keep up with all the chips that were coming through, or the wine being poured, and you just stop and you look around and you think, ‘Wow. What happened in three and a half years?’
“How it happened? It really is just about listening to what people want and taking every guest seriously and doing your best every single day. Only good can come from that.”
The Iatomasis don’t have fixed plans but are making the most of the opportunity to just enjoy and improve what they have. “Is opening another place part of our five-year plan? No, but I’ve learned never to rule anything out,” says Jessica.
Her advice for students with regards to opening a restaurant: “Don’t do it!” But she does recommend making the most of any feedback. One customer who wrote a negative online review for Mondello turned into a mentor and is now a loyal customer. According to Jessica, mentors are key. So is being motivated by food, service, and entrepreneurship—not money.
When Mondello was just starting, Jessica was a mature student at UTM starting her bachelor of commerce. At 27 years old, she decided to get her charted accountant certification. She graduated in 2009 with distinction and offers from three of the “big four” accounting firms.
Jessica still remembers her first day at UTM—an evening ECO100 lecture with Professor Lee Bailey. She felt overwhelmed by the odds at first, but she made it “to the top of the mountain” of certification and competition and remembers her parents’ pride on graduate day. She believes it’s never too late to start your undergraduate degree.
After all, what she learned during the day in lecture during her undergrad, she brought home and applied to the redevelopment of the restaurant. She remembers sitting down with the department’s associate director, Manfred Schneider, for advice on Mondello—and looks forward to giving back to the institution that played a major role in her now successful business.