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Restaurateur finds a recipe for success

Rochester Business Journal
February 7, 2014

Trucker, saltwater fishing charter captain, restaurateur, radio show producer, bridge tollbooth operator and drummer in a touring band—so far Charles Fitzsimmons has held two of those jobs.

But the man who claims he is more artist than businessman says he daydreams of experiencing all of them, even if just for a month. That kind of go-out-and-try-it attitude has led to a string of innovative and successful businesses for this entrepreneur, whose brother calls him a “Brighton boy who to this day is still with all his childhood friends. Now he is working with many of them.”

Fitzsimmons, 44, who is known as Charlie, owns several restaurants within the group Two for Seven LLC—named for a popular dinner reservation. The restaurants are Trata at the Culver Road Armory; Black & Blue Steak and Crab in Pittsford and in Amherst, Erie County; JoJo’s Bistro & Wine Bar in Pittsford and Amherst; the Village Bakery & Cafe in Pittsford; and Marche Culinary Events Catering Service.

The companies employ 350 people, including full- and part-time positions.

The businesses display an eclectic style, each with an ambiance different from the others and from other eateries in the area.

“I lean more toward the arts. I would say I’m 60 percent art, 40 percent business,” Fitzsimmons laughs. “It’s interesting but one of my weaknesses, too. I’m not a comfortable guy with directions. I’m good at figuring things out and going in different directions.”

Taking a different direction made business take off when he and older brother Philip opened an upscale bar at East Avenue and Alexander Street in the East End that drew an entirely new crowd of young professionals. They had planned to open a small ad agency but changed course when they saw the potential in the location, a second-story space with windows that offered great views. They scrapped the idea to build a creative house, Fitzsimmons says, and decided to turn the space into a bar instead.

“Ignorance was bliss,” Fitzsimmons recalls. “Neither of us had any construction experience or hospitality management experience. We quickly taught ourselves how to build a business on the job, from hanging drywall to decanting wine. Mom and Dad instilled just enough Irish charm to pull it off. That was Tonic.”

Tonic in opened in 1998 and was a hot spot. Some two years later, the brothers opened Pearl, a Pan Asian restaurant across East Avenue. In 2003, Charlie was ready to strike out on his own, and he sold his shares of Pearl and Tonic to his brother.

New venture
His first venture on his own was JoJo’s Bistro in Pittsford, described as a revival of the American tavern, with an extensive wine list and wood-fired pizza. It is warm and casual, with an upscale flair.

Soon Fitzsimmons thought of trying a new concept.

“The genesis of creating a concept isn’t something we have elaborate research engines to determine. It usually starts with ‘What would I really like?’ and ‘Would it work here?’ Then we go through all the tests from there,” he says. “I don’t think I have many talents, but if I had one it might be I can identify what people would like and then construct something around that vision.

“I have also assembled an incredible team around me that each offers great insight, ideas and direction, helping to bring it to fruition.”

One of those people is early investor Dennis Mullen, former CEO of Birds Eye Foods Inc. and chairman and CEO of Empire State Development Corp., who is now a member of Fitzsimmons’ ad hoc advisory council. Fitzsimmons met Mullen on the golf course, and they became friends as well as business associates.

“It’s an interesting story,” Mullen recalls. “We happened to be playing golf, and I was enjoying Charlie’s company. Towards the end of the round, he said he was looking to start a new concept of restaurant business. I said, ‘If you start, call me.’

“A year later I got a call. It was Charlie. He had a business plan with renderings for the first Black & Blue on Monroe Avenue. I decided to invest.”

Mullen has invested in several of Fitzsimmons’ restaurants, and each time he has increased the amount based on the performance of the other restaurants. He plans to continue to do so with the third Black & Blue, slated to open this October.

“Charlie doesn’t confuse his efforts with the results. Restaurants are a very difficult category,” Mullen explains. “What I like about Charlie is he has what investors are looking for. They want somebody who has passion, expertise, a track record, business acumen and has matured over the years. He has taken advice in the manner it is delivered. He is intellectually flexible.”

Mullen shares a place on the advisory council with Douglas Weins, an owner of Bristol Harbour in Canandaigua, and Robert Fox, owner of more than 115 Wendy’s Restaurants and president of Wendy’s Restaurants of Rochester Inc. It is an impressive group of shareholders and advisers, Fitzsimmons says. Yet they say he is responsible for holding the steering wheel, and he admits he often does not travel by a specific road map.

Growth has been steady, with revenues increasing annually at an average rate of 30 percent in recent years. Fitzsimmons continues to see opportunities for expansion, but not necessarily in this area.

“We’re cautious. We’re starting to gain momentum. There’s no more growth for us in Rochester, though. We want to stay in the similar style of foods, and there’s nowhere I could add without cannibalizing my own sales here,” he says.

Expansion ahead
The focus is on the flagship concept, Black & Blue, which Fitzsimmons describes as having a long shelf life. It sets the bar for the new American steakhouse by being elegant but unpretentious, sophisticated but approachable, with a complete focus on hospitality, he says.

After four years of research, he has selected a site for his third Black & Blue restaurant. It will be in Albany.

He also is expanding the Village Bakery, which opened in Pittsford in January 2012 to rave reviews. Fitzsimmons chose the name to evoke a feeling of nostalgia, and he wants customers to have a sense of sharing food and a philosophy of small communities.

It comes through in the details. The head baker, Paul Mack, is from Eataly, a well-known eatery in Manhattan owned by the famous Mario Batali. The yeast used in the dough is from Tureen, Italy, and is one of four ingredients along with flour, salt and water.

“It’s as much about what we don’t use as what we do,” Fitzsimmons explains. “Things going stale isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ingredients in dough conditioners some other bakers use are the same chemicals used in the production of foamed plastics.”

There is a tight command in the bakery that keeps the operation running, and Fitzsimmons is grateful to have Charles Saccardi leading the brigade. Saccardi was the right hand of  Thomas Keller, of the well-known French Laundry in California, Fitzsimmons says. “(Saccardi) helped me immensely with this whole bakery concept.”

Soon, Fitzsimmons plans to add 1,000 square feet to the bakery by pushing into the building next door. He needs the space to increase his volume and provide more bread and desserts to all of his restaurants daily.

Also opening in 2012 was another new concept, a three-floor restaurant at the Culver Road Armory. Trata opened in August. This time, the idea did not come completely from Fitzsimmons.

“The developer approached me! I really wasn’t thinking of starting another new restaurant, but then it got my creative juices going. It turned out to be right,” Fitzsimmons says. “It’s 16 months old. It’s still building. It’s very new. It takes a while with new concepts. We’re still figuring some things out.”

Looking at how business and trends change, Fitzsimmons notes that the restaurant industry seems to be somewhat protected right now from the Internet.

“The restaurant industry is insulated from online competition. Developers that used to throw money at retail such as Bon Tons are now looking at restaurants instead.”

Competition is still at the forefront of his mind, though, and he thinks of it as a way to keep his business strong.

“It helps keep you on your game, to make sure you are better than they are. It drives your value. If others are selling their steak for $27, it determines where we fall,” Fitzsimmons says.

It also explains the locations he selects.

“We try to stay in the second-tier cities, the Rochesters, Buffalos. I can sneak into Albany, or the suburbs of Cleveland or Pittsburgh. I have no interest in the big cities, though. That’s not where we want to compete,” he says.

He can attract the right workforce that way as well. Having the right team is critical for Fitzsimmons, and he has what he calls a farm-team system. Many of his employees have worked up the ranks and earned promotions to leadership positions.

“Allie (Alexandra Greco) started as a bartender. … She has moved to all the restaurants to get them started. As we got bigger, we recognized opportunities. They move from one town to another. That’s why we call them farm teams,” Fitzsimmons says with a laugh.

Greco, who has a bachelor of science degree from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management, recently was promoted to director of operations for Two for Seven, which is led by Vice President of Operations James Brown.

His executive team includes longtime friend Tucker Kuhe, vice president of food and beverage. Kuhe previously worked for Nantucket Nectars and iRobot Corp.

One of the best hires Fitzsimmons ever made was years ago, his brother says.

“The secret to Charlie’s success is Mari,” explains Philip. “She wasn’t much of a waitress but she is one hell of a wife, mother and sister-in-law.”

Philip says his brother recruited Mari as an employee and married her years later. She does a lot of work for the business, as does their sister.

“Katie lives in Florida and owns a seafood distribution company, which supplies Black & Blue,” Fitzsimmons says. “Our entire family is very close. Dad had a stroke several years ago, and the aides who help Mom care for him always comment on it.”

Another reason for his little brother’s success is his love of food, Philip Fitzsimmons says.

“When he was little, if he didn’t like what we had for dinner, he would walk to the neighbors’ house in Brighton, where we lived, to have dinner again,” Philip Fitzsimmons says, laughing. “And he had a special ‘in’ with Mrs. Klein. She was the wife of Chuck Klein, a vice president of Rochester Telephone at the time. She gave Charlie access to the cookie jar. He would just walk right in their house. To this day she has a sweet spot for him.”

At home
These days Charlie Fitzsimmons is happiest when he is in his own house with his wife and three young children. Working in the restaurant business means many long and late nights, so he tries to work from his home in Pittsford as much as he can, spending three to four nights a week at one of his restaurants.

“You spend a lot of time at the youngest one, which right now is Trata. New concepts are exhausting,” Fitzsimmons says. “I don’t want to do that so much anymore. I have a lot of hands-on people. They are my ambassadors, my diplomats.”

When pressed about his hobbies, he laughs and says he really just enjoys being with his family right now. He works out everyday, not because he worries about his physique but because he worries about his heart and wants to stay healthy for his children.

The one thing he does do is get to Martha’s Vineyard almost every year, thanks to a friend who has a place there. He gets to indulge his passion for saltwater fishing while the rest of his family enjoys the beach.

Retirement is not in his plan anytime soon, but Fitzsimmons will be prepared when the time comes.

“I’m hoping I can get to a point where I can step away … maybe in 10 years,” he says.

The next step could be anywhere in a career that took an interesting detour.

Fitzsimmons, who graduated in 1992 from John Carroll University near Cleveland and from McQuaid Jesuit High School, never planned to be a restaurant owner.

He thought he was going to work for a record company. His first job after college was working as the morning radio show producer for Brother Wease on WCMF-FM. He became invaluable to the top-rated host by producing comedic parodies, such as “A Cleaning Ladies Paradise,” that listeners raved about at the water cooler.

“That job was the most fun for me by far,” Fitzsimmons says.

As the 1990s drew to a close and he felt he had used up his creative energy in the radio business, Fitzsimmons looked for a new outlet. He has found his best work comes from figuring things out as he goes. He sees himself as continuing to learn, and his outlook on his career path could be compared with his view on his business growth strategy.

“I still know I want to grow and be successful, and I want my team to grow and be successful,” Fitzsimmons says. “It is just something that needs to be continually reanalyzed and tweaked.”

Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Charles Fitzsimmons

Position: President, Two for Seven LLC
Age: 44
Education: B.A. in political science, John Carroll University, Ohio, 1992
Family: Wife Mari; daughters Caroline, 6, and Lucy, 4; son Cormac, 1
Residence: Pittsford
Awards: 2012 Irving Gaskin Building Preservation Award for the Village Bakery & Cafe project; 2013 Pittsford Business Person of the Year, chosen by the Pittsford Chamber of Commerce
Quote: “Even if you are a champion, you will have a mixed record of wins and losses. I know it will take some losses as we build something new and figure it out. I’m not afraid of that.”

2/7/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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