Tell me about you and your restaurant.
Branding is my thing. Rather than being in consulting and the theoretical space, I’m now able to activate the principles [I’ve learned and developed over the years]. It’s been very challenging but very gratifying.
You have to be true to your core. You have to be disciplined and principled. That’s what I’ve tried to do with [my latest endeavor, an eclectic Italian dining destination in Mount Kisco, New York,] Via Vanti!.
In the CPG-world it’s relatively easy to control [your brand]. It’s dynamic – but there are FAR less constantly moving parts – basically the product has to live up to what’s presented.
In my world, there are so many additional options and dimensions. [There’s] ambience (the furniture, lighting, sound, and visuals / decorations], there’s the menu and all the specific menu items (which expresses the essence of what you are), and there’s the servers (or, as I like to call them, brand ambassadors).
[At Via Vanti!] I try to give people the experience of being in Italy. It’s more than just a restaurant, it’s an experience, it’s a discovery. Everything on the menu has a story behind it. You can go as deep as you want or just eat the grub. I’m operating at a high order of branding and hope it gets noticed by my customers.
My wish is it be able to transporting our guests from the preoccupations of their daily lives to a place that pleasurably engages their senses, rewards their natural curiosity, and refreshes their spirit.
I’m thinking about opportunities to expand the Via Vanti! equities to brands for gelato, coffee, and wine as well as opening additional locations
Ultimately I am seeking to create a lifestyle brand. Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart are my inspiration. Their brands have myriad dimensions and represent a state of mind.
When did Via Vanti! open?
Four days after Lehman crashed. I had a near-death experience of my own with the business but, after a favorable New York Times review last spring, we’ve been doing very well.
The name Via Vanti! means “the way forward.” Via is “way” and Vanti! is a contraction of “Avanti” or “forward.”
I created a jester-like icon to represent the brand based on the “Zanni” characters from the Commedia dell’ Arte (the theatre popular in Venice during the 15-17th centuries which gave rise to what we now know as improvisation theatre). I am a student of archetypes. I love Joseph Campbell. He is based on the “ magician / transformer.” This works perfectly with the idea of transport ing guests to another state of mind. It works at the subliminal level. The goal with iconography is for it to be universal.
I, personally, as well as Via Vanti! draw great inspiration from Venice. It was the gateway to the Orient and the original home of fusion cuisine and actually where improvisational theater has its roots. I say Via Vanti!’s cuisine is “Improvisational Italian” I’m always mixing up the menu. From a design point of view – the pattern on the tile floor reflects the brickwork pattern of the Venice’s Doge’s palace there are etched glass panels the look like the colonnade there and our lighting fixtures are from nearby Murano.
I have event programming that is true [to Venice and Italy] as well. I have wine classes and a jazz series. Jazz, of course, is all about improvisation.
How did the 4-box model frame your thinking for Via Vanti!?
The model is timeless – it’s the brand bones / framework. And it provides guardrails for decision making. It’s more challenging with a restaurant as the experience happens over a time-period in three-dimensional space engaging all the senses. That means there are more elements to consider.
[But the thinking] influenced each aspect of my brand. For example, I did a fundraiser for a local charity called Guiding Eye for the Blind. We challenged people to dress their dogs as gelato flavors. Winning dogs received the high honor of becoming a Via Vanti! flavor of the month. When I see dogs, I see flavors. A lab might be Black Tie Chocolate. A golden retriever is butterscotch ripple. A Chihuahua is mojito spice. It’s all about celebration, imagination and fun. Dogs have the same attributes as gelato. They’re your best friend, especially when you’re sad. I could spin this off as its own brand.
Via Vanti! is an experience. It’s not a restaurant. I’m not in the food service category. I’m in the destination experience category. It’s a multi-sensory construct that exists in time and space. I think about each scent [in the restaurant] and what Via Vanti! Means for that scent. [Everything must stay on brand.] Each member of my staff is a brand ambassador.
How is the restaurant doing?
Very well. It’s really satisfying when people say “what and original concept” or “I feel like I am in Italy” or even thank me for doing what I am doing — that’s actually the best!. I really know I’m getting it right when native Italians come in and tell me they love it . I want to be the first American concept to open and succeed in Italy. I also created a wine label as a product extension and that’s coming out in a few months. I’ve been very fortunate to get positive reviews but my customer’s expressions and repeat visits say it all.