Bartolotta carefully aims for one shot at reopening

Restaurant group remains shuttered amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Paul Bartolotta
Paul Bartolotta

Last updated on May 4th, 2020 at 01:26 pm

As curbside pick-up and delivery emerges as a means of survival for a restaurant industry ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, one of Milwaukee’s most prominent restaurant groups remains on the sidelines– much to the dismay of diners, but all in the name of flattening the curve.

On March 19, The Bartolotta Restaurants shut down its 17 Milwaukee-area dining establishments and catering operations.

The company had quickly transitioned to curbside service for two days after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers closed bars and restaurants for in-house service in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Those two days were all it took for the company’s chef, owner and co-founder Paul Bartolotta to wonder if making a couple hundred dollars a day was worth the risk of one of his 950 employees getting seriously ill, or worse.

“For the almighty buck? No,” said Bartolotta, reflecting on the difficult decision six weeks later in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee. 

It all boiled down to what employees needed, he said. Salaried employees were kept working until mid-April and all employees received medical benefits through April 30. In addition, the company has distributed its food supply to employees and their families.

At the time, Bartolotta didn’t need input from peers, reactions from diners or even the state’s later Safer at Home order to convince him. He had been in frequent touch with friends in Italy, Spain and other parts of Europe that had already been hit hard by COVID-19. They warned him not to underestimate “this beast.” 

“I wasn’t going to take the situation lightly,” he said. “When I spoke with my dear friends, and they were sharing these horror stories, really apocalyptic stories, I was explaining that I was going to trim back and do curbside and they said, ‘Paul are you kidding me? That’s the same thing we were thinking eight weeks ago.'”

Putting his employees at the center of a decision was not a novel move for Bartolotta. He and his brother and co-founder Joe Bartolotta, who passed away in April 2019, founded The Bartolotta Restaurants in 1993 on values that prioritized people first and profits last, he said.

“For 27 years, we have encountered many obstacles, many challenges, but really never anything of this scale or scope,” Bartolotta said. 

With the future of the company resting on his shoulders, he often finds himself searching for answers by recalling conversations with his brother where they’d bounce ideas off one another and work through issues. Paul described Joe’s presence as ominous.

“I hear him chirping in my ear,” he said.

The company has gone from 950 to 12 employees, who are working at reduced levels of pay. Bartolotta said he took the largest pay cut.

As many businesses push for the go-ahead to resume operations even amidst warnings from health officials, Bartolotta is taking his time to carefully consider his next move. He and his team are in talks about what reopening looks like, both from a public health and financial perspective, but how and when that will happen are still big question marks, he said.

“I don’t really think I want to be the first person back in the game,” he said. “I don’t think I want to be the last either, but I want to really get a good view of the field.” 

Harbor House in downtown Milwaukee and Ristorante Bartolotta, the group’s flagship restaurant, will likely be the first to reopen along with its two food halls at the U.S. Bank building and the Kohl’s Corp. campus in Menomonee Falls, said Bartolotta. He’s also anticipating diners will see outdoor dining as a safer option than sitting in a restaurant building.

Reopening with limited resources means limited menu offerings and limited seating, and the hope that diners will be understanding of the situation, Bartolotta said.

But it also means there’s no margin for error. After his restaurants reopen from a renovation project or a holiday, Bartolotta said, there’s usually a ramp-up period in which the business loses money until it gains its footing. Those weeks are critical for the long term health of the business. At this point, the company does not have the means for “multiple starts and stops.”

“If you open poorly or prematurely or there’s a resurgence of this beast (COVID-19), it could be game over,” he said. “It could be lights out, so I don’t take these decisions lightly.” 

Whether the public health crisis is managed, the economy is rebounding and diners are ready to eat out again and have the money to spend are all variables Bartolotta is keeping an eye on.

In the meantime, the company is staying on top of its expenses and paying its vendors, who are also taking a hit.

Each Bartolotta restaurant has received funds from the federal government’s $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses to cover payroll as well as mortgage, lease and utility expenses for eight weeks.

Loans are totally forgivable under the conditions that 75% of the funds are used to pay employees, but restaurants across the country are struggling to meet that requirement while they are shut down or severely limited.

Bartolotta said the business will likely end up incurring debt from the PPP loan, but having access to that capital is important right now. Bartolotta did not disclose the amount of PPP funding the business was granted.

“It doesn’t do anybody any good for us to not succeed,” he said. 

A longstanding relationship with its bank, Milwaukee-based Park Bank, has given The Bartolotta Restaurants a leg up during the process of applying for federal assistance, Bartolotta said. It’s something that newer, smaller-sized restaurants may not have, making the current situation more challenging.

While Bartolotta is not critical of restaurants that have stayed open for curbside and delivery service, he believes the solution to overcoming COVID-19 is “to hunker down and take the oxygen away from the fire.” Even if it means saying “no” to numerous customers who have reached out, encouraging the business to reopen. 

“We miss our customers,” Bartolotta said. “I miss being in the kitchen. My chefs, our managers, our sommeliers– they want to pop the cork. They want to serve our guests. That is their livelihood. There’s no incentive to stay on the sidelines other than– I like to think we’re taking a broad view of a very acute problem.”

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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