Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm
For more than 13 years, Joe Bartolotta has been on a mission – to bring the high-end, big-city dining experience to Milwaukeeans.
Bartolotta started his first Milwaukee-area restaurant in 1993, when Ristorante Bartolotta opened its doors on State Street in Wauwatosa.
Prior to opening his first restaurant, Bartolotta saw a unique opportunity for his concept to succeed in the "fish fry and meat and potatoes" Milwaukee dining market.
"In the last 10 to 15 years, people have become much more mobile," Bartolotta said. "It’s become easier to travel to other cities, where they’ve become more exposed to other restaurants and other cultures."
Many Milwaukee residents, particularly senior citizens or "snow birds," spend their winters in warmer climates such as Naples or Palm Springs, Fla., where there are more dining opportunities, Bartolotta said.
"Those cities are loaded with great restaurants," he said. "And when they came back to Milwaukee, there was a void. There was a market that needed to be met, and our guests have responded."
After opening Ristorante Bartolotta in 1993, Bartolotta opened Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee in 1996, followed by Mr. B’s in Brookfield in 1999.
Before becoming Mr. B’s, a restaurant named Nonna’s operated at the location, 17700 W. Capitol Drive, for about one year. Bartolotta said the pasta-themed Nonna’s didn’t have high enough prices to support its low seat count, so he decided a steakhouse was a better fit there.
"Now we have fewer people, but a higher check average," he said. "That’s worked out well for us."
In 2002, the company began a catering relationship with Boerner Botanical Gardens, where it holds special events and Sunday brunches. That year, Bartolotta also opened Pizzeria Piccola on State Street in Wauwatosa.
In 2003, Bartolotta opened another Pizzeria Piccola location on Downer Avenue on Milwaukee’s east side. The location closed less than one year later, but will re-open this July as a second location of Ristorante Bartolotta.
Bartolotta said his success in the highly competitive restaurant business is largely due to his vision, a mission he asks all of his employees to buy into, whether they’re busboys, dishwashers, hosts, wait staff or chefs.
"We’re trying to create an experience," he said. "It’s not about what you’re eating. It’s about an experience. We’re trying to create a memory. It’s like an orchestra. If one instrument is out of tune, it puts the entire symphony at risk. If you have one component (of the dining experience) out of tune, that can put the off the entire experience.
"It’s organized chaos," Bartolotta said. "There’s always a sense you’re on the edge, but the guest never sees it. If they do, there’s a problem."
Bartolotta has more than 300 employees who work for his five restaurants and the catering business. He can’t be everywhere at once, so he needs to have employees in place who not only buy into his vision, but also are people he can trust.
Those employees need to feel like they have input into the final product, Bartolotta said, which in this case is on a plate they serve to customers.
"From a survival standpoint and to grow, we need to cultivate our people," he said. "We always have people in our training programs so they can step into management roles. And we have great employee loyalty. They believe in what we’re trying to do. They know that when they put a plate of food down in front of a customer, there’s a damn good chance the guest will love everything they’re eating."
A certain amount of employee feedback is good in any business. However, it is particularly crucial in the high-end restaurant business, Bartolotta said.
"Part of it is investing in a culture, where you know you’re part of an organization," he said. "They make a contribution, their voices are heard and they’re validated."
Communicating with servers is particularly important, he said, because they are the liaison between the kitchen and customer.
"We have to listen to what they say," he said. "Our servers have the most contact with the customer. If (customers) are not liking something, if a wine is priced too high, if our bathrooms are dirty, we hear about it. And if our systems can be improved upon, we hear about it."
Some of the feedback Bartolotta heard from customers when the East Side Pizzeria Piccola was open indicated that diners wanted table service instead of counter service and a bar area, both of which were lacking at that restaurant.
Although the East Side location for Pizzeria Piccola was making money, Bartolotta decided to close it. It will re-open in July as the second Restorante Bartolotta, a concept he believes will be more successful there, because it will be more of a high-end dining concept than Pizzeria Piccola.
Having restaurants within that niche high-end market has kept Bartolotta’s restaurants successful, he said, although his competition has increased in southeastern Wisconsin.
"The market is evolving, but at the same time, the population has been very static," he said. "As new restaurants open, everyone’s piece of the pie has gotten smaller, and it’s more challenging."
Meanwhile, more national and regional restaurants have moved in.
Although Bartolotta said he does not regard those restaurants as direct competitors, he said they are ultimately competing for the same dollars.
"We do compete for that finite amount of disposable income," he said. "But our model has always been on the qualitative side. We deliver a superior product, because of better ingredients and better service. We’ve never really chased the bottom line. Instead, we look for relationship-building. If we focus on the customer and the relationship with the customer, the bottom line should be there at the end of the day."
The Bartolotta Restaurant Group
Locations: Bacchus, 935 W. Wells St., Milwaukee; Mr. B’s, 17700 W. Capitol Dr., Brookfield; Lake Park Bistro, 3133 E. Newberry Blvd., Milwaukee; Ristorante Bartolotta, 7616 W. State St., Wauwatosa; and Pizzeria Piccola, 7606 W. State St., Wauwatosa. A second location of Ristorante Bartolotta at 2625 Downer Ave., Milwaukee, will open in July. The company also operates a catering service in Boerner Botanical Gardens.
Web site: www.bartolottas.com Industry: Fine dining
Employees: More than 300
• Bringing a big-city dining experience to Milwaukee.
• Opening restaurants with different dining concepts.
• Starting a catering service.
• Empowering employees to react to customers’ needs.
May 27, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI