Mr. Big

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Buoyed by the success of his restaurants in Milwaukee and Indianapolis, John "Johnny V" Vassallo, hopes to open about 200 restaurants, similar to his steakhouse and Irish pub, throughout the United States. "My 10-year goal is to have a couple hundred restaurants – 40 or 50 steakhouses and 100 or 150 pubs," Vassallo said. "As often as we can find an opportunity in other communities to grow, we will open up other (restaurants)."
The 37-year-old restaurateur opened Mo’s: A Place for Steaks in 1999, Mo’s Market: A Place for Wine in 2001 and Mo’s Irish Pub in August. All three are located at the intersection of Wisconsin and Plankinton avenues in downtown Milwaukee.
Vasallo, who is of Italian and Irish descent, named the restaurants after his mother, Maureen.
The success of his Milwaukee steakhouse led Vassallo to open Mo’s: A Place for Steaks in downtown Indianapolis in 2003.
So far, the Indianapolis restaurant has also done well, Vassallo said. Located across the street from Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, the restaurant has become a favorite for many Indianapolis carnivores, including some Pacers players and management, Vassallo said. The team’s Christmas party was held there.
"It’s going really well," Vassallo said. "It’s exciting to watch. It’s catching on so fast."
"There are a lot of steak places in Indianapolis," said Steve Slosarek, restaurant critic for The Indianapolis Star. "I think (Mo’s) is finding a niche. It’s got a great location. That helps. Of course, time will tell. I don’t think he’s tearing it up. It seems to be doing pretty good, though. He hasn’t really advertised that much."
In his review, Slosarek gave Mo’s: A Place for Steaks three stars.
"It seems a little different from typical steakhouses," Slosarek said. "Some of the steak entrees were reasonably priced."
Next, Vassallo is making plans to open steakhouses in Houston and Minneapolis. He hopes to open the Houston steakhouse by June 1, in time for Major League Baseball’s All-Star game there on July 13.
In 2003, Vassallo formed Global Restaurant Systems, a small Milwaukee-based company to manage his restaurant expansion plans.
Vassallo said each restaurant he opens in another city would be co-owned by himself and a local partner. The local owners will help make sure the atmosphere and menu of each restaurant fits in with their community’s identity.
In addition, Vassallo said he plans to hire Alf France, who is leaving his job as the development director for Guinness, where he has been helping entrepreneurs start Irish pubs in the United States. France will do the same job for Vassallo. France will start his new job Jan. 15.
"He worked hand in hand with Guinness USA and Guinness out of Ireland," Vassallo said. "He helped independent operators like myself open 150 pubs in the U.S. over the last five years. He’s got an incredible amount of expertise and contacts."
Last year, Vassallo took a trip to Ireland to learn from Guinness how to operate an authentic Irish pub. The five-day class included a five-hour lesson on how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness.
"The key is to get it to be as authentic as possible," Vassallo said. "The closer you are to getting it right, the more it tastes like you are drinking a Guinness in Dublin. I know we’re not 100% authentic, but we’re very close.
"They say if you dedicate yourself to making the pint perfect, that’s going to create a culture of striving to make everything perfect," he said.
Since the early 1990s, Guinness has been teaching its Irish pub concept to restaurateurs such as Vassallo, helping them recreate the authentic Irish pub experience.
According to Guinness, the concept has been used to open more than 1,800 pubs in 53 countries since 1992 and more than 200 pubs in the United States in the last seven years, including Mo’s Irish Pub.
Irish pubs are popular because they provide a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere for patrons to hang out in good times and bad, Vassallo said. Pubs are a central part of social life in Ireland.
"I was looking at all different kinds of concepts for that corner," Vassallo said. "I really think people are comfortable there. A true Irish pub, they stand the test of time."
Guinness believes the U.S. marketplace could support up to 500 pubs patterned after its Irish pub concept. Vassallo hopes to co-own many of those, with a twist.
"I don’t think they have fully explored the food component, which I really add," he said. About 75% of revenues at most pubs are from drinks and 25% from food, Vassallo said.
With his Irish pub, the revenue split for food and drink is close to 50-50.
U.S. laws do not allow the producer or distributor of alcoholic beverages to own a bar or pub or provide financial assistance to them. Although Guinness cannot own any of the U.S. pubs it helps create, the company benefits from increased sales of its product in those establishments.
"Every pub they open will sell an extra half barrel of Guinness a day," Vassallo said. "They’re like a benevolent father figure (to the pubs). Lots of wisdom, lots of knowledge."
Vassallo said he became inspired to open restaurants in other markets about three years ago when he took an entrepreneurial class called "The Strategic Coach." In the class, he had to imagine what his business would be like if it was 10 times larger. It was then he began developing his restaurant growth plan.
"(The class) enables you to, No. 1, have the confidence to do things bigger than yourself and, No. 2, it gives you a template to support your dreams," he said.
However, Vassallo said his dream is not to create a restaurant chain.
"I don’t consider it a chain," he said. "It will be a league of independent restaurants with a similar menu and with the synergy of having unified accounting, legal and marketing departments.
"A chain, at least what I think that comes to mind, is the same thing the same way in each place. The mentality of a chain is cold and impersonal. There are a lot of people that don’t like chains," he said.
Vassallo said he is building relationships with customers at his restaurants, which create opportunities for business growth.
One businessman from Houston, who eats at Mo’s when he visits Milwaukee on business trips, urged Vassallo for a few years to open a steakhouse in Houston.
"In a friendly way, he badgered me in e-mails to look at the Houston market," Vassallo said. The Houston businessman flew Vassallo to Texas, and Vassallo developed relationships to attract business partners and potential landlords.
Vassallo said making friends with customers and establishing loyalty with them is the key to the success of his restaurants.
"We try to build our restaurants one relationship at a time," he said.
Vassallo is confident he will obtain the necessary financing to open 200 restaurants nation-wide.
"Financing never really seems to be an issue," he said. "Financing is not an issue with the right landlord and the right plan. We have some great banking relationships. We have some phenomenal friends in the investment world."
The biggest challenge to achieving his goal will be finding quality ownership partners and employees for each restaurant, Vassallo said.
Dedicated employees are needed to provide a high level of service. However, such employees can be difficult to find in the restaurant business. Vassallo said he tries to take care of his employees and make their lives better. One perk of working at Mo’s is the company Christmas party in Las Vegas.
By opening a restaurant in Indianapolis, Vassallo says he has taken the first big step toward establishing a national presence for Mo’s.
"I’ve seen how it works here," he said. "I’m your classic entrepreneur. I just want to keep pushing the envelope."

Big plans for Milwaukee’s ‘restaurant row’
By Andrew Weiland, of SBT

In addition to his plans to open numerous restaurants across the country, Johnny Vassallo is planning some changes in and around his Milwaukee restaurants.
To improve stagnant business at Mo’s Market, Vassallo plans to alter the interior and menu to create an Italian restaurant. The changes will be unveiled in March. The retail sales for wine at Mo’s Market will continue.
In addition, Vassallo is talking to city officials about his desire to enhance the corner of Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues where his three Milwaukee restaurants are clustered. He wants to add trees with Christmas lights along the sidewalks and a large 16-foot by 20-foot video screen over his Irish pub, similar to the screens at the Bradley Center and Milwaukee Theater.
Vassallo wants to create an exciting Times Square-type feel at the corner.
"It’s my dream to have a nice high-end street for people to go to," he said.
Vassallo’s establishments have added to a burgeoning restaurant area downtown, said Towne Realty Inc. vice president Tom Bernacchi.
"I really think that whole street (Plankinton) between Wisconsin Avenue and Kilbourn Avenue has really become restaurant row there," Bernacchi said. "You’ve got not only Johhny’s three places, but a Japanese place (Benihana), a Thai place (King & I), an Indian place (Aladdin Middle Eastern Cuisine) and Rock Bottom Brewery.
"Johnny doing what he’s done has certainly enhanced that area of Plankinton Avenue," Bernacchi said. "From a real estate standpoint, it’s good."

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Johnny Vassallo
Age: 37
Mo’s: A Place for Steaks, 720 N. Plankinton Ave.
Mo’s Irish Pub, 275 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Mo’s Market: A Place for Wine, 717 N. Plankinton Ave.
Mo’s: A Place for Steaks, Indianapolis
Web site:

Jan. 9, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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