Bensi Restaurant Group Inc.

Some restaurants follow the practice of reheating prepared foods, but Bensi Restaurant Group Inc. sets itself apart by avoiding that approach, President John Osso says. “We focus on [serving] Italian food prepared from scratch,” he says. “We don’t blanch and reheat, as is the process in many places. We execute it the traditional way.”

Based in Park Ridge, N.J., Bensi Restaurant Group has 23 Italian restaurant locations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Osso and his brother-in-law, Mario Bernardo, started the company in 1983 with a single pizza restaurant in Tenafly, N.J.

Today, Osso says, the majority of the company’s restaurants are owner-operated. “In each restaurant, we have a chef with typically a 10 percent ownership stake, and the manager has a 10 percent ownership stake,” he explains. “Both are capable of overseeing the entire operation.”

Bensi Restaurant Group’s operations are in a variety of locations. For instance, some are neighborhood eateries in shopping centers, and it also has 6,000-square-foot locations with bars and lounges. “In the larger, newer restaurants, [we] get more occasion dining,” Osso says. “[But] in general, we’re family friendly.”

Quality and food safety are important to its guests, and Bensi Restaurant Group has been recognized for its work in this regard. In 2006, the company’s Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., location won the Bergen County Gold Star Award for Excellence in Food Pro­tec­tion from the Depar­t­ment of Health Ser­vices.

Food Focused

After 27 years, Osso still enjoys the rest­aurant business. Originally, when he join­ed his brother-in-law in the venture, he operated several convenience stores and planned to be an absentee owner.

However, he found he enjoyed work in foodservice and “I haven’t thought about doing anything else for a long time. A lot of people talk about the res­taurant business being a difficult business. It’s what I’ve been focusing on since [1983].”

One of the pleasures of the job is that it has allowed him to work alongside several members of his family. Along with his brother-in-law, his sister-in-law, Denise, manages its office, while his sister, Dorina Bernardo, and nep­hew, Rick Osso, also hold positions at Bensi Restaurant Group.

A graduate of NYU, Rick Osso joined the business almost 10 years ago and is a co-owner in the company who oversees its operations. Additionally, John Osso’s brother, Clemente Osso, joined the company several years ago and now is its controller. He has an MBA from IONA College and a second degree – a masters in information systems – from Stevens Technical Institute.

John Osso adds that other key members of the company include Culinary Institute of America graduates Ken Hoerle and Keith Newman, as well as longtime employee Oscar Benitez. “[They] oversee menu implementation and development,” Osso says.

Osso also praises The Commercial Agency Inc., which he has had a relationship with for more than 20 years. “The Commercial Agency Inc. handles our liability, worker’s comp, health ­­insurance coverage, as well as auto [insurance], etc.,” he says. “I am very grateful for their good efforts as well as [The Commercial Agency’s President] Kenneth Cerullo’s personal attention to our needs.”

Osso says he has enjoyed the opportunity to serve many meals “true to form.” For instance, all of its pizza dough is hand-rolled and its wine sauces are created alongside its dishes.

Osso says co-founder Bernardo created the company’s original menu in 1983. “Over the years, we’ve developed systems and equipped our kitchens to facilitate scratch preparation,” Osso says, noting that each of its kitchens are equipped with two Italian pasta cookers, a large sauté station, char broilers, con­vection ovens, pizza ovens and Hobart dough mixers. “Some of our chef’s daily specials have become menu additions over the years.”

Although this can be laborious and time-consuming, the hard work has paid off. Osso says Bensi Restaurant Group enjoys a strong base of repeat clients, thanks to the care that it puts in its food. “It comes down to the basic food itself,” he says. “We try to be as close to home cooking as you can be.”

Accomplishing Bensi’s Goals

Bensi Restaurant Group has recently completed construction on its new location located in Hampton, Va. “I think it accomplishes most of my goals,“ Osso declares. “We have the kitchen capability that facilitates the preparation of the food.”

Osso says that the Hampton location is located in the Peninsula Town Center. “It is a 6,000-square-foot restaurant featuring a gorgeous bar, [a] glass door enclosed private dining room, extensive outdoor dining, [a] high-ceiling main dining room, [a] beautiful color palette and lighting designed by Meleca Architecture,” he says.

“It’s really a beautiful facility [that is] in line with where I like Bensi to be, going forward,” he continues. “The physical [structure] has the right colors and feeling to it.”

This is a brave time to open a new restaurant. “These are pretty difficult times,” Osso admits, adding that the com­pany’s locations in lifestyle malls are experiencing the most challenges.

“Those centers are anchored by retail and they’re not fully [occupied],” Osso explains. “We don’t have plans to build additional restaurants in the next year or so, [and we will] deal with getting those units where they need to be.”

Along with its a la carte service, the company plans to focus on carry out as well as group functions both on and off premises, Osso says. “Our scratch approach enables us to alter menu items to our guests’ needs and wants,” he says. “The ingredients we work with are healthier.

“That perception is in place at our older restaurants, [and] we will work to communicate such at our newer locations,” he says. “I know first-hand most people will opt for a fresh cooked meal when possible.”