The “wow” factor is what sets The Alicart Restaurant Group’s properties apart. From a family-style plate of spaghetti with meatballs the size of softballs to barbecue cooked all night and day in massive smokers, what keeps the restaurants unique is that jaw-dropping reaction from diners.
The size of the dishes is matched only by the increasing scale of the restaurants in which they are served. Carmine’s Family Style Italian restaurant in Times Square is 12,000 square feet; the Carmine’s in Washington, D.C., is 20,000 square feet, the largest restaurant in that city. The newest Carmine’s being constructed in Las Vegas will be 27,000 square feet.
All the Carmine’s locations serve hundreds of diners at a time, from 400 seats in the smaller Carmine’s to an expected 800 at once when the Las Vegas location opens. A single Carmine’s might serve 1,200 diners daily, and 900,000 annually, depending on the size of the location and how quickly customers turn over.
“We like to do volume,” CEO Jeffrey Bank emphasizes. “It’s easier for us to push out the volume. When we took a step up to 400 to 500 seats, it was not that big an increase in the payroll, and we could handle it in the kitchen.”
How does Carmine’s pump out the volume? “We have very consistent systems – different cooking stations, a lot of proprietary equipment and pasta machines we designed and built over the years that have an incredible recovery time,” Bank explains. “All our pasta is cooked to order, regardless of how busy we are. We can cook pasta extremely fast. Large quick-freeze units cool down food properly. The Carmine’s menu has not changed in 22 years. It’s southern Italian classic dishes – veal cutlet, chicken Parmesan. The secret is we haven’t changed anything. That’s what people want. We don’t try to mix our meatballs with Kobe beef.”
That Alicart consistency is maintained for customer satisfaction as well as efficient preparation at the two Carmine’s Family Style Italian restaurants in New York and the restaurants in Washington, D.C.; Atlantic City, N.J.; and Paradise Island in the Bahamas. “The chicken Parmesan is exactly the same in each restaurant,” Bank maintains. “The kitchen in the back of the house is run on a mentality of quality and consistency. The front of the house is run as if it’s a one-off restaurant. That’s our Carmine’s concept.”
Carmine’s Family Style Italian restaurant is one of 25 concepts developed in the 1990s by a New Yorker named Artie Cutler who owned Murray’s Sturgeon Shop on the Upper West Side. “He was thinking about opening up an Italian family style restaurant like Coney Island geared toward Sunday night at your house, with grandmother cooking old-fashioned Italian recipes – big portions on platters put out family style – or similar to an Italian wedding,” Bank relates.
After working on the concept for a few years, Cutler found a small storefront on the west side of Manhattan with a giant ballroom in back. That became the first Carmine’s. “Menus are on the wall hanging up,” Bank notes. “You go up to the wall and read them. It’s a fun, warm atmosphere.”
Another of Cutler’s concepts is Virgil’s Real Barbecue, which when it opened 18 years ago was one of the first barbecue restaurants in New York. “Barbecue has exploded in New York,” Bank asserts. “There are a tremendous amount of barbecue restaurants.” Virgil’s only other location currently is a 650-seat restaurant at the Atlantis Hotel on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
Preparing barbecue is a lengthy process requiring efficient smokers that operate around the clock. “Barbecue is a very tough business to run,” Bank concedes. “We have two 1,800-pound smokers in our restaurant. There are a lot of ways not to do barbecue properly. You have to pick the right rib, smoke it the right amount of time and season it, move it into a warming cabinet and serve it. If any of these steps are wrong, it will harm the quality of the product. You can’t just make it in seconds. If you don’t plan properly, you can over- or under-produce. So in high-volume places, it’s really come down to a science of what you sell and don’t sell. We’re doing data mining. That’s very big in that our production schedules are a priority and help us maintain fresh quality.”
Originally, the difficulty of producing good barbecue inhibited its growth as a specialty restaurant concept. “In the beginning, a lot of people were not doing barbecue, because it’s a complicated business,” Bank remembers. But that was before its explosion in popularity.
“There’s almost more barbecue restaurants in New York than some barbecue towns,” Bank declares. “You have people doing it differently. We are a really true, authentic barbecue restaurant.” But authentic to what region? Of course, there are a great variety of barbecue styles. Virgil’s uses a Memphis-style of barbecue rub and a Texas style of brisket.
If you thought bakers had to start work early, try being a pit master at Virgil’s. “We load up the smokers around 1 a.m.,” Bank reveals. “The smokers are going continuously around the clock with somebody watching them. We have a special apple wood we get ourselves from North Carolina. If you’re going to do it right, it’s not an easy project.”
Vendors Are Key
With the amount of high-quality food that Carmine’s and Virgil’s produce, vendors who can deliver quality in quantity are crucial. “We’re very particular about our products,” Bank emphasizes. “We use a lot of small guys, not a lot of big companies.”
Bank puts his 48-ounce porterhouse steak up against any, along with the quality of his chicken and sausage. A particular size of shrimp is crucial for Carmine’s shrimp cocktail, as well as large enough onion rings. “We have to have a good relationship with our vendors,” he stresses. All of Carmine’s and Virgil’s food is shipped to Florida and then to the Bahamas for the two restaurant locations there.
Having exemplary suppliers of paper and cleaning products also is important. “I. Halper Paper and Supplies has been doing our paper and chemical products for over 20 years,” Bank notes. “They have very good service and are one of the few vendors that actually lowers its price on its own before you call them. They’re very reliable and honest, which is a big thing. They show us ways we could be saving, which is not your normal vendor – usually other companies will sell you what you want. Halper will work with us and find a better way to do bags and containers.”
As Carmine’s and Virgil’s locations become bigger in size, making them still feel intimate and friendly becomes more challenging. “As it gets larger and larger, it’s not easy to get a 12,000-square-foot restaurant to grow to 20,000 and 27,000 square feet and not have people lost in it, and still have the same ‘wow’ factor so it doesn’t look like a gym but a really fun place. It’s not easy to design a place from the 1930s so it looks worn but clean, so it looks like it’s been there forever.”
One way that the massive locations are made manageable is with movable walls for private party rooms. “The energy is there, it starts to pull back in the dining room and gets more intimate but is still loud and boisterous where it should be,” Bank describes. “We have almost 35-foot ceilings in the front of the restaurant. The mezzanine lowers the ceiling a little. It’s a big store.”
The last three Carmine’s have been designed by The Johnson Studio. “They help keep the look and feel of a Carmine’s and fit it into these growing spaces,” Bank says. “They’ve done great jobs and are doing a fabulous job in Las Vegas.”
Take Home Leftovers
Private rooms are a profit driver at Carmine’s. “We do an unbelievable amount of conventions, sweet 16s and rehearsal dinners,” Bank declares. “In the recession, our sales stayed flat while the rest of the world plummeted. Atlantic City is down 26 percent; our town is up 2 percent. We do very well because we’re value-driven for price and quality.”
Bank points out that the average per-person cost for a meal at Carmine’s is $30, and most diners take home leftovers. “People are blown away by that – they get fresh leftovers,” he stresses. “It’s kind of recession-proof because of the great value and all the different types and backgrounds of people who eat here – business people, tourists, locals, seniors and college students.”
Locations and Expansion
Finding large spaces in busy areas without sky-high rents is tricky. “It’s not every day you can find these large spaces with reasonable rent in the right location,” Bank points out. The new Carmine’s in Las Vegas is filling a vacant space at The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace. “We took over the Planet Hollywood space they left,” Bank notes. “We gutted the entire place. It was really tired and run down.” That’s a win-win for the mall owner Simon Properties and Alicart Restaurant Group, Bank declares.
Alicart plans to open approximately one new location annually. “A guy might open up 20 or 30 barbecue chicken restaurants a year doing $2 million each,” Bank notes. “I’m opening stores that are doing between $12 million and $27 million each. One of our stores is equivalent to four of someone else’s. These two restaurants keep us plenty busy. Carmine’s is so unique, we’re careful with where we go with it.”
Alicart has opportunities to open a restaurant in Dubai and others in Orlando, perhaps at one of the theme parks there. “Toronto would be a great city for us,” Bank insists. “Boston, Philadelphia – Carmine’s could go anywhere.”
Bank does not think Alicart has any real competitors except itself. “Honest¬ly, there’s nobody that’s doing what we’re doing,” he maintains. “We’ve been around forever. Execution is really our competition.”
Hiring the right people is key to executing the restaurants’ concepts successfully. “Hiring people is pretty simple,” Bank declares. “I need people with a good attitude, a good work ethic, who want to learn and are service-oriented. We can ‘Carminize’ anybody. We train them in our ways.
Among Cutler’s concepts was one of the first noodle shops, sushi, a gym – Cutler also was a prizefighter. He opened a seafood restaurant, Docks, He originated Ollie’s, Gabriela’s, Jake’s and Columbia Bagel. When Cutler passed away suddenly in 1997, his wife, Alice, and her brother Carl joined Bank and Chris Metz to finish his last project – the New York delicatessen “Artie’s.”
The next move for Alicart Restaurant Group has not been determined by the company’s managers.
“Who knows?” Bank asks. “Orlando, Toronto, Boston – we could go almost anywhere.”