Toni Calderone: Feeding off community

In Episode 2 of our “Catalysts” podcast series, we chat with Toni Calderone of O.N.E. Hospitality Group.

Introduction

In Episode 2 of our “Catalysts” series, we talk with Toni Calderone of O.N.E. Hospitality. We’ll talk to her about her ties to York’s godfather of pizza, what it’s like to double down to make payroll, and how she overcomes impostor syndrome to stand on her own.

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Part 1: Growing up in a pizza shop

Rebeca: We’re here today with Toni Calderone, the president and CEO of O.N.E. Hospitality Group, the epicenter of a lot of cool things that have popped up in York in the past several years. We’re talking about Tutoni’s restaurant, Taste Test, the King George, Herb and Herd, retail location at Central Market, and then your catering division, and an all new Rig-a-Toni food truck.

I think I got everything there, right?

Toni: Sounds about right.

Rebeca: You grew up in a pizza shop, you worked your first real job at McDonald’s, you were the youngest person to be hired at Buca di Beppo, Italian restaurant chain, where you made an impression on the CEO. You went on to work at Darden’s Season 52 concept, came back to York, and started building this restaurant empire. Yet you claim you never wanted to own a restaurant.

After all this list of experience and things you worked in, that you never really wanted to do that. Talk to us about how that even came to be.

Toni: Yeah, absolutely, thanks for the introduction. It’s always like, whoa, I do all that when I hear it listed.

In order to execute all those things, yeah, I didn’t want the restaurant, that’s a true story.

I grew up in the restaurant industry where my family was always working, so I was like, no, I’m not gonna do that, I’m going to grow up and be a school teacher, and I’m gonna be at home with my kids at 5:00 making dinner and putting them to bed ’cause that’s something I never had. And, you know, that’s not what happened, that’s not where my destiny led me.

Growing up in Alberto’s, my earliest memories were, my son’s 5 and I was younger than him in the restaurant every night that I could be, in the bar with my parents, and it was Alberto’s back room right off of Queen Street, and I was five years old, remember talking to customers, and there was a hole in the vestibule when you would walk in in the wall, and I would poke my head out and welcome people to Alberto’s and my grandmother would put me up on the table and I would pretend to take orders.

Part 2: Tenacity and changing the rules

Toni (continued): It’s literally embedded in me, and then we moved down to Florida when my grandfather retired, and I wanted to go figure out how corporate America did it, so I was 15 years old, found out that they hired at 15 at McDonald’s, and I signed up. Got the job and learned how they did it.

I had goals for myself. I never just did something, I always had a goal, and you know it’s embedded in you from a young age, so I wanted to get on the back drive through window, and I worked my way up to that, and just felt what it was like to accomplish a goal.

And when I was 16, I would go into our family’s favorite restaurant, Buca di Beppo. It wasn’t ours, but it was an Italian restaurant, and we loved going there and I really wanted to be a hostess because they would take you through these tours and explain this cool concept to you. And they wouldn’t hire under 18. And I was like, “Wait a minute, McDonald’s hired me at 15, why won’t you hire me?”

I wrote a letter to corporate every week for about three months until they finally hired me, and the manager calls me up and he’s like, “Look, I don’t know what you did, but you’ve gotta come in for an interview.”

And I changed the rules and they hired me. And then a couple months later I was working there and the CEO of the brand came down from Milwaukee, and he’s like, “Send that hostess in.”

He was sitting in the bar room, and it was like a Mafia scene. He’s in the corner and he asked for me to come over, and he’s like, “Sit down.”

And I was like, “What?”

He goes, “You realize that your tenacity changed the rules of how my company works?”

And I was like “Uh huh…”

I was terrified, and he’s like, “No, that’s a good thing. Don’t ever lose that tenacity.”

And it kinda set with me. I was like, “All right, I can do, I changed the rules, I’m here.”

And then carried on with me throughout my career. I did it again at Darden. Season’s 52 was a brand new concept in Altamonte Springs, Florida, and they wouldn’t hire under 21. I got hired at 20 because I was like, “I’ll be 21, but you’re gonna want me to work with you because I do great work.”

And it’s just that knowing who you are and what you can offer and what you bring to the table and then having great mentorship while I was growing up to really help me cultivate that.

It led me back to York, so I met Tony through the family and when I moved up here I moved into downtown York and realized that a wine bar was needed, and kind of cultivated the vision there for Vintage Wine Bar.

Part 3: Back from Florida

Rebecca: How old were you when you came back to York?

Toni: I was about 23. I had grown up down in Orlando and then came back up here and just saw it as a blank slate to be able to really come up with ideas.

Rebecca: Explain to us a little bit, you ended up moving into CODO when it was brand spanking new…

Toni: Yeah, they weren’t even done the construction yet and I was in there, like, “Where can I live? Which apartment unit’s gonna be mine?” I was really intrigued in what they were doing downtown.

Rebecca: What gave you the idea, when you’re looking at downtown at that time, that what this place needs is a wine bar?

Toni: Right, right, so when I first came back up here, 23 was, what, 11 years ago, there wasn’t anything really. It was Harp and Fiddle and there was Left Bank and then obviously White Rose has been around for years, and that was it.

I think it was Fisher’s, and that went out of business, and I was like, we need something, we need a wine bar, and Bill Swartz at the time was giving walkthroughs and he was like, “Open one.”

And I was like, “All right, I’ll do that.”

That just became a vision and then an execution plan just like I was tenacious enough to do things prior to that experience, I just said, “All right, I’m gonna make my mind up and do it, that’s it.”

And that’s what happened, made my mind up and kind of went around the block trying to find the right location for it. I went through, I mean, every single open store front downtown I’ve been in one or two times and just started really cultivating the business plan and the model of what it was gonna be.

And then the home was gonna land at 2 West, so I don’t know if everybody has seen for years now the future home of Vintage Wine Bar in Oak Room Cigar Lounge, but that was something that never came to fruition. And it was a defeat.

We went after the economic redevelopment liquor license, which at the time, Kevin Schreiber was the redevelopment, acting as the redevelopment authority and was just really a friend and a mentor through the whole process. It literally was developing relationships. It took me about six years to get open, but in those six years I was developing relationships and finding the need and then developing the want.

I was really getting to know my community is what was happening. And going after that economic redevelopment license which is a unique liquor license to this community, to the state, actually, and we broke a lot of ground with that with there being a 50/50 split now ratio between food sales and liquor sales because Kevin went on to become the state rep and he took that under his wing and made it a law that it changed in order to be able to give others a chance of getting a license, it just didn’t happen in York because we were already overcompensated in liquor license for the county.

But, it led us to developing more relationships and getting more interest from the community as to what we were trying to accomplish for York city. We got on the cover of the paper several times for this feat, we’ve gotten a lot of followers. We had a Facebook page up and open before we were even open, just to hear our story and what was happening from it.

And yeah, it was an adventure, but the tenacity that we had to never give up on a vision led us to where we ended up with Tutoni’s.

Part 4: "Don't look, I'm changing"

Rebecca: Why didn’t Vintage work?

Toni: Vintage didn’t work out because we were undercapitalized. When I wrote my first business plan I had no idea what the heck I was doing, and you put it on paper, but executing it is a whole different game.

Getting financed, in the hospitality world, there is no money at banks. There’s creative ways of going about it, but if you’re not in business for at least three years, you’re not being looked at from a financial institution. It’s no longer what it used to be.

Now, my grandfather came over here from Sicily, and he moved to York city, and he was the first of the literal boatloads coming in to the country and then finding a home in York County, and mostly in the city.

There’s a lot of out there that my grandfather’s responsible for a lot of them to sponsor them and getting them into the nation. And when he wanted to open up a pizza shop, he went up to New York, he learned the business, and then he brought it down and he opened up a pizza shop. He put a couple hundred bucks together and they made it happen, and it’s just not that way any more.

It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars. Liquor licenses are hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then your startup costs on top of it. So at 23, 24 years old, my family’s not gonna put up their entire life’s work on my dreams now; that’s not how it goes.

It was just trying to figure out how to get it done and unfortunately that was just too big of a project to take on for our first one.

Rebecca: People might remember the sign on North George before Tutoni’s was in that space, the “I’m changing” sign. Young lady in a towel.

Toni: Yeah, people thought that was me, no.

Part 5: Early Tutoni's challenges

Rebecca: What were some of the early challenges that you had? You talked about getting bank support is impossible unless you’ve been in business that long. It’s just not the way it used to be. What were some of the other challenges that you faced in going through that transition where that sign became your window in your store front now instead of that changing sign.

Toni: Right, right, it’s pretty cool to look back on it. I mean, it was vacant for a while, and we’re fortunate enough that in this town it’s very old and a space has been something six, seven, eight, nine times before it gets to you.

Thank God, our space was an Italian restaurant, so it worked for us, and it went from a vision of a wine bar and now to a full-fledged Italian restaurant because there wasn’t one downtown except Sam and Tony’s. But I mean, there wasn’t one that we were trying to execute.

My vision for this town is not to do something that all of the Italians before us are doing great. I didn’t want to create competition for that. I wanted to do something that’s completely unique to the area, to work together.

We wanted to do scratch pastas. We wanted to do what the old country taught my family as far as the heritage goes, and just bring it to locally inspired, fresh ingredients, and the rustic feel of what our menu was met up with what the rustic feel that Sal had done in that building with his architecture.

He built everything by hand, and he was open for a short stint with the Colosseo, and then he was vacant for about two years before we were able to take it over. It was leased by someone else and then when that lease let up, we were all over it.

We were BYOB, so we kinda had to make it happen. Whatever it was gonna take to let our dream come true. We had those wine systems in our basement for a very long time before we even opened our bar and we just knew that we were gonna get to that point, and it just took a lot of work to get there.

Part 6: Blackjack player's daughter

Rebecca: What kept you open over those hurdles? How did you keep going?

Toni: Funny story. Like I mentioned, it was hard downtown being one of two and the ones who were already on the block had been there for years and years and years and years, so if you’re a new kid on the block you have to know your community. You have to realize who you’re serving and anything it takes to get their business and then keep their business.

I heard, I listened, and I wanted to make something happen for that experience. Unfortunately, without booze, it was a lot harder to keep the overhead going.

So, funny story, my father is actually a professional blackjack player, so I grew up going to the most phenomenal places and experiencing a lot of the finer restaurants. And I also took that perk and asked him to double down our money at the end of the week. And he would take it to the casino over the weekend, and we would be able to pay payroll one more time, one more time, and that would go on for months at a time until we were able to build the brand, and from that we had a lot of followers and a lot of believers.

And to get open, I didn’t explain how we got open, but I had a family friend and then I had a family member put their money together and we opened up with pennies and I did some minor renovations, and I didn’t have the working capital that I needed in order to get through those slow months.

And again, it was just my tenacity, just get it open and I’ll figure it out later, and it might have to do with being a blackjack player’s daughter or not.

You go for broke and you put your whole heart and soul into it, and if you’re lucky enough, your community believes in you and they keep supporting it, which is what I found with my grandfather.

This town has been great to my family for three generations now.

My cousin’s running the Alberto’s out in Spry, and I mean, people come into your restaurant and they tell you how they know your family. That wasn’t always going to be my M.O. into that restaurant, like hey, I’m Albert’s granddaughter, but as soon as I moved up here and people were like, “Oh my God, you’re Alberto’s granddaughter.”

It kinda became my driving force that I owed it now. It wasn’t just my dream any more, it was kinda like I owed it to this town to put my roots in here deep, and now my son’s gonna grow up in it which he’ll be fourth generation, and it just feeds back into that whole York mentality of the town grows deep with roots and community.

And it’s two degrees of separation and they want to see cool things happen and they wanna hear your story. They wanna see your vision and then they wanna be part of it.

Part 7: Family influence

Rebecca: How did that family experience influence you? When you’re in there every day and you’re working it, how did you have this history of being this, you had these Italian restaurant roots in York, even though you spent a lot of your life in Florida, that was a big part of who you were, how did that influence you in the day to day of what you were doing in the restaurant?

Toni: Right, so I mean a big part of it, ’cause I’m a Mommy now, too, my son was six months old and I passed him on to my nanny to help raise him and then my parents, and I go all in.

I’m all in in helping cultivate my first baby and owing what I know to the future of the town, and not only the town, I have bigger plans in what I’m developing with behind Taste Test and why Taste Test came to fruition.

I’m fortunate enough that I have had family develop those roots for me. Everybody isn’t fortunate enough, especially nowadays, to have that continuing generational story and legacy being built, so it’s hard to express how important it means to me to be able to start something, grow something, and own something in a city that was so good to my family.

When I go to work every day, when I keep working harder and harder it’s not just for what my family did for me and left behind for me, but it’s also for what I can do for people coming up in the game. What I’ve learned by support and what I’ve learned by mentorship by everybody who’s involved in this town, I can help to spread that to people coming through Taste Test.

Maybe you can’t get financing the conventional way, but I am working on something to help you out there. I mean, it started here for me and it’ll go bigger here for me when things come down the pipeline with what I have developing with Taste Test and the end game for that.

Part 8: The "godfather of pizza"

Rebecca: You have all these things that you’re constantly working on here just to run a business and have the many things that you have going on, but when you take the time to kind of look back at that legacy that your grandparents built, when you have a moment where you’re finally not running around just trying to keep everything going, how do you correlate that with them? How do you kind of resonate that in your personal life?

Toni: Yeah, so it’s been hard for me over the last couple of years because I wasn’t able to, even though my grandfather was around when I was starting this, he was starting in early onset dementia.

I would want to go to him and be like, “Hey, do you remember this? Do you remember that?”

And he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t remember, so I’d try to find different creative ways to help him see what I was doing.

And my grandmother, she’s still sharper than a chef’s knife. She has Parkinson’s, so she can’t come up here but thank God for things like Facebook and those outlets, media outlets, where I can be like, “Hey look, look what I’m doing up here,” and she’s just so proud, and they never thought that any of their grandkids would do that up here because they thought they were done up here.

It hits a nerve because I would really have liked to let my grandfather see, because he started Alberto’s, and it was the first pizza shop and from that, all the other ones started opening.

For instance, I went to lunch when I first moved up here at my last job, and we went to Moonlight Cafe, and Vito Renda was running it at the time, and he walks up to me and he’s like, “Yeah, you’re Alberto’s granddaughter.”

I said, “Yeah.”

And he goes to the gentleman that I was at lunch with, he says, “You know you’re in the presence of the godfather of pizza. This is his granddaughter. We owe everything to her grandfather or we wouldn’t be here.”

Because he would sponsor all of these Italians to come to this town and be able to start their lives. So, that’s huge pressure for me, but also so much pride.

Part 9: Stronger as a community

Toni (continued):I didn’t hear any of that in Florida, and I come up here, I meet the people, I feed the people, and I see the people, I know the people who this happened for, and then they’re generally, I’m hanging out with their grandkids and hearing, “Oh yeah, your grandfather…”, and I don’t know, it’s a unique story behind a restaurant, but I believe that community is so much more than that.

Coming together and supporting can bring you so much farther together than it could alone and that’s exactly why I named my company O.N.E. Hospitality. It’s the last three letters of our last name but it’s also the meaning of together as one. We’re stronger as a community that we are individually.

Each concept under that brand supports each other, and Tutoni’s being the forefront of all of that. I’ve heard, “Why don’t you sell your pasta?” So, we came up Herb and Herd.

“We want Italian meats and cheeses again.” So, this is our little tiny way of starting, ’cause I do think small, and then I focus on them, so Herb and Herd’s in a small way, it’s Central Market, and we’re starting to see that there’s a need for it.

King George was a small way in my basement to see if there’s a nightlife around for York city, so we’re cultivating it.

And then Taste Test is a way to help other cooks and home chefs wanna live their dream and see if they want to dedicate the 15 hours of their time before they go into an empty store front and dedicate their entire life to it on a trampoline rather than they get catapulted into the community rather than falling and crashing and burning, ’cause it’s a people business, 100%, you’ll never change the hospitality industry.

It’s 100% a people business, and your product just happens to be food, and I take that very seriously. My conference table is everybody’s dinner table. I take that, and I cultivate ideas, and I’m fortunate enough to develop teams to help execute them, it’s not all me.

I’m not doing all these things by myself, but together, we’re able to do more in abundance of change in a city that wants it, warrants it, needs it.

Part 10: Just getting started

Rebecca: You have all these different concepts that have come together, and more ideas continue to come, I know, but in Tutoni’s and in Taste Test and things that you do. Do you think you’ve done what you wanted to for York?

Toni: That’s a big question. I feel like I’m humble, I’m humbled enough and gracious enough to be able to come up with ideas and be able to do them and try them and test them and have such a supportive community to kind of figure out which ones will stay and which ones will go.

Do I feel like I’ve done all I wanted to for York? Not yet.

I feel like I’m just getting started.

I try not to scare people with how big my dreams are, but I have this vision and this execution plan of creating something so unique for the restaurant and hospitality world and how financing is done because of my trials and tribulations that I had to go through in order to get where I’m at and the tenacity that I was fortunate enough to have good mentors to cultivate that instead of scare that away.

What I’m trying to do with Taste Test, starting in York, and we’re going to work on bringing it to other locations like York, that big cities are overdone.

Tutoni’s in Orlando would be eh, big deal, give me the next thing. It’s the land of Disney World, you can’t compete.

But up here, if you really get to know your audience, there’s opportunity, and the same thing with little towns all over the country, that’s how this country was founded, you know what I mean? Little small towns that grew into big conglomerates.

My thing is corporate America is coming in and tarnishing all of that. You can go to the same town across the entire nation it’s the same five restaurants you see and it’s ridiculous, they just keep getting more and more money, and more and more watered down.

It’s not real food, and I don’t mean any offense to anything but I was born and raised in the industry and then I see what happened with produce, my father being a produce broker for 25 years, and it’s even simple tomatoes aren’t even the same any more, so we owe it to the community in which we’re in to find the local grower, shake his hand, sell his product, keep his kids in soccer practice.

It’s not easy, and we’re losing that because everybody’s getting greedy. And it’s smart, but I’m calling it as I see it and I have an opportunity to do something with the small piece of the world that I own and that’s Taste Test and Tutoni’s.

People that come through will have an opportunity to share their story and then the community comes together and supports that story. $200,000 is a lot of money to a bank. A bank will say no, what do you have to collateralize against it? $200,000 spread throughout the community in order to see your favorite taco restaurant open up and now you can go eat your favorite tacos and then see a return on those tacos is huge.

It’s something that’s being done in different industries such as the gaming world or the movie world, but it’s not being done in the food world and the hospitality world, and that’s something you get instant gratification on.

It’s just something that I’ve been formulating with my family for 15 years, and it’s something that I’ve just kind of taken over as my own and running with it, so Taste Test was the first incubator of incubators to be able to execute that plan.

What I’ve learned and what I’ve grown up with and what I’ve had instilled in my generations deep, I want to share that in a bigger way by allowing the American dream to come back. By allowing the person who says I really wanna open a restaurant, not have to go through all of the hurdles that everyone else tells them they have to go through.

Here, sell the community in what you’re building in. Tell your story, prove yourself, and then be invested in.

Part 11: "Why I always choose high heels..."

Rebecca: Part of your story when you and I have talked, otherwise, you’ve mentioned that you first came back to York from Florida, you felt like you had to use your family ties as a foot in the door.

Toni: Yes.

Rebecca: That was the story that you used to help you kind of get that foothold in. Do you feel like now that you can stand on your own? Do you still have that foot in the door?

Toni: I feel like I go through this thing called impostor syndrome all the time.

My family was kind of like my security blanket. Okay, I’ve got the co-sign. I get to start 10 feet ahead than where I was gonna start, which has helped, and it’s given me the confidence and the college that I have to go through the last five years in order to become my own developed business owner.

I’m always learning every single second of every single day. My confidence builds with everything that I accomplish, the difference it makes in people’s lives, like having a rehearsal dinner or sharing big events in people’s lives. They had confidence in me, I better have confidence in me at this point.

And it’s just, it’s mind blowing from day to day to be able to see your reservations build and people wanting to spend their evenings with you. I take that very seriously.

Now that, I was Tutoni’s for a long time, we still are Toni and Tony, but the marriage part failed, but our partnership is very strong, and it was coming on my own, too, ’cause everybody always assumed it was both of us and I’m always the forefront, and finding your footing and speaking for women out there who are in marriages and they’re strong together and then also trying to find my own voice in all of it.

Now, trying to find a voice for all of my Taste Testers, and being in an industry where there’s only 2% of female restaurateurs, I got big shoes to fill.

Which is why I always choose high heels. If I’m gonna get it done, I’m gonna be six inches taller.

Rebecca: It works.

Toni: Yeah, I’m 5’3″, so I gotta feel a little big for my britches.

No, but I wouldn’t want to build and develop my plan and my dream and my day to day life’s work anywhere else but York.

It’s more meaningful. It’s absolutely the reason. I mean, my son’s at York Academy now, we live, breathe, eat, sweat York city.

If there’s an opportunity and someone says why, I say why the hell not? Why not? Just come up with a plan and then execute it and put your all into it.

And it’s flattering to see other restaurateurs come downtown and wanna start up based on the fact that they see all this foot traffic and all this experiences that’s happening downtown, they want to be a part of it.

Awesome, we need 20 more. We need 30 more.

We want to be a thriving downtown community, and the fact that I just jumped, I just went for it. I couldn’t tell me how many people told me not to do it in York city when I was starting Tutoni’s. “Why would you go down there? There’s nothing down there.” That’s exactly why you go down there.

Because you want more people to come, you want more things to happen, and food brings that together faster than anything, so I’m gonna put my neck out there and I’m gonna do it. We’re just gonna do it, we’re gonna figure it out.

You put your whole heart and soul into it, and if you're lucky enough, your community believes in you, and they keep supporting it.

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Toni Calderone On starting restaurants in York...
Credits

“Catalysts” is a production of Our York Media. The project was funded in part by the YorIt Social Venture Challenge Grant from the York County Community Foundation. Our title sponsor is York College of Pennsylvania Center for Community Engagement with support from Stock and Leader Attorneys at Law. This show is hosted by Rebecca Hanlon and produced by Will Hanlon and Caleb Robertson.

“Catalysts” is brought to you with support from:
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Toni Calderone

Airs: Oct. 15, 2018

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