Crain’s Chicago Business | H. Lee Murphy | November 15, 2019
The Italian-born fan favorite on the reality TV show ‘Top Chef’ is sitting on 35 restaurants around the country, with plans to open at least a dozen more in the coming year.
In the world of brand-name chefs, perhaps Wolfgang Puck is the volume leader, with stakes in 36 restaurants and lounges. Gordon Ramsay has his name on 35 establishments. But both are likely to be surpassed soon by a lesser-known Chicago-area chef who is amassing a dining empire at a brisk pace.
Fabio Viviani, a native of Italy who has been living and working in the U.S. only since 2005, is sitting on 35 restaurants around the country, with plans to open at least a dozen more in the coming year. His Loop-based Fabio Viviani Hospitality, at which he is president and CEO, owns and manages dining rooms in airports and casinos, cities and suburbs together with deep-pocketed partners. Revenue is on track to jump by one-third this year to reach $100 million, then rise again in 2020 to $150 million.
The fast-rising entrepreneur, 41, still works in the kitchen. But more and more, he has become a manager of people—he has 2,500 employees—and an ambitious businessman. “I’m extended, but not stretched too far in my expansion,” he says. “I’m growing at a pace I can control.”
The restaurants are only the half of it. In his spare time, Viviani has written four cookbooks, endorses kitchen gear (high-end Bialetti pots and pans), delivers speeches to Fortune 500 audiences on inspirational topics, owns a winery in Sonoma, Calif., and invests in technology firms. He raises chickens and tends a vegetable garden on the 6-acre estate he owns in Barrington Hills, where he lives with his wife, Ashley, 42, a model and real estate broker before they were married 4½ years ago. They have a 4-year-old son.
Restaurant analysts wonder if he is going too far too fast. A big company like Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises has more than 120 locations, they point out, but it’s not dependent on any single chef to oversee operations, and it’s taken close to 50 years to reach its current size. Chef Rick Bayless, 65, of Frontera Restaurants has taken more than 30 years to get to nine concepts spread over 14 locations.
“Fabio is not following a normal pattern within the restaurant industry. So far he’s defied restaurant logic,” says Doug Roth, owner of consultancy Playground Hospitality in Glencoe. “He will need to build a very strong organization if he is going to maintain the kind of consistency that demanding diners expect today. If he can pull this kind of expansion off, great, but you have got to be skeptical.”
So far, it seems that Viviani hasn’t lost his focus. His local flagship, Siena Tavern, has been open six years in River North and is still pulling close to 1,000 customers on busy Saturdays into its 220-seat space. A few blocks away, steakhouse Prime & Provisions, where a 38-ounce tomahawk rib-eye goes for nearly $200, is similarly filled. The partner at both, the firm that played a key role in launching Viviani’s career, is DineAmic Hospitality, which is backing Viviani on 10 restaurants. The relationship has been a prosperous one: Siena and Prime each take in close to $14 million annually in revenue, considered huge by industry standards.
NO MONEY, NO ENGLISH
Viviani’s arrival in Chicago was something of an accident. With no money and no English-speaking skills, Viviani followed a friend to suburban Los Angeles in autumn 2005 and, with techniques learned since working in a bakery at age 11 back in Florence, quickly caught on. He took charge of a place called Cafe Firenze in Moorpark (he still has it today) and then placed fourth in the 2009-10 season of reality TV show “Top Chef.” His good looks and charismatic style caught the fancy of viewers, who voted him fan favorite.
Viviani met his future wife at a party on Michigan Avenue nine years ago and not long after pulled up stakes and left his California base to be close to her here. DineAmic spotted him shortly after and began planning Siena. “A lot of ‘Top Chefs’ you never hear of anymore,” says Lucas Stoioff, a founder and principal of DineAmic. “Fabio’s stint on ‘Top Chef’ didn’t hurt, but it’s his charm, kitchen skills and work ethic since then that have made him a success. He may still be a celebrity to ‘Top Chef’ fans, but he backs that up with real talent.”
What else has kept him moving forward? For one, Viviani doesn’t cut corners: Pasta is made from scratch at each of his Italian spots. That really tender octopus? Viviani asks his cooks to put the sea critters into a big electric paddle-mixer for an hour of tenderizing before they’re cooked.
In an industry notorious for turnover, the CFO and the human resources chief have both been with Viviani 15 years. The head of operations, John Paolone, started with the chef as a line cook. Ken Biffar, the corporate chef who oversees the Siena brand here, is 42 and a veteran of 14 years with Viviani. “Chef Fabio fit right into American kitchens easily from the start,” Biffar recalls. “He had presence. It was always obvious that he knew what he was doing.”
He knows all 40 people in the Siena kitchen by name—and he has a sense of humor that is rare among so many stressed-out captains of the kitchen. “He’s a fun person to be around, which is one reason why we are able to hold on to our people,” Biffar says. He adds that no Viviani restaurant, typically aimed at a middlebrow audience, is chasing Michelin stars, reducing the pressure to perform each day.
The chef is invested in restaurants in Michigan, Florida, California, New York, Pennsylvania and other states—carrying names such as Osteria, BomboBar, Chuck Lager America’s Tavern and—the latest experiment in branding—Dixie’s Southern Kissed Chicken, to open by April in New Jersey and Delaware as a rival to fast-food giant Chick-fil-A. In the face of all this new construction, Viviani has closed just one nonperforming restaurant, in South Beach, Fla., a couple of years ago. “We simply had the wrong location there,” Viviani says.
“The Fabio name and its ‘Top Chef’ connection helps us in negotiations with landlords and property owners more than anything else,” says Craig Colby, president of Colby Restaurant Group in suburban Philadelphia, the partner on the chicken venture.
Viviani is logging more and more frequent-flyer miles today. He acknowledges that he might eventually attract the attention of a private-equity buyout specialist, saying “we’d be willing to consider any and all offers.” And yet above all he still loves to cook—and will cook for you personally at the right price. In his Barrington Hills home, the chef maintains a restaurant-style kitchen in his basement and invites small corporate groups, usually a dozen or so at a time, to reserve a table for an evening dinner. The price is $750 per person and more and includes luxury ingredients like truffles and sea urchins and Louis XIII cognac.
Limousines deliver the guests. Viviani, empire builder and chef, delivers the experience.