By Drew Olson Special to Published Oct 30, 2006 at 5:42 AM
First of two parts

Sandy D’Amato has been at the top of his profession for so long that many Milwaukeeans already know his story.

D’Amato grew up in Milwaukee, where his grandfather and father operated a grocery store for nearly 80 years. After attending the Culinary Institute of America and working for a time in New York, D’Amato returned to Milwaukee and made his mark as the chef at John Byron’s restaurant in the First Wisconsin Center.

In 1989, D’Amato and his wife, Angie, opened a restaurant -- Sanford -- in the building that formerly housed the family grocery store at 1547 N. Jackson St. The restaurant quickly became regarded as one of the best in the Midwest. In 1999, the couple opened Coquette Café, 316 N. Milwaukee St., and has since added Harlequin Bakery.

We caught up with Sandy during a recent lunch hour at Coquette and talked to him about his hometown, his establishments and the restaurant industry. Enjoy part one of this Milwaukee Talks interview with Sandy D’Amato. When you opened Sanford late in 1989, Downtown looked a lot different than it does today. Did you envision the boom in businesses and condos that has taken place over the past 15 years?

Sandy D’Amato: Not at all. We’ve thought of ourselves when we opened as a destination restaurant, which we were. Downtown was in flux at that time. I don’t think at that time it would have been a good thing to be, necessarily, Downtown. That wouldn’t have ensured people coming in because there wasn’t a lot of tourism going on.

OMC: Most people know that Sanford is housed in a building where your father and grandfather once operated a grocery store. What most people don’t know is that you had a lot of problems -- zoning and financing -- before you opened. What was that period like?

SD: We took that space because of the availability of it. My dad was going to close the store. That was the only way we thought we could swing a deal to open something up. We didn’t have the money to do it and we didn’t want partners.

We had to go through a SBA (Small Business Administration) loan. At that time, the Board (of Zoning Appeals), with (Robert) Pleva on it, was horrible. It was almost like them saying ‘We don’t want you to do a business. But, If you’re willing to go through all this stuff for months and months and sometimes up to years, then yeah, we’ll give it to you, but you’re going to earn it.’ They were not business-friendly at all.

OMC: Do you think that attitude has changed?

SD: When we opened Coquette, we saw the difference between the two. We had Sanford, so we were established, but working through the city at that time, well, it was just night and day.

OMC: In the time that you were trying to get financing, did you ever think ‘Well, this wasn’t meant to be.’ Did you come close to giving up?

SD: We went through 13 banks, trying to get money. We had the building as collateral. I don’t think it had to do with the money that we had to put into it. It had to do with the fact that we were opening up a business that, to the SBA, is probably the worst thing you can open up. It was a small, non-ethnic, fine-dining restaurant. People were looking at this and thinking ‘This is the worst thing you can open up.’

I had a good reputation in the city at the time. There had been a big article about me in Bon Appetit. I don’t think people doubted that I knew how to cook, but can you run a restaurant? Angie was not a part of it at all. Nobody put her into the equation. We were looking at it --here we have someone who is a chef coming into this and his partner is a manager. They’ve managed and run a successful business in the city for the past nine years in John Byron’s and they’ve done that and brought up the revenue.

(Angie) was not a part of it, and I think a lot of it was because she was a woman. The banker that actually gave us the money was a woman. She looked at it and said -- she was interested in food, too, which helped --- she looked at it and said ‘I don’t see where you’re going to fail.'

OMC: A lot of restaurants fail. How were you able to make it work?

SD: We basically were debt-free. We sold our house to go into this. We moved in above the restaurants, so we could literally live on nothing. We figured if we did five people a night, Angie was at the door and I’m cooking. We won’t have a staff. That’s fine. We can live on nothing. Our business plan was pretty good. That’s what I didn’t understand. A lot of banks wanted 125 percent collateral. Well, if we had 100 percent collateral, we wouldn’t have been going to a bank.

OMC: How long were you open before you knew it was going to work?

SD: We were in the black our first month. We had our numbers right. It’s funny, because you could take someone who had never run a restaurant before and they would have been more likely to get the loan. We didn’t do anything else. This is our life. Even if we’d failed with a restaurant before, we’d have had a better chance. If you have a track record, even if it’s bad, you’re almost better off.

OMC: Did you feel vindicated when the restaurant became successful?

SD: It was all kind of a blur. The first four years we were in Sanford, it was literally a blur. We were so close. We had to cut everything so close as to what we were doing. It was crazy hours. We literally had no life. Monday through Saturday, we’d be working from the moment when we got up until the last person left. Then Sunday, we’d move the TV in front of the door and not leave until 4:30 or 5 p.m. and we’d walk up to John Ernst (Café) and have dinner. And then get kind of depressed because it was 7:30 and it was time to start all over again.

OMC: Now that you are established and you’ve got the awards and the positive reviews, what motivates you to continue to work hard and innovate?

SD: In this business, you always look at it as ‘When is the other shoe going to drop?' No matter how successful you are in the business, you know how fleeting it is. You can have a night where you’re completely packed and you’re doing 250 to 300 people and then the next day you can do 30 people.

So you ask: 'Why did people come?' There is no restaurateur I’ve ever talked to who can definitively say ‘This is why I’m busy,’ or ‘This is why I’m slow.’ They have ideas, but there is nothing definitive about this business.

Our best year we ever had was right around 2000 or 2001, right before 9/11. We were having the best year we ever had and then 9/11 happened and it was all over for three years. It was over for everybody, really.

If you’re not ready for that... In this business, you have your honeymoon period. The first six or nine months, you’re going to be busier than you’ll ever be. Well, hopefully, the business will grow. But, there are so many people coming into (the restaurant) in the beginning that a lot of people take that to be ‘This is what the business is.’ It becomes big-cigar time. ‘We’ve got it made.’ Then, three months after that, they’re wondering what happened. There is no money, they can’t pay their bills. They can’t pay their purveyors. They can’t pay their employees.

As soon as you think you’re fine, you’re dead. This isn’t a business where you can every let up. You can be happy and proud of what you’re doing, but you can’t relax. We’ve been having the same meetings for 15 or 20 years. We go over the same things. What are we trying to do to make this a great restaurant?

OMC: So, what’s the primary motivation and secret for success? Fear?

SD: It’s also never wanting to be embarrassed. Angie and I take pride in what we do. We’re professional about it. We make mistakes in both places, every day. But, the measure of a great restaurant and the measure of a great restaurateur was something I learned years ago from Danny Meyer (a New York restaurateur). He was doing a speech and we went expecting to learn his secrets. Basically, he said ‘I take care of my complaints when I get them and we have a mailing list.’ Those were the two biggest things.

A friend of ours when we opened up (Sanford) used to be in restaurant management always used to say one thing you have to do is take care of all complaints and problems you have. Don’t let it get past a day. When something happens, don’t let it get past a minute if you can help it. Some of our best customers are people that came in and had a bad experience their first time at the restaurant. We take it seriously.

OMC: Is that because you work hard to win them back? Is it almost better if someone complains and you can try to make it right than if they just walk away without saying anything?

SD: The person that has a so-so experience isn’t going to say anything. They’re going to leave and say ‘Well, that was OK.’ At Sanford, someone can’t come in and have an OK dinner. They’re not going to pay that kind of money. That’s not what this place is about. They have to leave here saying ‘This was fabulous. This is one of the best meals I’ve had.’ If they don’t leave saying that, there is something wrong there.

OMC: That’s a lot of pressure. It’s almost like you’re Bruce Springsteen. He has set the bar so high and so many people have talked about how great his shows are that they have to be great every night.

SD: That’s what the restaurant business is. It’s all a show. That’s the humility of this business, and it’s what we try to get through to all the employees. You can’t rest on your laurels. If somebody says ‘Sanford is a great restaurant,’ just say thank you, but nothing else. We’re not a great restaurant until that person comes in that night and has a great dinner. What’s in the past is past.

OMC: Some of your more enthusiastic customers are people that don’t live in Milwaukee and many people who do have never been to your restaurant. How is it possible to succeed when that is the case?

SD: We always thought of this as a destination restaurant, meaning that people would travel to it. In order to do that, we had to have a reputation outside of the city. If you’re coming to Milwaukee, one of your stops is going to be at Sanford. Then, it becomes part of the city. That’s part of what we wanted to do when we opened up. A fine-dining restaurant is supported by the community, but it really lives on the business people that come into the city and on tourism. That’s why it’s been a little harder in Milwaukee. There are a lot of reasons to come to this city, but a lot of people don’t know about it, even to this day.  I saw a study where Milwaukee does a lot less tourism than other mid-range cities, like Kansas City, St. Louis and Indianapolis.

OMC: Milwaukee has always been known as a "weekend town." It’s hard to get people to go out of their houses during the week, particularly in winter. How have you dealt with that?

SD: After being open for 10 years, that was part of interest for opening up Coquette. A regular customer at Sanford will come in once a month, or maybe twice a month. Sometimes, we’ll have people that will come in for awhile once a week. But, that’s rare. A majority of the people we have are coming for special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries or whatever it might be. We wanted to have a place where the people who come in once a month, we could see them once a week or once a day. That was kind of the idea behind Coquette.

OMC: Did the Downtown condo and building boom cause you to make any adjustments?

SD: I don’t think it’s changed for the type of restaurant that Sanford is. I don’t know if it makes a difference. Being that we’re in a more densely populated area and it’s going to be more densely populated, I don’t know. The hotels going in, that’s going to be huge.

OMC: How has the addition of high-end chain restaurants like The Capital Grille and The Cheesecake Factory impacted your business and what effect do the chains have on locally-owned restaurants.

SD: I think it affects everyone. We were very involved with a group that was put together about seven or eight years ago, Bob Kinkade from Washington, D.C. put this group, CIRA (Council of Independent Restaurants of America), together and was basically trying to get independents to band together so they would have a little better buying power for food, a better chance at targeting real estate and maybe do marketing together. It’s something that was a little before its time in Milwaukee. At that time, people weren’t feeling those pressures.

We were in Indianapolis and went to see an independent restaurant and looked out the window and you could see nine major high-end chains. There was a Sullivan’s, a Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris (Steakhouse) and others. Within a two-block area, there were 12 chains that were doing over $6.5 million to $7 million each. You can imagine what that does to independents in the area.

Independents are being choked off everywhere around the country. People don’t see that. They don’t realize it. I was always very conscious of it, because my dad had the grocery store. He was buying from wholesaler and it was Roundy’s. That was the only place independents could buy in the city and it was owned by Pick 'N Save. What he was buying was costing him more than what he could go to Pick ‘N Save and buy the product for. They couldn’t compete. It was the same thing with drug stores, book shops, gas stations and now it’s with restaurants.

People that are hurt most by this, by the chains coming in, are the restaurants in that $250,000 to $700,000 area -- the smaller mom and pop places. They’re the ones least likely to become involved in anything, because they don’t have the time or the resources to do it.

OMC: In what ways do chains undercut the independents?

SD: The typical chain profile is they’ll come in and they’ll look at the market. They’ll find out what people are paying in the market for employees and they’ll start at a buck to a buck and a half above that. They’ll bring in 30 percent more people than they need. Then, once the place is open, they’ll cut the people they don’t need. Wages eventually go back down, because all the other places close. The chains also have the ability to pay more for real estate, if it doesn’t go, they can leave the real estate. They’ve got 43 other units that are supportive.

OMC: I know a lot of people who travel who prefer chain restaurants, because they know what they’re going to get. It’s like being at home, in a way.

SD: Restaurants are part of what give a city its identity. People travel to cities for that identity. That’s what defines every city you go to, along with the arts and architecture, or the rivers or the downtown. I went to Charleston (S.C.) and I was there in about 1986 or ‘87 and it was a beautiful downtown area and there wasn’t a chain in sight. The last time I went there, about 10 years later, it was like being in a mall. On the outskirts of town, there were some people just hanging on because they couldn’t afford the downtown rents any more. Why go to Charleston? Why not just go to Mayfair Mall? There is no reason to go to Charleston.

OMC: What about Milwaukee as a tourist destination?

SD: A few years ago, the tourism people in town wanted to get rid of the beer and brats image. Are you crazy? We have beer and brats and we have this. Every chef that I’ve brought into the city, the first thing they want is they want great beer and they want great sausages. There is nothing wrong with that. We’ve got that and all the other things.

(To be continued)
Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.