When most folks get bad service at their local pizzeria, they hop onto Yelp, leave a blistering review and never go back. Frank Brusco took a very different tack: He bought the joint.
Then, he proceeded to parlay that impromptu purchase into what Entrepreneur calls a $20 million mini-empire in New Jersey.
Today, Patricia’s of Holmdel, located in Holmdel, New Jersey, specializes in classic Italian food, including several pizzas, and a menu that’s regularly updated with signature items to keep the concept fresh. Brusco owns the restaurant with executive chef Lenny DiMaria, drawing crowds from Monmouth County, Ocean County, Staten Island, Westfield and North Jersey.
The son of Italian immigrants, Brusco worked as a salesman for a family-owned commercial printing business and had no experience as a restaurateur when he bought the pizzeria. But he regularly entertained clients at New York City restaurants and knew good service—and bad service—when he saw it.
At a neighborhood pizza restaurant in July 2015, he saw bad service twice in two weeks when he called ahead for a table and pizza for himself and his family. “I was a soccer coach in Holmdel, and my kids were hungry after practice one day,” Brusco told App.com. “So I called the local pizzeria with our order and told them we’d be there in 20 minutes. They took the order, and I assumed they’d manage it so that the food would be on the table when we got there, but two weeks in a row, we arrived at the restaurant and had to wait another 20 minutes even though there were no other customers there.”
Instead of storming out in a huff, Brusco initiated a chat with the beleaguered pizzeria owner, a fulltime contractor who only worked at the restaurant at night—with just two people manning the kitchen. The owner was ready to get out of the pizza business. So Brusco made a snap decision right there on the spot.
“The restaurant was everything I hated—low ceilings, old carpeting and furniture, unattractive uniforms, no music and bad paint—but he asked me if I’d like to buy it,” Brusco said in the App interview. “Since I understood the multiple in the restaurant business, I looked at how much furniture was in the place, saw how impressive the kitchen was, and offered him a check on the spot,” he said. “He jumped up, shook my hand, and we sealed the deal.”
Brusco jumped into the restaurant business head-first, renovating the entire space over two months and transforming it into an upscale dining establishment complete with chandeliers and tables with white tablecloths. He renamed the business after one of his great-grandmothers, Patricia.
The restaurant took off, thanks to a high-end menu heavy on southern Italian fare and Brusco’s passion for creating an unforgettable customer experience. As he explained in the Corner Booth podcast, “I look at everything from the customer point of view, which properly places emphasis on the need to take care of people. I select friendly people and train every staff member to refer to all guests as if they were family.”
But Patricia’s was just the start. Brusco proved to be such an adept restaurateur, he went on to partner with a former employee to open Gabriella’s, an Italian steakhouse in Red Bank that can seat up to 260 customers. He also launched Over Easy Kitchen, with locations in Holmdel, Marlboro and Fair Haven. Coming up next: an 8,000-square-foot supper club that’s scheduled to open by the end of 2023.
Today, Patricia’s of Holmdel has a crew of about 70 fulltime and part-time employees. The main dining room seats 140 people, while an outdoor dining area can accommodate 70. Most recently, Brusco added The Market, an area that seats up to 40 guests and offers coffee and pastries. “Having the great customer base we have, I figured now was the time to enhance our dining experience and give our customers something you can’t buy online,” he told ROI-NJ.com earlier this year.
To keep things on track, Brusco is a familiar presence at all of his restaurants—the opposite of the absentee owner. “I typically start my day meeting customers and checking in with staff at each of the Over Easy locations, then shoot over to Patricia’s and meet and greet everyone until the last customer sits down to eat, and finally head to Gabriella’s six miles away and stay there until it closes at 1 a.m.,” Brusco said in the App interview. “I don’t consider it work because I truly enjoy what I do, and these places are where my friends and family hang out.”
Pizza is one of many menu offerings at Patricia’s, but Brusco and his team don’t just go through the motions. They fire their pies in a 900°F wood-burning oven and plate four options: a classic Margherita; the Lenny Special (a white pie with mozzarella, ricotta, Pecorino Romano and provolone); the Patricia’s (seasonal fresh figs, baby arugula, goat cheese, a drizzle of truffle oil and a Balsamic reduction); and the Hot & Sweet (fresh mozz, spicy soppressata and truffle honey.)
Customers can also dig into a 14 oz. Strip Steak, Chicken Scarpariello, Lamb Chops and Chili Lime Honey Chicken as well as pasta dishes like Pappardelle Bolognese, Orecchiette and Paccheri Genovese, among numerous other selections. Seafood dishes rank among Patricia’s most popular items, including the Angry Lobster, Salmone Riviera and Shrimp Oreganata.
Above all, creating special memories for guests is Brusco’s No. 1 mission, he said in the App interview. “I love seeing customers smile and knowing them by name, or when little kids want to come because one of our places is their favorite restaurant. It’s a great feeling to see customers celebrating the stages of their lives at your restaurant and to enable those happy moments and occasions.”