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2018 Innovator of the Year: Fabio Viviani

MenuMasters 2018: Fabio Viviani

The “trend-settler” builds his business with thorough research

Presented by Nation's Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods, the MenuMasters Awards honor culinary excellence in menu development.

Fabio Viviani is a renaissance chef.

Viviani’s restaurants span the country and the spectrum of dining. Mercato by Fabio Viviani is his fast-casual foray, which serves customizable pasta and pizza in Chicago; San Diego; Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz.; Cleveland; and Benton Harbor, Mich. Bar Siena and Prime & Provisions in Chicago bring rustic Italian and steakhouse cuisine to his adopted city. (His hometown is Florence, Italy, where he owned and operated several restaurants by the time he was 17.)  With Osteria by Fabio Viviani at the Delta terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, he put his stamp on airport dining. He also has restaurants in Detroit and New York State, with another in Tampa, Fla., opening soon.

Burnt pepperoni pizza at Siena Tavern

That’s 15 restaurants in total, with another nine set to open in the next year.

“I'm not a chef-restaurateur,” Viviani said. “I'm a hospitality developer.”

But restaurants are just part of his oeuvre. His entrepreneurial spirit is evident in his seafood delivery service, winery, and line of cookware and gadgets. And the chef best known for his appearance on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” now runs his own production company, which produces his online series.

Viviani enters each new project with a strict business-focused approach, and only after he and his team have done plenty of research. He let us in on how he decides on projects, keeps ahead of trends and balances it all.   

How do you approach a new project? 

Most of the time, chefs have ideas on what they want to do, how they want to do it and where they want to do it. We take the opposite approach. We analyze the market; we analyze a neighborhood; we analyze a town, a city; we analyze the regionality as a whole. Then we find which are the geographic areas that are likely to produce more results for the concept that we're thinking of. Then we look at what other concepts are in the area. We're not married to any concept. We develop concepts based on the necessities of the area, the spending capability and what the market can support.

Special roasted game hen with smoked bacon at Cafe Firenze

Your projects always seem a bit ahead of the curve. How do you know when to jump in on a trend? 

I try to live my life in anticipation, not reaction. If you anticipate, you dominate. If you react, you're passive and you're subjected to the market changes. Have you ever heard the expression, “When it's in the news, it's not news anymore?” If everybody is on the bandwagon, the train is already full. I'm a trendsetter. I'm not a pioneer, because a pioneer gets arrows in their back. I'm a “trend-settler,” meaning I follow early trends and I go all in. And the next big trend is going to be sit-down dining again. 

Your restaurants are located around the country. Is it difficult to run them from afar? 

No. Business that doesn't grow, it dies. And in order to grow business, you have to expand. And in order to expand, you can't be everywhere at the same time. So, the way I supply the need for Fabio to be physically there is by hiring talented people that have a mind of their own. They can run a business with the procedures that we put in place, and Fabio will be there as much as Fabio needs to be there. 

The track record is very good. The system works. Are there people who are upset that I'm not there every day? Sure. Absolutely. But it is what is. You can't make everyone happy anyway. And if you have a good understanding of the restaurant business, you understand that you don't need to be there to have a successful operation.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Read more:
Daniel Boulud, MenuMasters Hall of Fame
Trendsetter: Kroger Co.
Meet the 2018 MenuMasters

Contact Gloria Dawson at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @gloriadawson

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