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Food & Family Marry for Entrepreneurial Success with Chef Lidia Bastianich

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Kelly Scanlon

Kelly Scanlon


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On this episode of Smart Companies Radio you'll meet Lidia Bastianich, an Emmy award-winning public television host, a best-selling cookbook author, restaurateur, and owner of a flourishing food and entertainment business. Discover how Lidia married her two passions in life – her family and food, to create multiple culinary endeavors alongside her two children.  Lidia’s cookbooks, co-authored with her daughter Tanya, include Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking, Lidia’s Favorite Recipes, Lidia’s Italy in America, Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, and Lidia’s Italy—all companion books to the Emmy winning and three time nominated television series Lidia’s Kitchen. Lidia is the chef/owner of four acclaimed New York City restaurants - Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto, as well as Lidia’s Pittsburgh and Lidia's Kansas City.  She is also founder and president of Tavola Productions, an entertainment company that produces high quality broadcast productions. She also has a line of pastas and all natural sauces called LIDIA’S.

To listen to more shows with host Kelly Scanlon, Check our Smart Companies Archives 


0:27 Kelly Scanlon

Good morning. Welcome to Smart Companies Radio. I am Kelly Scanlon, publisher of Thinking Bigger Business Media. We want to mention our sponsor today on Smart Companies Radio, Kelly/Warner Law. To learn more about Kelly/Warner's internet defamation and trade libel legal practice for entrepreneurs and professionals, head on over to kellywarnerlaw.com/infographic. That is K-E-L-L-Y-W-A-R-N-E-R-L-A-W-(dot)-com-/-infographic. You can also click on the logo on the ithinkbigger.com website. Our guest today is Lidia Bastianich. She is Emmy-award winning public television host. She is a bestselling cookbook author, a restaurateur and the owner of a flourishing food and entertainment business. Lidia has married her two passions in life, her family and food to create multiple culinary endeavors alongside her two children, Joseph and Tanya. She just recently released her third children's book in January called, "Lidia's Egg-Citing Farm Adventure" and she is coming out with her next cookbook in October 2015. Today, we are going to be talking with Lidia about her entrepreneurial journey and it's a great one. So Lidia, let's just start at the very beginning. How did you get started?

1:51 Lidia Bastianich

Oh, Kelly I got started, I was rather young. You know, we came to the United States as immigrants. I was 12 years old. So you know, my upbringing was with grandma and in a courtyard with the courtyard animals and she grew her own vegetables and the fresh eggs and all of that. So my food passion, I think, is rooted there and then coming as an immigrant to the United States, maybe the eagerness and the passion and the want to succeed and to make it. You know, once you are an immigrant and you are kind of sponsored and you are -- we were brought here by the Catholic Charity, so all of that, you know, a kind of place, since you know, I need to make it on my own. Even at a young age, I think it played in my mind. So the food part, I also love cooking, went to school and I was actually in the sciences. I thought I liked the sciences, but then I met my husband who was in the restaurant business. He was in the "front of the house" as we call it. But while going to school and to college, I always worked in food-related businesses. I mean, I started at 14 at Walken's Bakery, you know Christopher Walken's family, a German family, I worked with them. Then in college, you work of course, most people do restaurant service, in the kitchen.

3:19 Kelly Scanlon


3:20 Lidia Bastianich

And then I married my husband who was a restaurant-man if you will, and that's how we got started. In 1971, we were married, had one child, I was actually only 24. He decided that he would like to open a restaurant and I said, "You know what, I'm gonna help you and I'm gonna learn" and that's how it started.

3:40 Kelly Scanlon

Okay, when you came to America, where did you settle?

3:43 Lidia Bastianich

Well, they first found a little apartment for us, with my mother, my father, my brother and myself, just four of us in New Jersey.

3:53 Kelly Scanlon

Okay, in the east.

3:54 Lidia Bastianich

And we stayed there for about six months and then a distant cousin found out we were here and found a home for us in Queens, in Astoria, Queens, which is a neighbor, a borough of New York City. And there, I still live in Queens, you know. I settled there and that's where we began. That's where our first restaurant was started.

4:18 Kelly Scanlon

How did you finance that first restaurant? You are married with a small child and the margins in the restaurant business are very, very low. So how did you finance that?

4:31 Lidia Bastianich

Well, my husband who was very eager, he was also an immigrant, the same route that we took, had wanted to open a restaurant -- he had a partner and they were talking and somehow didn't seem right and I said to him, "Well, open it and I will help you". And now, money wise, you know, a small place, nine tables, total all I think, 36 seats --

4:54 Kelly Scanlon

Very cozy though. Very cozy.

4:57 Lidia Bastianich

Very cozy, you know -- yeah, I mean you could run it with just a few people and that was the plan, you know, something that you can control, something that the overhead is not that big.

5:07 Kelly Scanlon


5:08 Lidia Bastianich

And you know, as Italians, the family sticks together. So my mother and father lived within the same house we did. They helped us with the kids, first one and then the second one came and I could go to work. So I went with him I said, "I'll help you. Let's the two of us do it". And I first began kind of on the outside and front and greeting people and at the bar and of course, the checks and all of that. But then I knew I wanted to get in the kitchen and I would make local specialties, Italian specialties and people loved them. So, I decided that I would get in the kitchen. I became the sous chef. We had hired a chef. He cooked Italian-American food. I became his sous chef and for 10 years, I apprenticed until I really got my strength. But beyond that, I knew that was my passion. Then we would go back to Italy to travel. I would work with Italian chefs, doing our vacations, come back to different courses. So I knew that I needed to learn a lot. And it took me 10 years to actually become a full-fledged chef on my own. Those 10 years, the little restaurant of 36 seats grew up, became 71 the next year and then we became 150-seater.

6:30 Kelly Scanlon


6:31 Lidia Bastianich

And then within three years, we bought another little restaurant. So we were kind of expanding, growing as the opportunities came along.

6:41 Kelly Scanlon

Sure. So within your original restaurant, did you have space to expand or were you adding locations in order to get those additional?

6:50 Lidia Bastianich

No, the first one we expand the next you know -- sometimes it's the opportunities, when they come around, you take it --

6:56 Kelly Scanlon


6:57 Lidia Bastianich

-- you take it, you take the train or you don't --

6:58 Kelly Scanlon


7:00 Lidia Bastianich

-- the next door and we jumped on it. I said, you know, it was like annulments. Maybe it is the right time. We had a line out the door. We loved what we did. We were priced right. We, you know, hospitality was really what we were all about and it worked. We took on next door and from then on, again, next door and then another locale after three years.

7:29 Kelly Scanlon

Uh-hmm. You know, I've been sitting here listening to you talk about your expansion and the success, the line stringing out the door and I've been wanting to say, what do you think was your secret ingredient? You know, I've been to New York many, many times. There are many fine, wonderful Italian restaurants there and you're competing with those. What is your secret ingredient? But it sounds to me, as you continued to talk, that it's just you make people feel like part of your family, that in addition to having wonderful food, you know it's prepared lovingly by family, the service, you make people feel like they're family and they just keep coming back. Is that the secret?

8:10 Lidia Bastianich

I think Kelly, I think you're right. I think that's a big part of it, but the restaurant business, the hospitality business is more than just food or delivering a plate. It's a lot of items. It's food absolutely. It has to be cooked to you know, love is kind of a word, but it has to be cooked cautiously, so that the customers feels that you nourish, because food is nourishing.

8:39 Kelly Scanlon


8:40 Lidia Bastianich

It's not just putting on the plate and getting money for it and then move on to the next.

8:44 Kelly Scanlon


8:45 Lidia Bastianich

And I really feel till this day, I feel that way. The setting has to be beautiful. The welcoming has to be there. You have to make somebody feel at home. You know, if they come for the first time in this room and there's a room full of strange people, you have to bring them in. You see, that's one of the most important things; when they come in, "Hello, how are you? Welcome. Come on in." If you have a table, otherwise, you make them comfortable. They'll have a table in 10 minutes or 20 minutes. You bring them something to munch. You need to care about people like you would for your own family and people get that.

9:15 Kelly Scanlon


9:16 Lidia Bastianich

People understand that, but you know what? I generally feel like that. I generally feel, you know, this is what I wanted to do for people. And also, if you talk about a business transaction, you have to give them value.

9:29 Kelly Scanlon


9:30 Lidia Bastianich

You know? You have to give them what they paid for.

9:32 Kelly Scanlon

Right. Exactly. You were talking about the multiple locations and you not only expanded within New York, but you chose to come to Kansas City which is where I am broadcasting from right now. Why did you decide to open in Kansas City of all places in America?

9:49 Lidia Bastianich

Well, Kelly after those two places, from '71 to about '80, we were in those two places and then expanding, but by then it was 10 years and I felt really like, "Okay, I can cook", and the food that we were cooking was Italian-American food because the chef was Italian-American. I would interject some of the regional Italian specialty that we cooked at home.

10:14 Kelly Scanlon


10:15 Lidia Bastianich

And that's another element in the reality of my cooking, real Italian. So in 1980, a business move, we leveraged, sold both of those places that were rented, still had enough renting years of rental to be worth some money, we sold it and we ultimately bought the space where Felidia is now in New York City.

10:42 Kelly Scanlon


10:43 Lidia Bastianich

On 58th Street. I became the chef there, full-fledged chef, and I cooked the regional Italian cuisine. I said, "Now, I am gonna cook. I am the chef. I had 10 years of training and practicing. I am gonna cook the food that we eat at home, that is real Italian, the regional food of Italy." That brought on a whole new slew of, let's say, if you want to kind of turn it in business terminology, marketing.

11:09 Kelly Scanlon


11:10 Lidia Bastianich

Because, I had not really planned. I just wanted to cook that food, but the journalists __11:15__. They said, "What is this woman cooking? Why is this different?" I was in a way, retro but ahead of my time.

11:22 Kelly Scanlon


11:23 Lidia Bastianich

And that's what brought everybody to the restaurant. All the news and you became popular, I mean Julia Child, James Beard, they all came to the restaurant. It was grand. And you know, that's where kind of "Lidia" became who "Lidia" is today, the chef. Then of course, the children grew up and went on. Moving out of New York, now I had the two children: first Joseph and then the second, Tanya was born. They grew up in the restaurant because after school they would come in the restaurant, grandma would be there, helping, making the gnocchi and so on. But I always told them, I said, "This is not what you want to do. You want to have a real American job and go to school." And they did. They did. My son ended up in Wall Street and my daughter with a PhD in Renaissance Art History, so I'm very proud of them, but both of them now work with me. And when my son decided one day, I mean from Merrill Lynch in Wall Street and told me, he says, "Mom, I am gonna quit my job," and I said, "What?! You're going to quit? Why?" And he said, "Well, you know, I'm not really happy." And I said, "Okay, then what are you gonna do?" He says, "Well, I think I'll stay here in the restaurant with you." And that kind of preoccupied me a little bit, but that was the start of a lot of new things. He came and I sent him to Italy for one year to really absorb as much as he could, but when he came back, he wanted to move. And we opened Becco on 48th Street., that was a big success and after that he had his, our restaurant, we had Felidia, and he says. "You know Ma, there's a whole America out there that is maybe underserviced with the food that we serve. Let's go look and let's go out West."

13:14 Kelly Scanlon

Out West.

13:15 Lidia Bastianich

And you know, I said, "Go out West young man".

13:18 Kelly Scanlon

There you go.

13:21 Lidia Bastianich

And we looked in Kansas City. You know, we were looking for cities that were nice medium-large cities that were culturally vibrant, economically vibrant and that were really underserviced than what we had. And you know, Kansas City came up first and we settled there. And it's now I think 16 years.

13:41 Kelly Scanlon

Wow! And what a remarkable choice you made in terms of location because that area has just exploded in the last several years and you couldn't have picked a better location, really, just there at the crossroads by Union Station.

13:56 Lidia Bastianich

Yeah, yeah. You know Kelly, we were given the Key to the City by the Mayor for actually being the catalyst for the whole movement. I can't take the credit for it because looking at the places, real estate places you know, big new buildings didn't attract us so much, but that was an old warehouse, if you will.

14:16 Kelly Scanlon


14:17 Lidia Bastianich

It was looking on to the trains, it still is; the trains passing by and it was kind of rustic. And it really epitomized for me what the West is. You know, this Kansas City was the city where everybody sort of, in the time of actually going west, would fill up and then cross the Rockies.

14:36 Kelly Scanlon

Yes, it was a gateway to the West.

14:39 Lidia Bastianich

Exactly! So I said this is it. We are here in the middle of America and I loved this path for that reason and also because the warehouse had a little space. I could put some greens. I can put flowers. We had little herbs and all of that. And I said, "Everybody goes with the car. They will come and drive. We give them good food." And it has worked.

15:04 Kelly Scanlon

It's worked very, very well and I want to take a break now. Now that we heard most of your story, I want to get started with the next phase of your career which was your television show, your cookbooks, basically, your entire empire that you have created. How you jumped from the restaurants into the rest of your entrepreneurial journey. You are listening to Smart Companies Radio on Blog Talk Radio. We'll be right back.

16:00 Kelly Scanlon

A lot of people who listen to this show are small business owners and entrepreneurs and legal representation is critical. And it's critical to have it before you need, but if someone defames you online or off, find a defamation lawyer as soon as possible. Not doing so could inadvertently ruin an otherwise solid claim. Kelly/Warner Law caters to people like you entrepreneurs. One of the top internet law practices in the country, the attorneys at Kelly/Warner have mastered the art of online reputation maintenance. Since opening their doors, Kelly/Warner has helped more than a thousand businesses and professionals with all manner of trade libel and business defamation situations. More than just a client advocate, Kelly/Warner's website is a resource for internet defamation news, tips, case studies, and statutes, both domestic and international. To read up on the legalities of online defamation law, head to kellywarnerlaw.com, a boutique law firm that delivers big firm results and better for a fraction of the price. Kelly/Warner works with clients across North America, Europe, Australia, Canada and Asia. To learn more about Kelly/Warner's internet defamation and trade libel legal practice for entrepreneurs and professionals, head on over to kellywarnerlaw.com/infographic. That is K-E-L-L-Y-W-A-R-N-E-R-L-A-W-.com/infographic. You could also click on the logo on the Ithinkbigger.com website.

18:09 Kelly Scanlon

Good morning. Welcome back to Smart Companies Radio. I am Kelly Scanlon, publisher of Thinking Bigger Business Media. We're talking here this morning with Lidia Bastianich. She is -- I don't even know how to begin to describe everything she has done. She is an immigrant from Italy. She and her husband started the first Italian restaurant in New York and it has expanded into not just New York, but here, right here in Kansas City, there is one, and there are others, but what I want to talk about now, after carving out the successful restaurant niche, it really took off when she started offering the regional dishes from her home country. You know, now Lidia, you have all kinds of products. You have a television show, you have books, not just cookbooks, but children's books. How did you make that transition from a successful restaurant owner to celebrity? How did you do that?

19:07 Lidia Bastianich

Well, I think that you make opportunities in life for yourself. When you do things, when you are really excited about it, dedicated, passionate about it, you make sure that you are doing the right thing. I am also a teacher and I love to share things and so as in that restaurant, for Lidia, the first restaurant where I became the chef and all the journalists kind of followed what this lady is doing, that is the opportunity that we gained, begin to come. Once people know about you, they come and visit. So the first book was started there. There was JJ, because he was a writer for Gourmet. He says, "Lidia you should write a book," and I said but I'm not a writer. He says, "I'll write it. Let's write it together. I will write it and you'll do the recipes and together." And that's how the first book was born.

20:02 Kelly Scanlon


20:03 Lidia Bastianich

And from there, Julia Child came in. She wanted me to teach her how to make the Risotto. Then she asked me to be on her show and we did two episodes together with the Master Chef and of course the producer says, "You know Lidia, you're pretty good, how about a show of your own?" And I wanted to be on PBS and remain on PBS and that's how the show got started. And so when the opportunities, you know, as you travel in the business, there are opportunities. The question is, to make the right choices and to make sure that you are competent, at least I felt that way, that I am competent to fulfill that challenge.

20:42 Kelly Scanlon

Yes, absolutely, because that is a very significant comment. As entrepreneurs, whether you're a restaurant owner or whether you own a technology firm, there are so many opportunities that come our way, sometimes it can be difficult to know which ones to engage with and pursue, and which ones you have to just say, "Oh, that sounds interesting, but it's just not really the right thing." It's hard to make those decisions. When you have been confronted with that, how have you made the decision about whether to pursue or whether to let it go?

21:13 Lidia Bastianich

Well, I think, initially like the first book and the television, was really a personal impetus. I wanted, I wanted to tell a story. I knew I had a lot, I still have stories to tell.

21:25 Kelly Scanlon

I bet.

21:26 Lidia Bastianich

And so that was really, really, you know, a challenge, am I confident to put it together and to make it a success. But you know, you know what Kelly, along the way, you'll have so many people and you need people. It's not a solitary journey. Success is not solitary. It's about people working together and building up teams. So, you know, besides the restaurant, the book, you have your team, your editor, production, you have the production team and so on. So, it's about recognizing those things. As I went on and beyond my personal, you know, what is the right thing for, once my son and then my daughter joined, what they depended a lot on what they wanted to do or what they didn't. Because I think when a business -- my business has grown because of the family input. I wouldn't have done all of these by myself.

22:20 Kelly Scanlon


22:21 Lidia Bastianich

It's my son's, his business savvy. It's my daughter, her sort of academic approach to research, to books, to television, and you have to, if you're gonna bring your family in, everybody has to grow in their own way, in the way they like to grow. And that's why, you know, the production company, we ultimately own our own production company -- that's what my daughter loves to do. I have nine books and three children books because my daughter helps me with the research, with that, that's what she loves to do. We have all these restaurants because my son is a business person. He loves new restaurants and building restaurants. And so, this is how I expanded. It was not by myself, by building those teams, and I was lucky enough to have my children follow into our footsteps.

23:15 Kelly Scanlon


23:16 Lidia Bastianich

And they were good at it.

23:17 Kelly Scanlon


23:18 Lidia Bastianich

They are good at it.

23:19 Kelly Scanlon

Well, it sounds like they were taught very well. Would you call yourself a serial entrepreneur?

23:25 Lidia Bastianich

Kelly, I love the challenge. Yes. You know, you put a challenge in front of me and therefore I think I can answer, and I can make it happen. It's hard to resist, you know, but I know that there's only so much you can do well, and that's where, you know, say, "Okay, this sounds good. Let's see, do I have the right people to pool together to make this a success? Do I have --", you know, you wanna be the spirit, you wanna be the leader, you wanna be the kind of the initial kind of fire to start it.

23:58 Kelly Scanlon


23:59 Lidia Bastianich

But then you need to carry it through and that's in building teams.

24:02 Kelly Scanlon


24:03 Lidia Bastianich

Uhm, you know, but Kelly, let me tell you that each project of mine is like a child, you know, like having different children. They're all different, they're all special, and I even tell them, you know, when I go and visit and see we do have in place an office that takes care of all the labor's issues and the payroll issues...

24:30 Kelly Scanlon

Uh hmm...

24:31 Lidia Bastianich

...and the finances and taxes and all of that, but we still go and stimulate and give energy to the different businesses. And when I go to each business, you know, I am completely in the business, I am with one of my children, and you know, I feel, so I don't lump them altogether into just a serial business effect.

24:52 Kelly Scanlon

Uh-hmm. Yeah. So, how do you stay fresh? You've been at this for quite a while and people continued to comment on how much they love your restaurants, your books sell well, your television show is very popular. How do you stay fresh?

25:10 Lidia Bastianich

Well, I need to nurture myself, you know.

25:12 Kelly Scanlon

True. Uh-hmm.

25:13 Lidia Bastianich

I need to travel. That's why I'm in Italy. I just brought three chefs with me. I brought the chef from Kansas City, Dan Sweeney, I brought the chef from Becco, the chef from Felidia, to Italy. We went and travel and ate. We've discussed. This is how I energize them. You know, they need to be out of there, they need to be in situ where the food that they're cooking comes from.

25:38 Kelly Scanlon


25:39 Lidia Bastianich

And now, they're gonna go back all energized and I love that. At the same time, I energize myself. So, I need to travel, I need to go to, I mean I go to symposiums, I read, I love, you know, all of the, I don't love the cuisine of, the micro cuisine, that I do not love.

26:00 Kelly Scanlon

Uh hmm...

26:01 Lidia Bastianich

But I, you know, very much into the science and nourishment of cuisine. I'm very much into the whole expo now, that the concern of a world cuisine and where are we going with food and all of that. So, I need to kind of be ahead of the curve for myself so that I can, it can seep in through my messages, through my places. So, people need to know that I am working for them, but I don't see it like work, you know. I love it, I enjoy it. So, but they need to see that Lidia is out there and she's, you know, they see me involved in organizations, they see me involve doing fundraising. I mean, you know, I do a lot of fundraising for social causes. This is all part of, I think, my contribution, my being part of society, and then relating to that society businesswise.

26:55 Kelly Scanlon

Yes, and obviously it permeates. You can see that through all of your different endeavors. Lidia, it's been wonderful having you on the show today hearing about your entrepreneurial journey, hearing about your secrets to success and sharing those with all of our listeners. I'm sure that they have lots of takeaways this morning. And if they'd like to visit your website, what is your website?

27:15 Lidia Bastianich

www.lydiasitaly.com and the restaurants so they can go any place they want and they can write me even notes and ask questions.

27:26 Kelly Scanlon

Okay. So...

27:27 Lidia Bastianich

I will respond.

27:28 Kelly Scanlon

lidiasitaly.com and from there you can find...

27:32 Lidia Bastianich


27:33 Kelly Scanlon

...all of the different things that Lidia has to offer as well as talk with Lidia, and she said she'll respond to you so, especially, you know, if you're an aspiring restaurant owner, you might be able to pick up a few tips from her. Thank you again so much for being on the show today. We really appreciate it.

27:46 Lidia Bastianich

Thank you. Thank you, Kelly.

27:48 Kelly Scanlon


27:49 Lidia Bastianich

Thank you very much for having me.

27:50 Kelly Scanlon

Absolutely. And if you'd like to learn more about how to grow your business, please visit our website at ithinkbigger.com. Follow us on Facebook, Thinking Bigger Business Media or on Twitter @IThinkBigger. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week.