Keys to Culinary Success

Opening and running a successful restaurant is no easy feat, especially in this economy. Two local chefs share their secrets to longevity on the ever-changing gastronomic landscape.

Photo by Jared CastaldiCracking the seal on a new business is tough enough in any economic environment—let alone during a lingering recession. Which makes the success of the 32 establishments that made our list of “Great New Restaurants” all the more impressive.

It requires an unflappable, ego-driven personality to be a restaurateur—or so I’ve been told on more than one occasion. Restaurants are, in fact, among the riskiest ventures out there (if not the riskiest). To find out what it takes, I went to the source: the chef/owners of two of our favorites.

“You can’t settle for less than you really want,” says John Wolferth, who reinvented acclaimed chef Clark Gilbert’s former Gemelli location in Narberth as Aperto in June 2011. “For me, [an opening] is like Madison Avenue—you’re feeding off this energy.”

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Sean Delbello certainly knows about energy. He’s got tons of it. “It’s my turn to teach the Main Line what Italian food really is,” says the 33-year-old chef/owner behind Berwyn’s TiraMisu, a tiny new eatery garnering outsized buzz for its ultra-fresh, reasonably priced Roman Jewish cuisine. “You gotta love the business or get out of it; it’s one plate at a time.”

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And you can never underestimate your audience. “People are very well-educated about the food,” says Delbello. “Now, there are a lot of great restaurants out there—a lot of new blood.”

When it comes to their backgrounds and interests, Delbello and the 54-year-old Wolferth are quite different. With a family that’s been in the restaurant business for more than 40 years, Delbello has been hanging around accomplished chefs since he was a teenager. His is the family name behind Il Portico in Center City and Il Tartufo in Manayunk. “My uncle taught my brother, and my brother taught me,” he says. “They gave me no choice.”

Wolferth started out as a dishwasher, working his way up and compiling some impressive credentials in the process, including stints at Striped Bass, Savona and Sola (which he sold in 2006). Following a three-year break from the restaurant business, Wolferth’s work with Gilbert and Avalon’s John Brandt-Lee inspired his latest venture. “Opening restaurants is one of my favorite aspects—doing the concept and design,” he says. “For me, when I’m in that process, I’m firing on all cylinders. I’m a creative person. I’d never be happy at a desk job.”

But great food and a cool concept aren’t the only things that keep a restaurant going. There’s also the nitty-gritty, bottom-line stuff, which leads to the sort of consistent profits that can sustain a place for years, even decades. “A lot of big restaurants buy cheap ingredients at high prices,” says Delbello. “We buy good ingredients at midrange prices because we want to be in the business for 20 or 30 years. We’re not here to get overnight rich.”

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Thank goodness for that.

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!