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Café L’Appetito Second Generation Owners Stir the Pot to Keep Things Fresh

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Andrew Smith & Karen Stoychoff

In this season 3 episode of Back of the Napkin, sibling second generation small business owners Licia Accardo and Tony Spatara of Café L’Appetito talk about honoring and evolving the family legacy to achieve greater success in the Chicago restaurant scene. Listen to the episode.

Café L’Appetito Second Generation Owners Stir the Pot to Keep Things Fresh

Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, Apple, Google, Facebook, Uber, and Microsoft. Companies that started as small businesses and changed the landscape in their respective industries. Yet only Apple and Microsoft predate the restaurant started by Anthony Spatara in a small grocery store in 1981 in Chicago's vibrant Italian enclave on the city's Northwest Side. Now owned and operated by siblings Licia Accardo and Tony Spatara, Café L’Appetito celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, with the second generation leading an impressive business expansion into major Chicago venues including Solider Field and the United Center.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of small businesses make it to the 20-year mark. When it comes to second-generation businesses, more than 60% fail. Restaurants are historically among the toughest small businesses to own and operate. So, what is the secret to the longevity of Café L’Appetito? Accardo and Spatara believe it’s the balance between two competing mantras—don’t mess up a good thing and changing with the times.

Accardo and Spatara have honored their father's vision and expanded well beyond simply serving as caretakers of his legacy. They've creatively diversified the business and invested in opportunities that keep Café L'Appetito a vibrant and must-visit establishment for Chicagoans and visitors to the Windy City.

Born in Italy, Made in Chicago

Those six words encompass the beginnings of Café L’Appetito. Anthony Spatara immigrated to Chicago from Italy as a teenager with a fourth-grade education. In 1981, he started a grocery and liquor store selling fresh pasta and his special-recipe Italian sausage. Eventually, that little Italian grocery store moved from the comfort and familiarity of Chicago's historic Italian neighborhood to the heart of the city.

“Making something out of nothing says it all with ‘Born in Italy, Made in Chicago,’” said the younger Spatara. “That's our small motto. It's a reminder to my sister and I where we come from, what we stand for, and what we're about.”

According to Accardo, moving into the heart of the city from their Italian neighborhood—and challenging his comfort zone—had always been a dream for their father, who longed to “bring his recipes and showcase all these Italian imported goods and bring them to the city where there was nothing like that downtown.”

“He just took a leap of faith and really, I mean that's all I can say. He took a leap of faith and it worked. I think it worked because of his and his passion,” said Accardo.

A Passion for Tradition

Accardo and Spatara embrace the family heritage of cooking and generational recipes. Accardo notes she learned to cook from her grandmother, and in the absence of written recipes, recalls those moments in a kitchen filled with love for family, food, and tradition. “We took some of the recipes and incorporated them in the restaurants, like our tomato sauce, our marinara sauce, our meat sauce. These are all family recipes, and it can't get better than that.”

That family legacy carries forward in the quality of the food they make. While food industry scientists and experts constantly try to recreate flavors at a cheaper price, Accardo and Spatara committed long ago to never sacrifice quality.

It's a common practice for purveyors to offer substitutions when an ingredient isn't available, a practice the siblings eschew. “We do not accept substitutions,” said Spatara. “If you came into our restaurant in 1981 and order a sandwich and you came into our restaurant today, it will taste exactly the same because we've been using the same ingredients for the past 40 years.” 

Flavor integrity is key to the success of Café L’Appetito. “I think what many people like about us is that people move away, but when they come back and they have our sandwich again, they're like, ‘Yeah. Okay. Tastes exactly the same,’" said Tony. “I think that's a huge part of my dad's lesson is he's like, ‘Don't change anything.’ And we don't.”

Evolving and Growing with the Times

Quality and flavor are an excellent foundation for operating a restaurant, but not everything remains the same at Café L’Appetito, including technology.

“Tony and I were able to come in and modernize some processes,” said Accardo. “One of the biggest things we did was move out—I'm not even joking—the old-fashioned cash register with the tape. God forbid there was any kind of discrepancy because we had to go through all these rolls of tape, it was ridiculous.”

The technology upgrade made the business side of the restaurant much easier to manage. From ordering and maintaining inventory to doing the books, Accardo and Spatara can see the status of the business in real-time. “Back in the day when my dad, he would have to wait for so and so to show up on Thursday, to come through and walk the aisles and take the order by hand and write it down,” said Accardo. “Now, if we need something I get on my computer and I just order it and it shows up the next morning. We keep modernizing pretty much everything.”

While technology upgrades help with daily operations, the pace of industry change requires constant adaptation to remain competitive. “Today, a restaurant, it's not like a conventional restaurant anymore,” said Accardo. “You have ghost kitchens, you have all these third party, delivery services that you really need to be a part of if you want to be successful.”

Future Growth Opportunities

The siblings took different paths to joining the family business. Accardo planned a career in Finance, working at banks throughout high school, while Spatara was involved in the restaurant from an early age. “I feel like my parents created me for this job. I have been doing it my whole life,” said Spatara. “I just grew up in the business and I feel like I'm just wired for this job, for this type of job.”

Regardless of how they got involved in the business, it is obvious they are in in for the long haul. They both share their father’s quest of expansion for the restaurant. After 21 years in the Hancock Center, Café L'Appetito has expanded to multiple locations, including Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears. They recently announced a deal with the United Center and have a unique licensing agreement with Midway Airport, plus a booming catering operation.

“I feel like every time we move, some other door opens,” said Spatara. “When we got Midway, Midway opened up to Soldier Field and then Soldier Field opened up to United Center. I feel like this pattern of the more stuff we take on, the more doors that possibly might open in another direction.”

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