In the competitive arena of Red Bank restaurants, one owner takes his work down to the molecular level.
Tom Cappello, who launched Gaetano’s on Wallace Street in 2000, has since more than doubled the size of the eatery. He’s introduced Gaetano’s brand sauces and pastas for sale in local food stores, including FoodTown and Sickles Market. He’s turned his trattoria into a classroom, offering cooking lessons for adults and children. He “merchandises the hell out of” his business, doing coupon tie-ins like the one that linked his weekly ladies’ night with the recent appearance by reality TV celeb Bethenny Frankel at the Count Basie Theatre.
And as visitors to his claustrophobia-inducing basement office sometimes come to know, it all stems from lessons Cappello learned working at a fruit stand in Brooklyn.
Though his Sicilian mother had other aspirations for him, Cappello seems to have been destined for a career in the food biz. Before earning a liberal arts degree from Fordham University, he worked as a stock boy in a Bensonhurst produce store, where he found himself immediately fascinated not only by the product the best fruit, he says he learned, comes from the outer limbs of tree but how best to display it for sale. There, he says, he began his education in merchandising.
After college, a plan to open his own produce market fell apart, and Cappello wound up in Princeton, learning the pizza business from a buddy. Though reluctant at first, he says the friend persuaded him to head south by saying, “God made pizza for dumb Italians like us,” Cappello recalls with a laugh.
That experience led to his own pizzeria in South Jersey and, eventually, a string of four food businesses employing 80 people on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights. When business was slow, Cappello says, he’d have workers put more sausage on the grill at the sausage stand, or squeeze more lemons at the lemonade stand, to entice customers.
But making those businesses work involved a steep learning curve, much of it focused on the interplay of ingredients that others in the industry gave little thought to, Cappello says. For example, there was the French fry stand he opened. No matter what he tried, the fries weren’t coming out right. So he reached out to a potato trade group in Idaho, which put him in touch with a spuds expert at the University of North Dakota.
“So I called him on the phone, and he says, ‘Are you a chipper from New Jersey?’ He thought I was making potato chips,” Cappello recalls. “I said, ‘No, I’m in the French fry business, and I don’t know what the **** I’m doing.’”
The academic taught him about the specific gravity of potato meat, and how it interacts with frying oil. On his own, after a stealthy reconnaissance trip to the kitchen of a successful French fry business in Maryland, Cappello devised a cutting machine that would produce thicker slices of potato than others in the business were using, which he thought also contributed to an inferior fry. The combination led sales to soar, he says.
Cappello unloaded his boardwalk interests to set up a couple of franchise restaurants in the Staten Island Mall, which he said outperformed their neighbors because of his outreach to customers. “We were grabbing them from 20 feet away,” he says.
But he had an epiphany one night in 1995 when a friend invited him to dinner in Red Bank, a town he knew nothing about, even though he lived in nearby Colts Neck. Snow was piled deep after a storm, but on arriving at La Pastaria on Linden Place, Cappello’s foursome was told there would be a two-hour wait.
“I said, ‘a two-hour wait? A two-hour wait!?’ I kept saying it over and over,” he says. “I couldn’t concentrate on dinner.”
That led to more investigation of the kind that Cappello says underlies everything he does, businesswise.
“Every Sunday and Thursday,” his days off, he came to Red Bank to check out the activity level, he says. Satisfied that his future awaited him on Wallace Street, he sold his Staten Island stores and bought the struggling Ludwig’s Deli, a longtime Red Bank fixture, and simultaneously bought the building. He gave the new restaurant his own first name.
Opening day, in July 2000, Cappello says, he grossed just $217. Newly divorced, he found himself staring in the face of failure, but with the forebearance of suppliers he’d worked with, managed to hang on and expand the business to its present size.
More than a decade later, the only thing unchanged about the space is Cappello’s windowless workspace “the most ****ed-up office on the planet,” Cappello says a 9-by-12 nightmare for employees and cheese salesmen who displease him, all but inviting his trademark invective.
“No one is going to outwork me,” Cappello says. “No one. When I went over to the boardwalk, I didn’t know shit from Shinola. But now, I’m one of the most respected people over there because of my merchandising skills.”