Antonucci’s inspires restaurant loyalty in local Mission Viejo, California, guests with its combination of Italian comfort food and fresh seafood. Many customers have been visiting the restaurant for decades. But, current owner Bob Canori’s roots are not in the foodservice industry. He spent the first 30 years of his career working in the corporate world, which required him to travel extensively. He enjoyed the work but grew tired of spending so much time away from home. When the opportunity to purchase Antonucci’s presented itself, Bob decided to switch gears and finally live out a long-held dream to own his own Italian restaurant.
We spoke to Bob to learn what inspired him to make such a major career change, and what he loves best about running a restaurant.
Tell us about Antonucci’s history and evolution into a local favorite.
Antonucci’s was founded in Newport Beach, California, in 1976 by Mr. Antonucci. The restaurant was very successful, but Mr. Antonucci, who lived here in Mission Viejo, got tired of driving the 25 miles back and forth every day. So, in 1986, he moved the restaurant to Mission Viejo. He ran it here until 2001, when he decided to retire from the restaurant industry and sold it to me.
When my wife, Michelle, and I took over, we decided to keep the name. Mr. Antonucci spent 25 years building up the brand and it had a lot of name recognition in the area. We also offered everyone working in the kitchen a 20-percent raise to stay on, because they are excellent cooks. The way I look at it, Antonucci’s is a Ferrari. The kitchen is the engine and I’m just the new driver. We grew very quickly, and within a few years we bought out the business next store and expanded by adding a lounge.
You worked in the corporate world for many years before purchasing Antonucci’s. What inspired you to make such a dramatic change and become a restaurateur?
My parents were old-school Italian immigrants. When I was growing up, my mother was always cooking amazing Italian food in our kitchen and she and I always dreamed of owning an Italian restaurant someday.
When I purchased Antonucci’s she worked with our staff to tweak some of the dishes, so she got to be involved in the experience. She has since passed, but I feel very fortunate that she lived long enough to see me accomplish our dream.
What is Antonucci’s best known for?
Our food. We have excellent, high-quality food and once customers come in for the first time, I think they realize that they’ve found a real gem. My purveyor for seafood is Santa Monica Seafood, which is the best in southern California. When I first started, I did an advertising campaign highlighting that our best-kept secret is our fresh, local seafood. The former owner pushed pizza and pasta more because of the higher profit margin. In fact, lasagna is still our number one dish.
People hear about our food a lot through word of mouth, especially on social media. People love the food and the atmosphere at Antonucci’s, and they like to share their experience online with friends and family.
What have you learned about operating a restaurant that you wish you had known when you first bought it?
Owning a restaurant is definitely more time-consuming than I thought it would be; you really are married to it.
What is your favorite part about owning a restaurant?
The people. I treat the restaurant like it’s my home. When people walk in, I usually give them a hug. I know most of our customers by their first name. Like I said, I grew up in a strong Italian immigrant family, so for me it’s like having company every night. The older people, I make it a point to give them special treatment. Some don’t get out much, they may live in a nursing home or live alone, so I hug them and call them grandma. It makes them feel welcome.
Why do you think you have remained successful over the years, besides the great food?
I love what I do, and I have to say that having a sales and marketing background has really make a difference. I think a lot of restaurants fail because chefs want to own a restaurant, and while they are the experts when it comes to cooking, they don’t necessarily know the front end. I think that is one of the reasons we are successful, because I know the business side of things, and we were able to maintain the core of the kitchen staff. Plus, my wife is a gourmet chef, which also helps.
What is the biggest challenge for your restaurant?
The financial roller coaster. I’ve found that weather dictates behavior more than anything else. We serve Italian comfort food, which is hearty, and people don’t always crave it in the summertime. So, the months of July, August, and September are typically the most difficult for us financially.
Why is Antonucci’s also home to a Steelers bar? Pittsburgh is a long way from Mission Viejo.
I grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, which is about 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh, so I’ve been a Steelers fan since I was a kid. I used to dream that I would own a Steelers bar someday, and 13 years ago I made that dream come true when we added the lounge.
There is a strong, loyal following of Steelers fans here, so it’s a standing rule that whenever the Steelers play, they get all of the televisions. There are more than three million people in Orange County and out of 10 Steeler bars, we’re number four. We’re not the biggest, but we’ve built up a very loyal following over the years. Because it’s technically a lounge, not a bar, kids are also welcome. On game days, we have a lot of children come in with their parents, all dressed up and ready for the game. It’s a lot of fun.
What made you choose to partner with Rewards Network?
When I bought the restaurant, 65 percent of the transactions were paid for by credit card. Today, it’s 92 percent. I realize people use their cards to get points, so Rewards Network is a great marketing sales tool for us. I watch our business very closely and it seems like it’s worked out very well, and I’m very happy with Rewards Network.
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