We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
Fine dining on the Main Line had not yet shed its tweed cloak of elegance two decades ago when Evan Lambert and Andrew Feinstein bought Tierra, a sophisticated but short-lived restaurant in the 18th-century fieldstone building tucked off the intersection of Old Gulph Road and New Gulph Road in Upper Merion Township.
Savona, they called their new acquisition, after the Italian Riviera town. (It was a posher companion to their Bryn Mawr restaurant, Tuscana Cucina Rustica, which opened in 1991 and closed in 2004.)
Two months after Savona's October 1997 opening, Andrew Masciangelo joined the kitchen, taking over for Feinstein, who later sold his interest to Lambert, now 54.
This year, Masciangelo, now 42, became an equal partner, and the restaurant underwent a renovation, following a reconfiguration in 2009 that added bar seating and the option of a more casual bar menu. This time, the work bumped out the entryway, opened the kitchen behind glass to the bar area, and redecorated the dining rooms in smart shades of gray.
The Italian-leaning menu has also been tuned up. Last week, Lambert and Masciangelo sat down for a chat.
How do you keep a restaurant going for 19 years?
Lambert: Consistency is important in terms of the quality and the excitement of the menu, as well as the service and atmosphere, which need to be maintained and freshened. Another factor would be really listening to our clients and constantly shifting our programs. It's an attention-to-detail business. Keeping staff is another factor. We have many people that have been here for more than 10 years, so keeping the same staff motivated, empowered, and happy is another part.
Masciangelo: You have to have a never-give-up attitude when it comes to doing this. You know, it's your life. I've spent more time in this building than I've spent in any other place in my entire life. I've been here [nearly] 20 years. I've spent 12-14 hours a day for 5, 6, 7 days a week. I know every single light, every single, you know, nuance to this building that there is. I know how to fix everything. I think restaurants lasting 20 years, you have to have people that are just dedicated to it . I think that's when restaurants close, or when someone says, "I quit. I can't do it anymore," and as long as you have a won't-give-up attitude and want to operate you're restaurant and have the right conversations with the right people at the right time - any good restaurateur can keep a restaurant as long as they don't give up on it.
Lambert: We've been here for 19 years, so the fixed cost of being in this location have gone up, occupancy costs go up, utilities go up, insurance goes up. Our costs rise, our fixed costs rise, so it becomes harder to be profitable. I don't believe those costs rise at the same rate as we can increase our prices, so there's a disproportionate increase in the amount of fixed cost to the amount that we can raise our prices and have our guests leave with the experience of having it be valuable, so it's harder than ever. Cost of good quality meat, fish, poultry has also gone up, so overall, it's probably harder than it has been.
How do you keep staff motivated?
Lambert: They need to make a living, so they need to make money. They need to feel like they're walking into their home when they come to work.
Drew, you worked here for 18 years and now you're a partner. What prompted that move?
Masciangelo: In 2009, when we had created Bar Savona, we had the conversation of being a partner and it was kind of understood between Evan and me that we were in this together and that it was a partnership. Then, this past year, when we were going in to do this new project, it got solidified.
How about tastes?
Lambert: We were, for 10 to 12 years, a formal restaurant. In 2008, when the economy changed, we made some quick decisions and we decided to add a casual menu, which really provided the guest with a value proposition. They were used to coming to a restaurant with a very high check average, eating extremely well, with seamless service. Now they could have the same experience at a lower price. Our business increased 35 percent from what it was before we added the casual menu.
How is your menu different now?
Masciangelo: Back in '97, we opened as Savona Cucina della Costa, which was heavy on seafood and shellfish towers and big shrimp and fish, but in a fine-dining atmosphere, so everything was composed. We went through a stage where we were doing a lot of chef's tasting menus for seven courses where people would sit here for three hours.
Then we started to do a lot more meat and game and seasonal food. We still stay current with the season as much as possible. We got a wood-burning pizza oven and we started doing pizzas and more casual everyday fare. The restaurant's evolving into just a broader menu of all the things we've done that we've found success in over the years.
You don't do fine dining anymore?
Lambert: We believe that fine dining is being reinvented. People want to feel comfortable, they want the experience to not be intimidating, they want the experience to not be mystifying. They want to dress more comfortably and they don't want it to feel as stuffy. At the same time, they want seamless service, super-high-quality food, high-quality glassware, china, silverware, and middle courses and extra dessert, amuse-bouche.
Have you every thought of going completely casual?
Lambert: Throughout the years when we're challenged with reinventing ourselves, we've considered other restaurant concepts, and whether that would work here, but we always wind up expanding our existing restaurant. The first reason is we have a very good business; people have been coming here for years. There was really no reason to alter the concept, and maybe the intangible is the love of the restaurant. The restaurant owners have to really love their restaurant. This business at this level for this many years is totally a labor of love, and we're driven daily by just doing the best job that we can and having our guests really happy, and that love that we have for the restaurant and for our staff and the guests, that intangible love, keeps it going for 19 years. It's hard to really describe that.
Tell me about competition then and now.
Lambert: In 1997, there were far fewer restaurants with liquor licenses that served food and provided service at the level that we were providing it at. Fast-forward 19 years, the number has increased dramatically in our area, Center City, and King of Prussia.
Is competition a worry?
Lambert: We are always trying to look for ways to distinguish ourselves so that when guests look at our restaurant, they can actually see some type of a difference that separates us from the competitors.
Is it a worry now that you didn't have back then.
Lambert: No. There will always be competition. Competition has us develop ourselves to be distinct from our competition, so we are always trying to look for ways to distinguish ourselves form our competitors, so that when guests look at our restaurant, they see a difference; they can actually see some type of a difference that separates us from the competitors.
Why is it that you have never opened another restaurant?
Lambert: Our goals to date haven't been to build an empire. Our goals have been to provide people on a daily basis with as good a product as we can provide.
Savona: 100 Old Gulph Rd., Gulph Mills. 610-520-1200 or www.barsavona.com.