Frederick E. Twomey has been called a "gastro-preneur," but he considers himself to be more of a saloon-keeper. "The bar is the original communal table," he says. "We don't have piazzas here, and we're always in a rush. I like to provide a space that's a conduit for living life." In lower Manhattan, Twomey presides over four Veloce-themed establishments, including two wine bars, a club, and a pizzeria, along with Bar Carrera, a Basque-inspired tapas bar. In March 2009, the M Resort in Las Vegas opened with Restaurant Veloce Cibo -- the result of a licensing deal with Twomey to promote his "lifestyle of wine" -- on the top floor. This spring, he'll open Custom, an American wine bar, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with Stefan Mailvaganam, his partner at Bar Carerra Houston.
How and when did Bar Veloce come about?
I opened the original Bar Veloce in March 2000 in the East Village. The idea came from traveling with a friend around Italy, France, and Spain on motorcycles in my late 20s. We were moving fast, making pit stop lunches and dinners. We'd see a cute town and stop in for some sherry and tapas. We had to keep an eye on our bikes while eating and drinking, because all of our gear was stored on them. When I came back to New York, I wanted to create the same experience.
What prepared you to open a bar and restaurant?
I came to New York City to do theater, and I was working as a bartender for Jean-Georges. After work, at 1 a.m., I wanted to go out somewhere that wasn't an Irish bar; and I didn't want to spend the $200 I had just made. There was nowhere to go. I thought, What's wrong with this picture? Let me create a bar that's warm, convivial, sleek, modern, inviting -- a place where my girlfriend could come meet me, or where I could do homework. My inspiration was a place in the Soho neighborhood of London called Bar Italia. It's been there since the 1940s. It's open late, and there's a great mix of all sorts of people -- stockbrokers, mod kids, transvestites.
How did you settle on a location?
A lot of people wondered why I started in the East Village. It wasn't a food/wine destination back then. But the neighborhood is open-minded and full of flux. The area was funky and underserved. Generally, things start there and move elsewhere. When Veloce first opened, it was seen as too swanky, too stylish. At 9 p.m., we were sometimes empty. But I thought to myself, I like the place, I'm proud of it. I'd be blasting The Clash while people were drinking $18 glasses of Barolo and watching French New Wave films projected on the wall. My Ducati was parked right outside. It took eight months for me to realize that I made something people appreciated. Those were the fun times -- wondering if it was going to work, trying to convince people, "Hey, try this weird wine!" without being preachy.
What's your philosophy when it comes to wine and service?
I want to demystify it. We take a Mediterranean, rather than Anglo, approach. For Mediterraneans, the experience has always been more about conversation than about the wine. We offer a simple concept and high quality. When we first opened, people asked, "You don't have gin and tonics?" I told them, "That's not what we do." I never promised to be everything to everybody -- I'd rather be master of one thing.
How do you approach management, particularly in a service-driven industry like this?
It's important to formalize systems early on. Otherwise, it's a mom-and-pop. You can't formalize things after 10 years. It's like a plant that needs to be grown with a straight stick from the beginning. You need a uniform standard for everyone. All the world's a stage, so I have my bartenders wear suits. I instill in my staff that timeliness is important, and they have to take this seriously. Do everything with excellence, I tell them, and you'll succeed. I can't imagine Michael Jordan sweeping the yard lazily. Like my old boss and mentor, Jean-Georges Vongerichten -- he just had it on the stove. It didn't look like he was working. It was his theater every night, and he had complete creative control. You have to allow yourself to find the fun. There's an art to it. I'm even determined to find the fun in doing tax returns.
If you really want to be number one, particularly in the entertainment business, it doesn't come easily. Not everyone's meant to be an entrepreneur. You have to be willing to show up before staff and leave later if necessary. Staff is always going to look to the leader. It's a culture that you create.
What's the secret to your success?
We do about a 22 percent profit margin; the average for restaurants is 12 percent. Because we don't have traditional kitchens, our design means less labor. At Veloce, we have two employees per shift: a panini guy and a bartender. This model is low labor costs. Labor costs will kill in the end. And with limited labor, you can control quality. Our spaces are designed ergonomically so that employee movement is more efficient.
Another key to my success is controlling inventory costs. The computer can't do it. So many restaurant owners don't know what they have. They over-order; they're not really paying attention to knowing what's in stock. Keeping an eye on it takes a lot of work. It's like brushing your teeth. You have to be stubborn about inventory -- start with good habits, as in training a dog or horse, and do it every day. We're very diligent about the way we pour. I teach staff about when it's appropriate to comp something. It's a slippery slope to give stuff away in order to fix problems; people lose respect for your business, because you're not taking your own business seriously. If Rolex doesn't service your watch perfectly, they don't give you a free watch. It dilutes the brand.
Where did you learn such discipline?
In high school, I volunteered to take care of horses for the Boston police. I trained and rode them in the woods just south of Boston. There were 12 horses in the stable, and I had to lock and unlock the place and run it as my own. Years earlier, there had been a tragic fire there, and many of the horses died. So there was an extreme militancy about how to care for the stable. Every little detail mattered. That's where I learned about taking care of a place autonomously. You have to pay attention to systems. At all of my places, we have opening and closing checklists.
Name: Frederick E. Twomey
Company: Bar Veloce/Bar Carrera
Location: New York/Las Vegas
2009 Revenue: More than $3 million
Websites: www.barveloce.com, www.velocepizzeria.com