Some people just have that natural ability to communicate and make a connection with the person they are talking to. John DeLisa is one of those people and it is evident in the way he runs his restaurants. John really enjoys feeding families and making sure they are enjoying their experience when they take the time to come into his restaurant. If you have had the opportunity to meet John than you know how much energy and passion he has for what he does. That’s why I was excited to sit down with John and learn more about where all this passion came from. Let’s go!
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John DeLisa | Giovanni’s Fresh Express
In this episode, we sit down with a good friend of mine, John DeLisa, who is the Owner of Giovanni’s Fresh Express right here in Palm Harbor, Florida. I’m looking forward to sitting down with John. We have had a lot of conversations over the many years that we have known each other. I’m looking forward to diving into his business a little bit more and learning a little bit more about the restaurant business as well. Without further ado, let’s jump right into it.
On this show, we have a good friend and somebody I’ve known for a long time, John DeLisa, the Owner of Giovanni’s restaurant here in Palm Harbor. We are on 19 between Nebraska and Alderman.
It’s right behind Tiffany’s and WingHouse.
Thanks for jumping on here. I appreciate you taking the time and doing it.
Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be talking to you, Donnie. I’ve known you for a long time, since you were a little kid. You’ve grown up to be a great man.
I appreciate that. Let’s start by telling us a little bit about who you are, how you got into restaurants and stuff and where all that came from.
As most people will know, I was born in New York. I lived the first 29 years in New York and then we moved here to Palm Harbor in 1991. I’ve worked for myself almost all of my life. I have seven children. You know most of them, if not all of them. I’m married to a beautiful woman. I got into the restaurant business by accident. I had an eBay business where you brought your stuff to me and I sold it on eBay for you back in 2002, 2003 and 2004. I had one of the first eBay stores in the country. It was a little crazy. That was when eBay was getting big. It was a big deal.
I sold that and had nothing to do. I didn’t know what to do. Having all those children, I remember the AMC Movie Theater down in Oldsmar was the place. You couldn’t get into that movie theater and the shopping center. It was crazy. I do remember that it used to be a pizza place there, but it had been empty for a couple of years. I inquired about that spot. At that time, the movie theater was the number two movie theater in Tampa Bay with 1.2 million people.
On Friday and Saturday nights, that was the place to be.
You couldn’t see the concrete. I said, “Where else can you open a business and have a million people be right outside your door? Not too many places can offer that.” I’ve always been a foodie guy. We opened a pizza place. We were known primarily as a pizza place even though we tried to sell a lot of dinners, sandwiches and appetizers as well. We had that for a few years and the bug bit me. I enjoyed feeding people. It was weird. I never thought that would happen to me. I never had any interest prior to that of being in the restaurant business, but I enjoyed it. When people enjoyed the meal, it made me happy to feed the people. From there, we wanted a restaurant because we were known as the pizza place.
That’s to branch out and get away from the pizza spot.
Restaurant owners must consider their place like a home, always open to feed everyone and offers a great time.
We moved up here by Alderman Road. It used to be Old Chicago. It was right behind Longhorn Steakhouse, which is a big place. We became a restaurant in 2009. Unfortunately, in 2008, 2009 and 2010, we had a terrible recession. It’s the worst one of my life. For one reason or another, we had to close. We took a very large financial hit. It was bad timing for a lot of people. I had to get a job for the first time since 1988.
In 2011, I went to work with US Foods as a salesman and sold food to all the restaurants. I have to credit US Foods. They taught me a lot. On the other end of it, I learned a lot. I enjoyed it, but I wanted to open another restaurant from the day that I closed that other one. I was lucky enough to open one from 2018 to January 2019 in the Vista Inn on Lake Tarpon, which I loved. It’s going to be a long story. We can go into what happened there if you want, which the whole world knows what happened, unfortunately.
2020 happened. It’s another difficult time for a lot of people in businesses, especially during that time.
A lot of people personally lost people and that’s a shame. I would never compare myself because I’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate that no one has gotten sick or died. For that, I’m very thankful. Other than that, unfortunately, financially, it was a bad hit for a lot of people and businesses. I got no help from the landlord and the government. They turned me down for the loans. It was the most frustrating year in my life. We were all being tested.
Let’s go back to the beginning a little bit about you always working for yourself and having a business and stuff. Where does that come from?
I don’t know.
Was it your parents?
No. My father was a garbage man. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. My father worked 2 to 3 jobs, killing himself to support the family, which we loved and respected him for. I thought maybe there had to be a little bit better way. Why work to make someone else rich? Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated with business. I was an eight-year-old kid. I started up with baseball cards. I would wrap them up into teams and sell them for $1. I don’t know how it happened, but that was it.
That was the beginning. I went on a school trip in seventh grade. I do remember this. I looked, went to the New York Stock Exchange and saw them all running around and doing business. The whole world looked to the New York Stock Exchange and everything. All the big businesses were in there. I found it extremely fascinating and wanted to be in business somehow and someway. That’s how it started. I did everything and anything I could that I thought was a good idea. I tried to keep doing that and said, “I’m going to try this. If I fail, I have to fail because I messed up.”
I don’t want to fail because somebody is else telling me, “We don’t need you anymore,” or their business failed. I wanted it on me. I equate everything to sports. I’m a sports guy. To me, it’s a challenge. You’re in the game. I want to be in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a guy on third. I want to be up. I don’t want anyone else to be up. I want to win or lose because I won or lost. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. It is what it is.
You learn from those bad times and then implement that the next time.
That’s what you try and do. That’s the point. Michael Jordan always said, “It’s not how many times you fall down. It’s how many times you get back up.” You’ve got to get back up, especially in business. I learned the hard way. I didn’t have the schooling. I didn’t go to college and business school. I had to learn. I took a lot of knocks in the beginning. I hate to use the term School of Hard Knocks. I wasn’t destitute. I did learn on the fly. I kept doing one business and went to another one. I would get rid of that one and go to the next one.
I did everything from having a cleaning business where I cleaned toilets in the banks to a paper route where I used to deliver the newspapers to Publixs. At the time, they used to have the boxes around here. I don’t know if you remember the boxes where you would put $0.35 in to get the newspaper St. Pete Times. I worked at it every day, seven days a week, from 12:00 at night until 7:00 in the morning. While my kids were sleeping, that’s what I did. Every job and business that I tried and took was based on wanting to be there for the kids. I was always a coach. I was always at every recital.
You had to work around their schedule.
That was another reason for working for myself. I didn’t want anybody to tell me, “You can’t go see your son play ball because you have to go to work. You can’t see your daughter at the dance recital.” That was a big driving force for me. I had to be there for the kids.
It’s a couple of reasons. It’s having the flexibility in your schedule and having the motivation and stuff to say, “I’m going to be successful,” and not relying on somebody else to say, “You get this promotion or don’t. We’re letting you go.” That’s a big reason why a lot of people get into a business themselves. I know that was one for me. It was like what you said, “I want it to be on me. If I’m going to be successful or fail, it’s going to be because of me.”
That’s the way it should be at. It’s tough. It’s not for everyone. There were a lot of lean and difficult times. I didn’t know where the next check was coming from. You have to have intestinal fortitude. You have to let things roll off your back and you cannot stress because it will kill you.
Let’s circle back to the restaurants and opening up a restaurant. You didn’t have any dreams of opening up a restaurant. You just fell into it and now you love opening up or having a restaurant. What is it that you fell in love with from having a restaurant?
I grew up spending a lot of time with my grandparents. My grandparents are old Italian grandparents. In the Italian family, everybody will tell you the entire universe revolves around food. That’s it. If you go to your grandmother’s house and don’t eat the food if she offers you food, she will be so mad at you. It doesn’t matter if you ate 30 seconds ago. You have to eat something.
There are 5, 6 to 7 courses.
All the time, you have to eat. It’s a wonder that every Italian is not 400 pounds. That’s where I grew up. It’s the love of food. My grandmother made our own tomato sauce. She didn’t buy in cans. She would roll over in her grave. She made her own meatballs, pasta and everything. I didn’t learn because I was a kid. I was out playing ball, but I came home and we ate. That was the whole thing. You were around the table. We all ate together. That was number one. I keep that to this day.
My kids are grown and they’re all over the place. When we were together when they were in school, all seven of them, 2 or 3 times a week was family dinner, case closed. It didn’t matter what you had to do. We sat, ate and talked about our lives and what was going on. Everything revolved around the dinner table. I enjoyed that so much and took that. When I sat around a table, I got to know all my customers. To me, you were a person. I wanted to know about you, your story and what you thought of my food and my grandmother’s recipe.
If you don’t have something nice to say about anybody, don’t say anything. However, nobody lives by that in today’s age of social media.
I’ve taken those recipes and incorporated them. We make our sauces here and meatballs. We don’t make the pasta, but we make all the other stuff. We make a lot of things. It almost makes me happy the way it made my grandmother happy. My grandmother was happy if you were eating. I almost feel the same way pretty much. If you came here for lunch and had lunch, did you enjoy the lunch? That makes me happy. Can I explain why? I don’t know, but it makes me happy. I’m able to make you happy.
We equate that with family and love. We make all food with love. I love to get to know people. I’m a people guy. I want to feed the people and consider all my restaurants like my home. It’s me opening up my door, you’re coming into my home and I’m feeding you. We’re going to have a great time. You’re going to come and enjoy the meal. We’re going to have a great time, laugh and talk. You’re going to walk out there going, “That was so much fun.” That’s my mission and goal in life.
A lot of us want to help others and stuff. What avenue are we going to go about to do that? For you, it’s through food. One thing that’s unique about your restaurants is that you want to meet the people that are coming in, say hello to them, and talk with them and stuff. You’re always out meeting people and talking to people in the restaurants. A lot of people do because they keep coming back.
Some of my best friends I’ve met as customers. It’s crazy. I’m not a cook. I could cook for you if you came to my house, but I’m not a restaurant cook. I was a front-of-the-house guy. I touched every table, spoke to everyone and tried to fix any problems we had. I wanted to talk to people because I generally enjoy people. That’s exactly what I did. That does make me stand out as far as other restaurants in the area and all over the place, to be honest. Not many owners go and talk to everybody on an everyday basis, get to know them and enjoy them. You’re concerned about them and stuff. That’s me. I’m a people guy.
That’s what separates you from others. You do what you enjoy doing. Opening up a restaurant is difficult. I know some other friends that have done it. We have talked to them as well. Why is it so difficult? I don’t know what the stats are on restaurants that fail or don’t make it and don’t do well in the beginning. What makes it so difficult to open up a restaurant?
Honestly, I’ve stuck to this. I don’t know if I’m 100% correct or not, but my main thing is I always say, “When you’re a mom-and-pop restaurant, you don’t have a name. You’re not Carrabba’s, Outback or Olive Garden.” If you open up an Olive Garden, you’re going to get a thousand people because they know it’s Olive Garden. That’s what it is. If you open up a Giovanni’s, they’re going to go, “Who is this guy? What is this about?” To me, restaurants don’t make it for a couple of reasons.
The two main reasons are one and they’re not good. The food or the service isn’t that good. The other thing is a lot of mom-and-pops run out of money before people realize, “They’re not bad. They’re good.” It takes a tremendous amount of money and working capital because of all the equipment, with licenses, counties and states. I don’t want to say they make it difficult because they’re doing their job and they have to make sure that you’re not hurting the people because you’re feeding the public.
It’s difficult in this respect that you have to get people to know that you’re there and that you do a good job. When you open up a restaurant, most people think, “You opened up a restaurant.” What they don’t think about is, “I had a 250-seat restaurant. When I opened the door, I had to be prepared for 250 people to walk in. I don’t know if 10, 20, 200 or 400 people were going to show up that day.” You have to have enough food, staff, plates, forks and knives.
When you open the door and 25 people show up when you’re ready to feed 250 people, that’s all lost money. It takes time to build. We were just there in the old restaurant. It’s the one on the water. We had gotten to that level where we knew how many people were coming through. It was growing every single day. We had the amount of staff down and had it going. It took sixteen months to get to that level and then we had to close because of COVID. That’s what makes it difficult. You don’t know.
It takes those first 2 to 3 years to build up that reputation and the business and understand what the business is going to be like.
You’ve got to make mistakes. You might like the next guy is not going to like, so you changed the menu, “You shouldn’t have taken that off the menu. I liked that.” It’s a constant juggling act constant. There are trends you have to deal with. Years ago, nobody would eat a Brussels sprout. Now I put Brussels sprouts are on the menu and it’s like, “Where are those Brussels sprouts? They loved them.” It’s a constantly evolving situation where you have to constantly stay on top of it. That’s the part that I enjoy.
I enjoy learning about new things and giving people something different and something that you can’t go across the street and get. I don’t want you to cross the street. I want you to get it here. It has to be good and you have to enjoy it. It takes time. In all that time, you’re losing money. You have to keep coming up. You still have to pay the electric bill, rent, gas, taxes, insurance, internet, phones, labor, food and all that while you’re learning how many people are going to come through the door. That’s not even counting marketing. You’ve got to market it and tell people, “Come and see me.”
“Here’s who we are.”
It’s tough. In the first year, we lost over $100,000. I barely kept the door open. I had to juggle a lot of things to get there.
There are a lot of moving parts and overhead.
How many forks and spoons did you buy? You give them to the dishwasher and server. When they clean it off the dish, there goes to spoon in the garbage. When I started out, I bought 288 of each. Every month, I had to buy more forks, knives and spoons. I’ve bought thousands of forks and spoons. It sounds silly, but the knives that I bought were $3 apiece. If you go through 1,000 knives, that’s $3,000. That’s half of 1% of what you’ve got to do on the entire scale of things.
On top of all that, on the backend, you’ve got to make good food make sure the services are up to par as well too.
It’s another large challenge to find good people. There’s no exaggeration. We went through over a hundred people to get the 25 servers that I have. We went well over a hundred. I couldn’t even give you an exact number, but I know we had gone through well over a hundred before we got that good nucleus of service. Service is very important. I’m a stickler for service. It’s hard to find good service.
It’s important too because now, with the internet, social media and all that stuff, all of that is easy to put out there.
They say, “If you have a good experience, you tell one person. If you have a bad experience, you go tell a thousand.” I will never understand that one for the life of me and why people are such in a hurry to condemn somebody or tell bad news. I don’t know why that is.
There’s something going on with them personally that they want to feel better. They’re going to feel better by putting somebody else down. That’s my theory.
I’ll take it. It’s as good as any because I can’t come up with any. I never understood that. My mother always said to me, “If you don’t have something nice to say about anybody, don’t say anything.” Nobody lives by that now. They can’t wait to get all over that. It’s a different world and time. Do your best, try hard and hope you please the masses. You’re not going to make everyone happy. That’s impossible. You do the best you can to try and make the majority of the people happy.
When restaurant visitors have a good time, they only tell one person. When they have a hard time, they tell a thousand.
That’s all you can do. Talk to us a little bit about this place here that we’re eating in.
This was an offshoot of the restaurant.
To clarify, the restaurant is Giovanni’s Fresh Italian Kitchen and this is Giovanni’s Fresh Express.
We were trying to do something. Giovanni’s Fresh Italian Kitchen was big. That was the one. For the original menu that I had on there, we put pizza. One of the things you’ve learned constantly is you keep learning no matter what. At $10 to $11 pizzas, you’re not going to pay $9,000 a month for rent. You’re going to have to come up with something else. I had to take the pizzas off the menu for basic survival’s sake. Everybody loved my pizza, which was great.
I appreciated that and they loved it. What I tried to do was find a little place where the overhead is small and I can serve pizza, a couple of sandwiches and salads and be quick. We called it Giovanni’s Fresh Express. We had a local realtor who found this spot. This spot was supposed to work in conjunction with the big restaurant. If you came to the restaurant and you wanted pizza, it has a place right down the street 2 miles down the road where you can get pizza.
Everybody that came in here that ordered pizza said, “I want Brussels sprouts.” I said, “Go up the street and we will feed you anything you want.” Unfortunately, that place closed. I found this place in January of 2020. We were fixing it up and getting ready to open. We had to close the other restaurant on March 21st, 2020. The whole world closed, so I couldn’t get anybody in here and get this open. I couldn’t get an inspector, the fire marshal or anybody because nobody was working.
I didn’t open this until the end of May 2021. It has our pizza. We have some sandwiches, salads and a couple of desserts we brought over from the restaurant. We’re doing the best we can to survive. I’m in survival mode again. I love this cool little place. It’s more for taking out to-go, Uber Eats deliveries and that type of stuff. You can sit here. I do have room for 10 to 12 people, so you can sit in and hang out with us for a little while, but it’s mainly a quick service and express quick service type of food.
It started to work in conjunction with the main restaurant because of COVID and shut down. In the county, we had to shut the businesses down. The restaurants couldn’t stay open. Unfortunately, it was never able to work as you had planned. The show and what I’m trying to do here is a perfect reason why it’s important that we support local businesses. John is our neighbor. We all live in the same community and stuff. It’s better, in my opinion, to support your neighbors than it is a big-box store or something like that. People are going to be more impacted by you going and visiting their restaurant and enjoying it too. Hopefully, this helps and things can trend back in the other direction for you moving forward.
It would be nice because I was still trying to open another restaurant. That’s still my ultimate goal. It’s difficult to accept that defeat when I had nothing to do with it and when it got taken from me out of my control. I’m working for myself to keep it and stay in control. It got taken away because it was out of my control. It’s a little frustrating.
You’re a competitive spirit and stuff like that. You’re not going to go down without a fight, that’s for sure.
I’m going to try. That was an award-winning restaurant. I don’t know if you remember the Creative Loafing. We won the best restaurant within a hotel in all of Tampa Bay. We came in third in all the restaurants of Palm Harbor.
Was that a year after being in business?
It was about ten months of being in business. We came in third in Palm Harbor. I always said that the first two that were voted best were not Italian restaurants, so I had the best Italian restaurant by default. It was a tough pill to swallow.
Are there future plans to try to open up another Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen?
Yes, that is in the plan. I’m trying hard. I’m going to need everybody’s help.
Where can they find you? We talked about location a little bit, Uber Eats and all that stuff.
We take Uber Eats, Postmates and Grubhub. We have a website, GiovannisFreshExpress.com. You can order online on our website. You can come and see us. We’re right behind Hooter’s and Tiffany’s. We’re tucked away in a corner right next to the Palm Harbor House of Beer. That has been here quite a while. We work together with them. They’re good. I don’t have any alcohol. He has the alcohol. You can sit outside, get some pizza and have a beer. Hopefully, it can work together well.
We will see what happens. You can come to see us. I’m still around. You can sign up for my email list on the website too. You will know of any specials and things that I’m trying to do. I have a Facebook page as well, Giovanni’s Fresh Express, but I don’t have any followers. I’m old school. It takes me a while to get going with social media. We have an Instagram account as well. We have Instagram, Facebook and a website. Giovanni’s Fresh Express is all of them.
Thanks, John. I appreciate it. Come check them out.
Donnie, I appreciate you having me. Hopefully, this will help our business.