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Changing of the guard at Salvatore's

Changing of the guard at Salvatore's: 'When you're used to being with the public so often, it does hurt to be away from it.'

Source:  Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Publication Date: 14-JUL-07

Byline: Sandra Tan 

Jul. 14--Russ Salvatore always knew his son would succeed him as the proprietor of Salvatore's Italian Gardens. That's the way he planned it, from the time his son was old enough to handle a broom.

Joseph Salvatore walked like a shadow in his father's well-worn path for more than 30 years. But when he finally stepped into his father's shoes in November, Russ wasn't quite ready to step out of them.

"It was a little bit difficult," he conceded.

Russ's friends would probably liken this statement to calling Mother Teresa "a nice lady." But it doesn't take long to loosen the truth from this passionate entrepreneur.

"It hurts very much," he said in a choked voice. "And sometimes, I lay back and cry, and I say, 'Why did I make this decision to turn this over as fast as I did?' When you're used to being with the public so often, it does hurt to be away from it."

Onlookers might wonder what Russ means by "fast." At 74, most of his contemporaries have long since retired, giving way, with relief, to younger workers and devoting their remaining time to grandkids, travel and golf.

Russ was never one of those men. He nurtured Salvatore's Italian Gardens from a pizza and hot dog stand in 1967 to Western New York's most famous culinary landmark, a lavish showplace on Transit Road drawing international patrons.

Salvatore's gave Russ his fame and fortune, while he gave the restaurant his unflagging devotion.

"I was there morning, noon and night," he said. "I loved it so much. I'm completely bored now because I'm not putting all those hours in."

As Russ works to create a new legacy as a benefactor for Trocaire College, he struggles to leave behind a 40-year love and prays for the restaurant's continued success.

In 2004, Russ signed over his restaurant and the nearby Garden Place Hotel to his son, Joe, circumventing the future impact of estate taxes on his family. Russ continued to operate the place as his own, though, for nearly three more years.

But Joe has always had his own ideas about how to take the restaurant to the next level. With his legal ownership rights, he made the final push last fall to become the owner in reality.

"He said, 'Dad, I want to try things my way,' " Russ recalled.

According to Russ' friends, the two men exchanged more words than that, stirring up long-simmering family issues. But Russ denied assertions he was pushed out the door.

"He didn't throw me out," Russ said of his son. "He just asked if he could take over and run it. He's been wanting to do it for 25 years. He's got a lot of brains for the business."

No one disputes that Joe has earned the title of successor. At age 49, he knows more than anyone about the job.

Joe started working at Salvatore's when he was 11, sweeping floors and helping put together tables, he said. He's spent his adulthood working 65 hours a week, handling everything from banquets to liquor purchases.

"I've kind of grown with the place," Joe said. "It's not like in the last three years I just walked in the door and said: 'I'm going to start doing things.' I've worked hand-in-hand with everybody in the place."

Since taking over, Joe has committed to modernizing and expanding Salvatore's. He's hired and promoted staff and installed a new reservation and seating system that allows patrons to reserve online.

He's also making the restaurant more competitive with other banquet facilities by building a 12,900-square-foot addition. It will increase Salvatore's footprint by nearly 25 percent and double the capacity of the north banquet room. A hotel expansion may come later, he said.

Joe said he is not surprised customers continue to ask about Russ, whose larger-than life personality was always considered a trademark by patrons.

"He knows he's always welcome to come back any night and say hello and seat people," Joe said.

Russ said he still does that on occasion and maintains his apartment on the second floor of the restaurant. Many mornings, he can also be found at the Garden Place Hotel up the street. But he admits it's often too painful for him to play host at a restaurant he created but no longer controls.

"I stop in, you know, but I don't want to interfere with [Joe] and override his decisions," he said. "I don't run it, but I go into the kitchen and steal a meatball or something."

Joe knows the transition has been hard for his father, but said his dad should recognize the imperative for each generation to make its mark.

He tells the story of how the original Salvatore's Restaurant was opened by grandfather Joseph Salvatore on East Delavan Avenue and Harriet Street on Buffalo's East Side.

When Joseph Salvatore left the business to his two sons, Russ decided to break with his brother and open his own place on Transit Road in 1967, growing it from an eatery that seated 40 to a palace that seats 1,000.

Gerry Murak, head of a Williamsville- based management consulting firm that works with family businesses, said Russ needs to come to terms with a lesser role at the restaurant by pouring his energy into a new life's purpose.

But people like Russ dote on their businesses the way many parents dote on children.

Transferring ownership of a founder's business is like a parent giving a child up for adoption after having invested a lifetime of love and labor to raise it, Murak said. Many consider a business an object, he added, but businesses are actually all about people -- employees, vendors and customers. Russ longs for them.

"They all miss me very, very much, and I miss them tremendously," he said. Murak understands.

He suggests Russ should redirect his energy to establish a life legacy, perhaps a foundation, an endowment or a scholarship.

That is exactly what Russ is now doing, only -- true to his own style -- bigger and grander. He is building a new school for Trocaire College, the Russell J. Salvatore School of Hospitality and Business.

"If you had told me three or four years ago that this would happen, I'd laugh," said John A. Vecchio, Trocaire's executive director for institutional advancement.

Vecchio met Russ in 2003 through V. Roger Lalli, a watercolor artist who was donating city-themed lithographs to the school.

Lalli wanted to paint Salvatore's Italian Gardens as part of the collection. So Russ arranged to have a grand unveiling party, showcasing all of Lalli's donated work.

The party seemed a great success until Vecchio saw tears in Russ' eyes later that night.

"I just found out my brother, Tony, died," Russ told him, laying his head on Vecchio's shoulder.

Vecchio said he felt awful for Russ, and subsequently helped arrange a $10,000 student hospitality scholarship, given in Anthony Salvatore's memory that year. The scholarship came at no cost to Russ, unless he wanted to sponsor it for future years.

He did. That marked the start of a fruitful relationship between Russ and Trocaire.

Russ is now devoting himself to building Trocaire a new hospitality school on Transit Road near Wehrle Drive, which he hopes to have open by January. In plans he submitted to the Town of Lancaster, the school would be the first phase of a project that would ultimately include a new hotel and restaurant on the property.

"It's just a dream," Russ said. "Right now, I'm just concentrating on the school."

Vecchio hopes that when the new school opens, Russ be there often as a guest lecturer, speaker and organizer.

That would be perfect, Murak said.

"What Russell is doing at Trocaire is creating a legacy," he said. "It's not just about the business. He's taking this to a whole higher level."

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