Richard and Larry D’Amico
D’Amico & Partners
Founded | 1982
Headquarters | Minneapolis
Employees | 1,000
Revenue | $56 million (2019)
Company overview | Operates 20 restaurants and catering venues in the Twin Cities and Naples, Fla.
Walk into one of the area’s better restaurants or grocery stores, and odds are the impact of Larry and Richard D’Amico is everywhere. Perhaps it’s a chef they trained. Perhaps it’s an ingredient they had the nerve to put on a local menu for the first time. Perhaps it’s in the ambience—a whisper of chic, a focus on aesthetics—in a community that pre-D’Amico never seemed to warm to it.
Yes, D’Amico & Partners still operate local restaurants—Café and Bar Lurcat, Campiello, numerous D’Amico & Sons—but what lies behind those shingles is just a fraction of the impact of two boys from Ohio, who decided their future was not in their dad’s restaurant near Akron, but in a city where they were unknowns, a city waiting for a catalyst to rocket it from the tedium of walleye dinners and prime rib on Saturday night.
“It was the preeminent restaurant company in the Twin Cities,” says one-time local chef, TV personality, and food influencer Andrew Zimmern. “Richard and Larry’s culinary family tree is the fullest and bore the most fruit. They defined an era and teed up a team of culinarians that created the food scene in the Twin Cities. Without Cucina and Azur and later Masa,” says Zimmern, “you don’t have Alma or Spoon + Stable.”
They could have just as easily been coal miners. The D’Amico family settled in Morgantown, West Virginia, after emigrating from Abruzzo, Italy, and worked in the mines for a living.
The whole family moved to Cleveland after firstborn son Arthur relocated there to court his soon-to-be wife, Helen.
“[Our dad] ran a body shop for one of the major dealerships, and one year he got a bonus and he took like $1,200, this is 1953 or ’54, and he built a house,” says Larry. “A couple years later he sold it. He got like $25,000, and he was either going use it to build more houses or buy a restaurant.”
Their dad “didn’t know a thing about restaurants,” Richard says. But one of the former employees stayed and taught him the business. D’Amico’s Candlelight Inn was around for decades.
“My mother was hostess, my father the bartender, our uncle was the cook,” recalls Richard. “That didn’t work out because my mother was attractive and all these guys would come in and flirt with her, and my father was behind the bar and he kept getting in fights, so they put him in the kitchen and brought my uncle up front.”
“My dad and mom would travel and see things and come home and duplicate it,” Larry says. “At the end they were doing five-star tableside service. It was a good restaurant.”
The boys worked for their dad as they grew up. “The day I graduated from Ohio State, my father was in attendance, and that night I was cooking,” says Larry, “swear to God.” But they weren’t sure they wanted to inherit the business. “My dad was tough to work for,” says Larry.
The first D’Amico to wash up on local shores was Richard, who came to Minneapolis in 1975, at age 26, to escape the restaurant business. “I was designing furniture, trying to sell my designs.” His first job was bar manager at downtown nightclub Scottie’s on 7th. Richard says he chose Minneapolis because his then-wife was from here.
“Then I went to the Marquette Hotel, they had a fine-dining restaurant, the Marquis Room,” Richard continues. “Went from there to Rosewood Room wine cellar. Then my parents were remodeling their restaurant and asked me to come back. I thought I was going to go back and stay.” It was 1980. Larry was 29 and had been cooking at D’Amico’s since high school.
“We thought we would succeed them,” says Larry. “But my uncle was half-owner and they were 50/50, and 50/50 is not good.” (The family sold the restaurant in 1991; Art and Helen retired to Naples, Florida.)
Richard stayed exactly one year in Ohio, returned to Minneapolis in 1981, and began a consulting business. Ping’s on Nicollet and the Minnesota Horse & Hunt Club were early clients. He also decided to bid on the food service contract at the soon-to-open International Market Square (IMS).
“Richard called me,” Larry recalls. “He said ‘I got this contract, I need you to be the chef.’ ” The goal was to make IMS a catering venue. There would be two restaurants, Primavera, a fine-dining lunch-only operation, and the casual Atrium Café. Primavera had a 10-year run. “It was fun, busy, cool. But after eight weeks Richard said, ‘You’re done,’ [because it’s not making money]. That’s when we started consulting,” Larry says.
They created the Jewish deli Sasha’s for the late Irwin Jacobs at his Boatworks in Wayzata. “We didn’t do a good job. We weren’t there. We were in too many places,” says Larry.
Sasha’s was too seasonal and unwieldy to operate, and they decided not to renew their contract with Jacobs. Projects in Arizona and New Jersey followed. And a truth became apparent. “We finally figured out that when you consult, you eventually get fired,” says Larry, “because there’s always another consultant waiting to tell the owner you don’t know what you’re doing.”
They were still guns for hire when they took over the French restaurant La Tortue in Butler Square for owner Bill Urseth in 1986. Restaurant critic Jeremy Iggers gave it four stars in the Star and Tribune and business boomed. A game of brinksmanship with Urseth gave the D’Amicos control of the space and they soon closed it and created D’Amico Cucina, the restaurant that put them on the map.
“There was no Italian fine dining in Minneapolis then,” recalls Richard. “Anywhere, really.”
“It was a pretty cool place,” continues Larry. “[The space] is empty because a restaurant doesn’t belong there, but we got 22 years. It started very midmarket. We took it higher. It was what we wanted to cook, grounded in Italian, but more than Italian.”
“We had a run there where it was like an annuity,” adds Richard. “It was a smash success.” Chefs who would define eras in Twin Cities dining—names like Doug Flicker, Jay Sparks, JP Samuelson, Tim McKee and Josh Thoma, Isaac Becker, and Joan Ida—trained there. They recall United Health’s Bill McGuire, their best customer, said fine dining died when Cucina closed.
Perhaps even higher in ambition was Azur in the new Gaviidae Common. Its developers approached the D’Amicos, largely on Cucina’s reputation, looking for someone to operate a restaurant on its fifth floor.
“It was a non-starter,” says Richard. “You can hardly make a restaurant go on the first floor in downtown. You had to take two elevators! We said ‘We’ll come up with the concept, but you’re going to build it.’ ”
“They said yes,” laughs Larry. “We paid them percentage rent. Not percent of revenue, percent of profits. We made money one month in five years.”
“We made a little some other months,” corrects Richard.
“Azur was years ahead of its time. They were trying to be chic in a town that was not comfortable with chic,” explains Zimmern.
Azur was an ambitious, even avant-garde, Mediterranean restaurant, specializing in the cuisine of Provence. Everything from the decor to the cutlery to the staff uniforms wowed. Its quick-serve lunch operation, Toulouse, was an inspiration for D’Amico & Sons, which would come soon after. Its banquet room spawned D’Amico Catering, which would grow to the largest catering business between the coasts.
Yet the party was not to last. Neither Azur, nor Mexican fine dining restaurant Masa that followed it, could gain traction in downtown Minneapolis’s conservative, frugal dining scene.
By the mid-1990s, “everything starts closing in Gaviidae,” recalls Richard. “They’re moving everyone to lower floors for office conversion. We had a lease! We said, ‘We love it here, we’re just starting to make money.’ ”
“So they had to buy us out,” says Larry, chuckling. “They gave us the D’Amico & Sons location on the first floor as compensation.”
Successes followed. Regional Italian Campiello followed in Uptown and Eden Prairie. D’Amico and Sons was birthed and grew to 10 locations. Other one-offs opened and closed—Bocce, Linguini & Bob, Parma 8200. Bad reviews were exceedingly rare.
But eventually the brothers began to see their attention divided. Richard flew to Naples, Florida, in the early 1980s for friend Bob Emfield, one of the founders of the Tommy Bahama chain. He wanted a D’Amico-designed restaurant alongside their new store. They had designs on growth, too.
Emfield’s partner Tony Margolis, “was among the brightest guys in the garment business. They wanted us to put in 25 grand for 20 percent,” recalls Richard. “We were just in the process of buying the D’Amico & Sons on Hennepin. I said I’d rather have them as friends than partners.” (Fifteen years later Tommy Bahama was sold for $350 million.)
When their parents moved to Naples, the brothers kept their eyes on the community. They opened a Campiello there in 1998. It does five times the business Uptown ever did, they say. At peak, they operated six restaurants in southwest Florida. Today it’s three, but Naples is, four decades post-Tommy Bahama, the tail that wags the D’Amico dog. Seventy percent of the company’s restaurant revenue is in Florida and that percentage is growing. Campiello and relative newcomer, The Continental, are “Manny’s-style restaurants in volume,” notes Richard. “It’s some of the most lucrative retail real estate in the country. We have a great relationship with our landlords. If there’s going to be a new restaurant down here, we want to do it.”
The reorientation toward Florida has had an impact up north. Richard relocated to Naples in 2010. But if Naples is the focus of the company’s future, the Twin Cities are their roots. Larry lives in Wayzata and says the company remains open to opportunities in these parts, but most of late have been food operations for institutional clients like Walker Art Center.
They note that the annual cost of labor in a full-service D’Amico restaurant is $200,000 to $400,000 more in Minneapolis than in Naples. With the industry’s historically low margins, that’s often the difference between profit and loss. “It’s a horrible business model to begin with,” Larry says. “You gotta work your ass off. It’s tougher now. But it’s sexy, and people continue to want in.”
And there’s the fact that Richard is 72 and Larry is 70. “The demo in Minneapolis is looking for something younger and hipper, and as we get older that’s tougher for us to pull off,” Richard notes. “To do The Continental [a sophisticated steak and seafood restaurant] is one thing because we’re appealing to our age group. Appealing to Larry’s kids, we don’t have that vocabulary.” He also notes that “eating out is a lifestyle in Naples. Many people eat out 80 percent of their meals,” thanks to high levels of affluence and retirement lifestyles.
D’Amico & Sons was created as a concept that could be packaged and spun off for millions. “We were going to open 50,” says Larry. But they discovered that “we’re not the guys to do 50 of anything.”
“We didn’t want to listen to snot-nosed investment bankers telling us what to do,” notes Richard.
Sons’ heyday was “probably 2000 to 2015,” says Larry. “We got a little too expensive for that niche. Sandwiches and pastas have more than doubled in price. I think the food is still great. Its predictability is a strength and a weakness.” Six remain in Minnesota, down from 10. (There were a handful in Florida.) Edina, Wayzata, and Golden Valley are strong performers. “But it’s not a growth business. We could freshen it up by spending $500K per unit to do it, but is it going to work?”
Instead, they spent the pandemic converting the final D’Amico & Sons in Florida to Ziggy D’Amico’s, a full-service comfort food restaurant with bar geared to the younger customer who was still eating out in the pandemic. The brothers are considering migrating the concept to some Twin Cities D’Amico & Sons.
At its peak in 2015, D’Amico & Partners was a diversified hospitality company with roughly 1,200 employees, generating roughly $75 million in revenue. At that point, the brothers began to reassess. “We were up to 20 to 25 properties,” says Larry. “We decided to cut bait. If it wasn’t profitable, we got rid of it.
Twenty years ago, revenue was equally divided among catering, full-service restaurants, and Sons; by 2019, pre-pandemic, that ratio had migrated to 30, 50, and 20 percent.
The brothers credit two key factors for their success. First, “attention to detail,” says Richard. “If there are 50 components and you hit on 20 of them, you’re not going to be as successful as someone who hits on 40.
“And it all comes down to the people you hire,” says Larry.
“Right. It doesn’t matter how good your ideas are,” says Richard, “if you can’t attract and retain the right people, nothing’s going to work.”
And in an era when legendary restaurateur after restaurateur is laid low by accusations of malfeasance and abuse, there are no tell-alls in the works about the D’Amicos.
“The culture they created set a benchmark of loyalty, kindness, dignity, and respect as employers,” says Larry’s longtime friend chef Scott Foster, who owns a collection of restaurants in the Twin Cities and Rochester.
When you ask the brothers to assess the other’s skill sets and contributions to the company, it comes down to bread and circuses, basically.
Richard “has that design gene,” notes Larry. “He’s a driving force. I have more ideas and am more people-oriented.”
“My talent is creating spaces,” Richard notes.
“Richard is a visionary,” says D’Amico operations director Mike Smith. “Club Room came out of his head. He sees the restaurant before it’s built. Food, beverage, look, vibe.”
“[Larry’s] got the culinary piece,” continues Richard. “If he wanted to work in a kitchen now, it’d be the best restaurant in the city. He’s got a palate and taste level that even if somebody is a better chef, they’re going to learn something from him.
Most importantly, the brothers learned how to work together collaboratively, despite coming from a family culture that was autocratic.
“We get along. He did big picture, I did food at first,” explains Larry. “But we couldn’t all work on everything. [So] he took full service, I took Sons. Then catering.”
“And we all had a respect for the other’s capabilities,” says Richard. “I don’t remember big arguments. We are on the same page about almost everything. He’s mellower, I guess.”
“And if we don’t like something, we tell each other,” Larry adds, “but it’s not up to a vote.”
Because they learned in Ohio that 50/50 doesn’t work, ownership is divided unequally. Richard controls roughly 40 percent of the company, Larry roughly a third, and longtime CFO Paul Smith has roughly a quarter.
And they are not done. Despite recognizing their age and limitations, they are not content to play more golf than they already do.
“We talk about it all the time,” says Larry. “We [plan] five years at a time. We’re both healthy and we’ve got a lot of good people who have been with us a long time. Do we keep operating because we love this? Do we sell?”
“I don’t want to quit,” says Richard. “What would I do?”
Larry’s son Ben works in the business, but Larry isn’t sure there is another generation of D’Amicos to carry the business forward. “He and his buddies want their own place,” Larry says. “The same as us, 40 years ago.”
1975 Richard D’Amico moves to Minneapolis.
1984 Larry arrives; Atrium Catering and Primavera open at IMS.
1987 D’Amico Cucina debuts.
1990 Azur and Toulouse open in Gaviidae Common.
1992 D’Amico Catering founded.
1994 D’Amico & Sons opens at 22nd/Hennepin.
1995 Campiello debuts; Azur closes.
1995 The Metropolitan Ballroom opens.
1998 Campiello opens in Naples, Fla.
2002 Café & Bar Lurcat debuts at Loring Park.
2005 Masa opens on Nicollet Mall.
2009 D’Amico Cucina closes.
2015 The Continental opens in Naples.
2020 Ziggy D’Amico’s opens in Naples.