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When family food businesses work

Boston, Ma., 07/16/14, The Frattaroli family has multi generations in their Restaurant, Lucia. Left to right, Donato, Filippo, Donato, Gianni, Arturo, Philip. For story about children staying or leaving the family businesses. Section: G Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff (The Boston Globe.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The Frattarolis at one of their enterprises, the restaurant Lucia; (from left) Donato Frattaroli Jr., his uncle Filippo, his father, Donato, his brother Gianni, his grandfather Arturo, and cousin Philip, Filippo’s son.

“Maybe I need a psychiatrist,” says Donato Frattaroli, scion of the North End family behind Artu, Ducali, Filippo, Lucia, and Ward 8. “But there’s never been a day that I’ve said, ‘I need to go to work.’ When you’re with family, it’s not ‘work,’ ” he says.

At least that’s true when a family business runs well, especially a restaurant business. After all, says Frattaroli, “Restaurants are where we meet our friends, where the kids go when they’re home from college, where we have a drink and talk.”

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It’s not always cocktails and chatting, of course. Just consider the Market Basket saga, wherein the bickering Demoulas family could derail an otherwise successful enterprise. In the best-case scenario, however, a well-run family business fosters loyalty, longevity, and a built-in support system.

Donato’s nephew Philip Frattaroli, who owns Ducali, went to law school but was lured into the fold by his fond memories. He opened Ducali in 2008, next to his father’s restaurant, Filippo. “Being a lawyer, you’re dealing with people at the worst times. In a restaurant, it’s social and happy,” says Philip. Happier still if you can raid your dad’s fridge in a pinch — which he admits doing on occasion.

It’s no surprise, then, that “on average, family companies perform better. There have been numerous studies on this,” says John A. Davis, who leads the Families in Business program at Harvard Business School. “They do a few things really right: They’re focused on delivering high-quality service, they know their product, and they have customers who last a long time.”

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The flip side is that family businesses are vulnerable to feuds — feuds that strangers wouldn’t bother to sustain. Nobody can push someone’s buttons like a relative, particularly where money is concerned. “Family businesses sometimes don’t have mechanisms like boards or outside advisers to enforce discipline. You can find yourself really exposed. The business will feel it, and customers can sense it. It can be very embarrassing,” says Davis.

Take Watertown’s Maslow tale. In 2011, Tim Maslow returned home to revamp his father’s Watertown restaurant, Strip-T’s, after working under New York super-chef David Chang at Momofuku. The younger Maslow added complex dishes to the straightforward menu, flooring locals (and his dad, Paul) in the process. The result was a cross between a Shakespearean tragedy and a sitcom. “The first couple of months, he quit three times,” says Paul Maslow. “And he was living at my house. You can imagine how much tension there was. There was a point when I was crawling into bed saying, ‘What have I done?’ ”

‘When you’re with family, it’s not “work.” ’

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Unlike many family businesses, there was no succession plan for the Maslows. “If we’d gone to a professional who deals with [family businesses], they would have killed us,” says Paul Maslow. The elder Maslow fretted about alienating longtime staff and regulars with his son’s food; Tim craved creative independence. They tangled. “When I first saw his menu, I freaked out,” Paul recalls. “I said, ‘This is too much for Watertown! You cannot shock people like this.’ ”

Oh, but he could. Today, the father-son duo thrive. The revamped Strip-T’s and the Maslows’ 2013 Brookline venture, Ribelle, have earned accolades. Tim does the cooking; Paul handles things back at the office.

When Tim Maslow revamped the menu at Strip-T’s, his father, Paul, “freaked out,” but they’ve gone on to thrive at two restaurants.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

When Tim Maslow revamped the menu at Strip-T’s, his father, Paul, “freaked out,” but they’ve gone on to thrive at two restaurants.

The Maslow moral: New generations can push elders to consider fresh ideas, perhaps even saving the business. Paul Maslow had considered selling Strip-T’s until his son arrived.

Donato Frattaroli appreciates such fresh perspectives. “We’ve made small adjustments to our menus as time goes on, thanks to the younger generation,” he says. “Thirty years ago, nobody knew truffles. Now everybody wants truffles. Years back, nobody ate razor clams. Now everybody eats them,” he marvels.

Innovation is important, but new generations also maintain a connection to the past. No Name Restaurant has existed in the Seaport for nearly 100 years, long before it was an expense-account playground. The restaurant was once a stopover for fishermen who needed a place to cook their catch, and it hasn’t changed much, thanks to its regular customers and loyal staff. Today, Anastasia Contos operates the restaurant founded by her grandfather, alongside other family members. “Every business needs to evolve, but with a family business, you know you have something that’s worked for a long time. We toy with changes, but we also don’t want to alienate our core customer base,” Contos says.

Donato Frattaroli agrees. “You have to make changes slowly. You have customers who’ve come into your restaurant for 40 years, and they come for a purpose. They know what they like, and they know what kind of service to expect,” he says.

To this end, Contos keeps the same intense hours that her dad and granddad once did. “My dad took 10 days vacation in my life. If I take three days off a year, I feel like I’m cheating. It’s how we are,” she says.

This ingrained work ethic also serves food industry kids well if they decide to leave the dynasty. Steve Napoli grew up on Acton’s Idylwilde Farms, run by his father and uncles. “I’d go on 4 a.m. runs with my dad to buy fruit and vegetables in Chelsea,” he remembers. “There were wholesalers selling everything from carrots to raspberries. My dad taught me how to buy. I was 10 or 11. It was exciting and dark. I met people I know to this day.”

Steve Napoli (above) left Idylwilde Farms with his family’s blessing to start Snap Top Market in the South End.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Steve Napoli (above) left Idylwilde Farms with his family’s blessing to start Snap Top Market in the South End.

Which proved useful, since now he brings a touch of Idylwilde to the South End with his Snap Top Market, which opened in 2012. He says his father, Idylwilde co-owner David Napoli, was supportive. “We were standing out looking over Idylwilde when I told him my plans. He was jacked for me. He said, ‘Go for it. I respect it. You’ll do great things,’ ” says Steve Napoli.

Softening any blow is the fact that other Napoli siblings and cousins — only those who are interested, of course — are primed to take over Idylwilde from their parents. “The kids call the meetings now. But we’ve all been healthy, knock on wood, so you’re not going to get rid of us that easily,” says Steve’s uncle, Rich Napoli.

He pauses. “And, you know, I still think they rely on us a little bit.”

The dish Marco Polo, a specialty of the house at Lucia, which is run by multiple generations of the Frattaroli family.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The dish Marco Polo, a specialty of the house at Lucia, which is run by multiple generations of the Frattaroli family.

What made your family business successful?

Jacob Thomas for the Boston Globe

Humility

Island Creek Oyster Bar’s Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, who grew up in his
uncle Chris Schlesinger’s former restaurant, East Coast Grill: “Not being above anything — even picking up stuff off the bathroom floor!”

Focus

Donato Frattaroli, whose family members helm numerous North End restaurants: “Restaurants are like wives: You can only have one at a time.”

Diplomacy

Emily Brophy, who works at New England Soup Factory with her parents, owners Paul Brophy and Marjorie Druker: “Leaving any personal problems at the door.”

Compassion

Rich Napoli, who runs Acton’s Idylwilde Farms with his siblings: “We have very understanding mates.”

Open-mindedness

Christopher Lin, who runs Roslindale’s Seven Star Street Bistro with his wife, Michelle Lin, and his father, Joseph Lin: “My dad has been doing some dishes since the 1970s, but he’s always open to making improvements.”

Respect for elders

Dante de Magistris, who co-owns Dante and Il Casale restaurants in Belmont and Lexington (see review on Page 14) with his brothers: “My dad likes to come in and tell me what’s good and what’s not. If I can make him happy, I can make most people happy.”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kcbaskin@gmail.com.
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