‘Through adversity ... unity’
New restaurants’ unique business struggle buoyed by support and solidarity
It’s hard enough for established Orlando restaurants to stay afloat in the coronavirus-burdened economy, but new businesses face even steeper climbs. With community support, and that of fellow business owners, they say, the odds increase exponentially.
Philip Innamorato wanted a change, he told me in Bensonhurst patois that two decades in Port St. Lucie has done nothing to soften.
That’s where his family has owned Big Apple Pizza for roughly 25 years. But Innamorato, his wife Lindsay and their four kids are regulars here in Orlando.
“We all love Disney and we’re always going back and forth, every other week,” he says. “We’re passholders — Disney, SeaWorld, Universal. Orlando’s the best place to be in Florida, so I was like, ‘Why don’t we just move here?’”
His wife didn’t believe he was serious. Until he drove up to Oviedo and came home with signed paperwork for a pizzeria. And so, Santinos Pizza N Wings, named for their youngest, opened on Jan. 6.
Innamorato, whose family was still living in Port St. Lucie while waiting for their new Black Hammock house to close, got his change — more than he bargained for when COVID-19 dropped like a bomb.
“I advertised in the local Clipper, I threw up Facebook shout-outs, there’s a School of Rock right here and the parents would bring their kids in after music lessons …. this is what I’m all about, knowing my customers, talking to them. Busi
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to get people through the door. If I have to lose a little to make it, to build the brand, so be it.”
—Brian Zhao, owner of Kabuto Sushi & Grill
ness was actually increasing a little every, single day.”
After coronavirus, it went down 40 percent — almost overnight.
Innamorato did a TV raffle, gave away free food for social media mentions.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to get people through the door. If I have to lose a little to make it, to build the brand, so be it. I’d rather have the volume of 100 people coming in to spend a dollar then five spending $100. It’s worth it if 10 of them come back.”
It’s a strategy Brian Zhao is employing over in Winter Springs, where his new
place — Kabuto Sushi & Grill — doesn’t even have a sign to let folks know he’s there.
“We weren’t open much more than a week, then coronavirus happened,” says Zhao, a native of Osaka, Japan, who had high hopes and haute renovations to show off in the Publix-adjacent space formerly held by Nagoya.
Opening a restaurant of his own has been a dream for some time.
“I wanted to share my ideal Japanese food with the customers,” he says. “We moved here in 2012 and were always looking for an authentic restaurant, but it’s so hard to find around us.”
When the time came to bring that dream to life, he hired accomplished chefs — including Tokyo-born Yuki Fushimi, a former head chef at I-Drive’s Hanamizuki. Unfortunately, Fushimi’s age and 40+ years of experience — precisely what make him a prime asset in the kitchen — also put him squarely in the better-stay-home zone.
Zhao assumed chef duties, set aside some of the more authentic dishes for the time being and has been enjoying repeat business from locals who want to see him succeed, including employees in the large plaza.
It’s not a lot, but it’s something — and the community he has experienced has warmed him. He smiles behind his surgical mask as his young daughter plays on her tablet amid stacks of boxes. He remains optimistic.
“We’re just trying to stay open,” says Zhao, who’s changed up the menu several times in the past few weeks, adding more familiar items, more fusion, he says. The entire menu is 20 percent off. Sake bottles are buy one, get one at 50 percent.
“We’re using this time to try and figure out what our local customers like. We’ve done updates to our sushi rolls. Every week, we talk about what we sell the most and change accordingly — the Samurai, Dynamite and soft-shell crab rolls just got upgrades, inside and out. They look more fancy,” he says, laughing.
Humor is something you’ll hear a lot when speaking with business owners, even if it’s often a bit black.
For Jennifer Geils, who literally quit her day job to focus on her home business, Cheesecake Cutie, two days before everything went COVID-19 crazy, it has likely been a source of levity. Geils comes from an entrepreneurial family, though. She’s been taking it in stride.
Geils has been baking her late mother’s cheesecake recipe for decades — gifting them to friends and family, bringing them to work. For ages, folks encouraged her to make a move, “but you never really think they’re that good enough,” she says, laughing. “You think, ‘these people are my friends, so they’re being extra nice.”
Finally, after a wedding expo yielded surprise orders, she acknowledged that Cheesecake Cutie had momentum. Her husband — who owns his own landscape business — encouraged her to take the leap.
Geils, an administrative assistant at an industrial coatings company, put in her two-week notice in March.
“I got my state license to be a manufacturer to restaurants … that next Sunday I rented a commercial kitchen. And then this all happened.”
The weddings were canceling. The restaurants began closing down. But she pressed on, posting on local community Facebook pages to let people know she was there.
That’s where Chuck Cobb of Winter Park’s GitN-Messy BBQ found her and ordered some cheesecakes on the spot. “It was amazing,” says Geils. “He just wanted to help out a local business.”
Cobb sold enough of her “Cuties” — a tiny version of the larger gourmet offerings — to move to weekly orders and even commissioned his own exclusive flavor: banana pudding.
Cuties go for $30/dozen direct from the source, but
Geils does whole 9-inch cakes, too, including a gluten-free crust option.
“I didn’t think anyone would give someone like me a chance, especially now,” she says of the surprise business. “But the restaurant community is so supportive. They’ve welcomed me with open arms.”
Word-of-mouth has been powerful. Making up for the losses, keeping the lights on at the commissary kitchen.
Cobb also knew Innamorato, whose business he’d visited. The two forged a friendship. He recommended Geils’ product. And a new partnership was born.
“I appreciate when people are starting out a new business, giving it their all,” says Innamorato, who’s in the same exact boat. “I tried her cakes and they were amazing.”
And like a game of telephone, he passed the message on to another new friend in the area — Alejandro Martinez of Winter
Springs’ own Stefano’s Trattoria, now selling its own exclusive 3-inch “cuties” in white chocolate and tiramisu.
“The resident restaurants have been so kind, helpful and willing to tell their friends and fellow business owners,” she says, “and the general community has been so supportive in ‘shopping local.’”
There’s no competition here, says Innamorato, who’s grateful for the help and camaraderie that will hopefully allow him to grow old in Oviedo, where his kids can go to UCF “and live with me until they get married,” he jokes.
“Everyone around here can make a living,” he says. “Nobody needs to grab stuff from somebody else. If we all work together, we can do the right thing for each other and we can all be successful.”
Innamorato’s business will open to seat 25 percent today (May 4), but it’s too little to bring on a server. He’s kept most of his staff on — and will welcome one back whose parents didn’t want her to work during the outbreak when the all-clear sounds. He’ll run the food himself if anyone wants to sit.
Zhao is sticking with takeout and delivery for now but may put a couple of tables outside for customers who want to sit with their boxes and dine al fresco.
“I have a responsibility to everyone — to my employees — to do my part to keep everyone healthy,” he says and looks forward to welcoming customers inside soon.
Each has his or her way of running a business, but through adversity comes
unity, says Cobb.
“Small businesses come together during this pandemic. We help one another stay afloat.”
Want to reach out? Find me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @amydroo or on the OSFoodie Instagram account @orlando.foodie. Email: amthompson@ orlandosentinel.com. Sign up for the Food & Drink newsletter at orlandosentinel.com/ newsletters.
“I have to stay positive,” says Brian Zhao, owner of Kabuto Sushi & Grill in Winter Springs, which served few customers in its new dining room before having to move to coronavirus protocol.
Jennifer Geils, owner of Cheesecake Cutie, holds one of her cheesecake creations.