‘Through ad­ver­sity ... unity’

New restau­rants’ unique busi­ness strug­gle buoyed by sup­port and sol­i­dar­ity

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Amy Drew Thomp­son

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.

AMY DREW THOMP­SON/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

“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.

OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Jen­nifer Geils, owner of Cheesecake Cu­tie, holds one of her cheesecake cre­ations.

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