Q & A with Restaurateur Tim Petrillo of YOLO, Tarpon Bend, and now, Vibe

Categories: Rants
Florida International University

This week, we caught up with restaurateur Tim Petrillo, who along with a few other well-heeled business partners is opening a new nightclub / live music venue called Vibe in downtown Fort Lauderdale . The new hotspot -- Tim told us more about it here -- is located on Las Olas Boulevard and Third Avenue, right next to Petrillo & partners' restaurant YOLO. It opens to the public Friday night and hosts a Halloween fundraiser on Saturday.

Petrillo was a super nice guy -- and, we assure you, way less dorky than he appears in this picture from his alma mater!

How did you get your start as a restaurateur?
Well... I went to Florida State but I wasn't a very good student. I was enjoying my college life a little too much! When it came time that I had to pick a major, I did a gut-check: what would I enjoy doing?

Were you in a fraternity?
No. All my friends were, but they all got kicked out. [Laughs] We had our own thing, we threw parties. That's what we did.

Where are you from?
Boca Raton. I went to Pope John Paul high school.

OK, sorry, continue with your story.
I had worked in the restaurant business since I was 13 -- as a bartender, server, busser, everything. I found out that FIU [Florida International University] had a really good hospitality program. I knew if I did that, I would have access to great hotel properties and great restaurants. During that time, I got lucky enough to

 get hired on at Mark's Place, Mark Militello's first restaurant. He was just winning all the accolades... [Militello has won the James Beard Award for "Best Regional Chef" in the Southeast; a "Distinguished Restaurant Award" from Conde Nast Traveler; two GQ awards, and more] It was great experience for me, seeing how a place with the highest level of accolades operates....

I was the bar manager for him. Then, as I was going to school, everyone said, "Go work for Houston's - they're the gold standard in the industry, as far as having a consistent product and doing it well." I tried to get an interview. Out of 370 applicants, they chose 20. I wasn't one of them. But I happened to be bartending the night the owner walked into Mark's Place -- and I talked myself into a job. I spent three years traveling around the country opening restaurants for them and learning their systems. Then Mark hired me back to be his director of operations. We opened Mark's Las Olas, which is now SoLita. That's where I met Peter Bouloukos - we're now partners - we started with Himmarshee Bar and Grill.

Was Chris Miracolo the chef when you opened?
Chris Miracolo worked for Peter at Mark's then worked with us at Himmarshee, then he was the opening chef at Tarpon Bend in the Gables. Now he's back at Himmarshee. He went to Houston's for a while! It's a very small world. He's a good guy.

You and Peter left Mark's to open Himmarshee?
Yep, we left Mark's - we decided make a jump to do our own thing. When was that? 1997. August 13.

Downtown must have looked a lot different then.
The neighborhood was - let's call it a developing neighborhood. It hadn't yet seen its renaissance. There were a bunch of secondhand stores, a couple bars -- Tavern 213, the Nocturnal Café. This is before Revolution even the Chili Pepper; it was The Edge -- a real grunge-driven place. I used to love that place. It was not a very walkable, pedestrian area. It had this cool funk that I love. The Poor House was there. Bobby from the Poor House -- he is that neighborhood. The Broward Center, the Museum of Discovery and Science were there. It was a cool little street with great historic character, so that's why we put a bet there that it would work.

How nervous were you?
That's an understatement. When you're opening a business, you go through cycles. First you're excited, then you raise capital, then you start spending the money and you're like, "Oh my god, this a lot of money." There's no out. Then you're in deep and now it's got to work -- that's when the stress really happens. I went down to 127 pounds. When we did the mock service before the opening, the first thing friends and family said to me was not "Congratulations" -- it was "Oh my god, you look like hell." Once you learn that you can get through it, though, each one gets easier. Well, not easier, but you know the expectation.

I was very stressed. We didn't even know if we were going to stay open until that mid-November. We had opened in mid-August, and some nights we were doing 20 covers, some nights we did zero. We were trying to keep the staff happy - it's based on gratuity, so we were trying to keep them there. They saw how passionate me and Peter were. I think we kept a lot of staff out of guilt! But they believed in us wanted to see us succeed. We were floating checks, hoping we'd make enough over the weekend to cover them. Then the Sun-Sentinel came out and gave us a great review, and the Broward Center opened, and we went from doing 20-30 covers a night to 300-400 and then we were off to the races. After a year and a half, we said "Let's open another one!"

Nowadays, with social media, the influence of the newspaper review has changed, huh?
It's very different now. We used to have to hire a PR agency to have access to the media, who would hopefully disseminate the information that would hopefully drive the customers in. Now, with Facebook and everything, we're building relationships with the guests, who are then disseminating that, and pushing it out to their friends. What came next? Tarpon Bend. Steve Halmos had the River House -- we decided do a partnership called the River House, then the Himmarshee Side Bar the following year, Tarpon Bend in Weston the following year, then Tarpon Bend in Coral Gables. We opened seven restaurants in seven years. All but the one in Weston are still open. [they later opened YOLO and now, Vibe.]

Who are your partners ?
The Restaurant People -- that's the name of our company -- is myself, Peter Bouloukos, and Alan Hooper. Financial partners are Steve Halmos and Terry Stiles (YOLO and Vibe)

What's a normal week for you? Are you on site seven days?
Six days. I get up at 4:30, go for a run for an hour, hour and a half, then I'm in my office by 7, doing things related to the business in the morning. I usually get to one of the restaurants for lunch service between 12 and 2, and then I do other things - phone calls, etc. I'm not in my office very much -- I try to be on the properties. Last night I was at Tarpon Bend from 5 to 7, I had a supervisory visit, and then I came over here and was here till 10. I bounced back and forth between YOLO and programming the lights at Vibe. I try to get home early one or two days a week, and I certainly take some days off.

Is there one great lesson you've learned about business? Yeah - that it's not easy! In any business, I think people can look at successful people and it's easy to say they got lucky. I don't think there's luck. Luck lines up because of all the hard work you put in. You've got to be committed, and want to get up in the morning. If I were to win the lottery tomorrow, would I stop doing this? No. I don't know what I would do with myself. I've got friends who go to that corporate job and feel like they're tied to it. Don't get me wrong, there was a time, a few years ago... We opened 2005 [then there was a break until] in 2008 we opened YOLO -- we had opened a restaurant a year since 1997. It got to the point where I didn't enjoy it and contemplated getting out of the business. But I went on vacation and realized I really enjoy it I just needed to rethink how I was going about it.

This interview went long so the rest is here -- see what Petrillo looks for when he hires staff, and how he feels about Amendment Four.

Location Info



333 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL

Category: Music

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