Baci Coffee hasn’t always been in the geographic center of Sarasota.
This seems to be the case for more recent transplants.
When Roberto Mei opened the Italian staple more than 30 years ago, it was on the traffic-busting outskirts of Sarasota. And now that he’s about to close the landmark, he sits on a strip of road crowded with cars day and night.
“Keep in mind that in 1990 and 1991 there was a major real estate crisis,” says Mei, who will close Baci Cafe after its last service on Mother’s Day. “The owner who sold me the building made a bet with the broker that a restaurant so far south would never survive. The hospital was as far south as people wanted to go. None of that was here. And now Bee Ridge and 41 are the busiest intersection in town. But it didn’t have to be that way. I was super lucky.
He may have been lucky, but he was also ready for the challenge ahead. Mei, now 68, says he’s a fifth- or sixth-generation restaurateur with roots in the old country; his grandparents owned and operated a restaurant called Trattoria Mei in Rome, and then his family successfully opened Fontana di Trevi in New York’s theater district.
By the time Mei moved to Sarasota, he had already been in the restaurant business for a few decades. He says his father started him when he was 10 and by 18 he had become one of the youngest restaurant managers in America.
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Over the years, he learned to do all the jobs in a restaurant, but the challenges at Café Baci came before it even opened its doors for the first time. Mei says he bought the property for just under $700,000, but immediately had to undergo a major renovation to repair the kitchen from damage suffered by the previous owner.
“The restaurant that was here before was called Western Sizzlin,” Mei says, recalling the early days before Baci Cafe opened. “Their menu was more steaks and fried foods, so they had a battery of five fryers. They were huge on the fries and onion rings. Because of all that grease, the kitchen drains, you could put a toothpick in there. So I had to demolish the floor, I had to install new plumbing, I had to install new electrical. It was a total job. »
Mei estimates that the renovation only lasted three or four months, but that was only the beginning of the structural problems he was facing. When Mei moved his family to Sarasota, he did so to escape the cold and gloom. But he didn’t realize how much he would have to do to get ingredients to cook traditional Italian dishes in Florida.
“Believe it or not, I had to import products from Manhattan,” he says. “Nobody knew what a cremini or a portobello mushroom was here. I had to call my suppliers, and you can imagine what that would cost. I would go to the airport and pick up five boxes of mushrooms and other things like escarole. Things they didn’t know existed. Today you just go to Publix.
Promote from within
Mei, who learned to cook from his grandmother, said he had only had seven or eight chefs in his 30 years of running Cafe Baci. Its first chef was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and its most recent chef worked for Cafe Baci for two decades.
The current chef, Eldis Rodriguez, started out at the restaurant as a dishwasher, and Mei promoted him through the ranks several times. It’s a key part of Mei’s philosophy: he believes that you give people a chance and let them decide their own future.
“It’s really the best way to have employees because they’ve learned all the jobs from home, and there’s nothing they can’t do,” Mei says. “And also they are loyal because you gave them a chance to grow. They recognize that I give them a chance.
“What employees need to understand – some understand and some don’t – is that employers are giving them an opportunity. What they do with it is up to them. They can move on or stay stagnant.”
This is the only regret Mei has in closing the doors of Café Baci. He says he knows it’s time for him to move on to the next phase of his life, but he wants to make sure he can find healthy and productive places for his staff to land and continue their careers.
What will happen to Café Baci next? Mei says he’s not sure. It was one of only three Italian restaurants in town when it opened, but the city’s food scene has since matured. And the property’s location could mean the next owner isn’t a restaurant owner.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be sold to another restaurant. I tend to doubt it,” he says. “He will probably be sold to a promoter. I have people interested in putting medical buildings here, which is a no-brainer. … If you drive up and down at 41, there aren’t many businesses you can access from 41. Normally you have to walk down the street and enter from the side.
Mei says the last few weeks at the restaurant have been full of people sharing their memories with him. Several of her regular customers have had their wedding or rehearsal dinner at Café Baci, and they return every year to celebrate their birthdays.
“It’s going to be emotional, there’s no doubt about it,” Mei says of closing her doors. “Many of our clients are like family.”
“It’s really difficult for me,” adds Rodriguez of the Baci cafe closing. “All my life I have worked here. I started in the dishwasher then moved on to sous chef and chef. It was an amazing group of people to work with, and I will miss Roberto and his family.
When Mei reflects on the past few years at the helm of his establishment, he thinks of the resilience and determination it took to keep things afloat during the COVID-19 era. Baci cafe was enjoying customer records, he says, when the pandemic began.
The rules kept changing, he said, and his clients weren’t sure how to react.
The restaurant was first closed, then allowed to operate at 25% capacity.
“Then it went to 50% and 75%. And finally 100%,” he says of the pandemic. “We finally got the business back to where it was and then there is a labor shortage When we finally get our workforce back in order, food prices go crazy.
“But we got there. We stuck together, we hung on and we made it.
Mei says he has worked in the hospitality industry for 51 years and hopes to stay there in retirement.
Mei wants to use his restaurant know-how to help a food philanthropy organization, such as Meals on Wheels, in retirement, and when asked to give advice to the next generation of restaurant owners, he suggested that they enroll in a culinary school.
“It’s important for anyone involved in a restaurant to know all aspects of it,” says Mei. “If a dishwasher doesn’t show up, you have to be a dishwasher. If the cook doesn’t show up, you must be a cook. You have to know how to do everything.
“And you never want to be at anyone’s mercy. You want to be able to do it.
Looking even further, Mei sees trouble on the horizon for business owners, and he hopes the government can find a solution for management and workers. Sarasota’s business community has changed in his tenure, and he thinks it still needs to change.
“Sarasota is going to have a labor problem, especially in Longboat Key and Siesta Key due to lack of affordable housing and public transportation,” he said. “The people who work in the restaurants in Siesta Key, how are they supposed to get there? It’s crazy.
“And Longboat Key, it’s the same. Here, at least, we have parking and we’re centrally located. But when you talk about the keys, they have to do something with public transportation.”