Gio Bruno, Owner/Proprietor,
Bruno’s Little Italy Restaurant,
WITH THE SUMMER of 2021 come at least some nods toward normalcy. More fans are in the stands at ballgames. Some movies have actually debuted in theaters. And—hallelujah!—restaurants are opening their doors to families and friends eager to enjoy a meal together again. For a look at where we’ve been and where we’re going, we sat down with Gio Bruno, owner/proprietor of one of our state’s most venerable restaurants. In Bruno’s case, deep family tradition combined with hands-on tech skills have proved to be a winning combination.
Restaurants are opening again after a tough year. As a restaurateur, what images of the last 15 months will stick in your head?
Oh, wow—well, we never closed down. We changed our model to curbside only, and we kept that until September 2020. Then we reopened a third of the dining room, and then two-thirds, and now we’re at about 75 percent.
So would you say that you guys survived the pandemic better than some?
I’d have to say that, yes. Because some of them didn’t survive it—there are restaurants that’ll never be back. But we’ve been able to mold the model in different ways. During the time that the dining room was closed, we did a little bit of delivery using our own employees. Then when we reopened the dining room in September, we stopped the delivery. That’s about the only changes, besides the way that we staffed.
How was that?
We stopped doing valet parking as soon as the pandemic hit, so we could use our three spaces in front as curbside spaces. And we’re still doing a reasonable curbside business, so we’re not ready to go back to valet yet. We need those spaces for that. And on the weekends we have an employee called the car runner, who runs the food out to the cars. On weekdays our hosts can handle that, but on weekends it’s been a little harder.
So that’s how we’ve done it. We had to close for two weeks last November because somebody tested positive. And then we closed the entire month of February because more than one person tested positive, including my brother.
Your brother Vince?
Yes, Vince was out with COVID for three weeks, and COVID sometimes exacerbates other health issues. So as he was getting over COVID, his gallbladder had to be taken out. And since Vince is the head chef, we had to close until he could come back.
What about your personal challenges during this time? Tell me how that felt. Did you sometimes think you’d made the wrong decision?
Well, we’ve been around for a long time, so we have a few tricks up our sleeve as far as knowing what our clientele wants. We cut the menu down for a while. We still had supply chain issues; there are certain products we can’t get anymore, because the companies that made them stopped making them. So that’s affected us a little bit, but we just molded it and worked on it, that kind of thing.
My nephew has really stepped up to being the head prep guy in the daytime, because we’re not open for lunch; we’re just open Tuesday through Saturday 5:00 to 9:30 and 5:00 to 10:00. So he does the prep shift and then takes a break and eats a meal and then he comes back as the expeditor at night. So he’s been working long hours, and that’s really helped us.
What do you mean, the expeditor?
An expeditor stands on the other side of the window from the line cooks and keeps the tickets in order and makes sure the food looks good before the server takes it out. Most places call it “expo,” so my nephew is our expo at night. He had been a server, so he was missing the server money, but he was making it up with hours. Now he occasionally does a server night so he can make a little server money, and we get somebody else to expo on those nights.
But right now, short staffing is the new pandemic. A lot of people got out of the service industry when the whole COVID thing started. They found jobs they could do from home, because they don’t want to go back to the old model, especially if they’re still worried about catching COVID. And I think Arkansas is at 39 percent vaccinated now, which isn’t near enough to guarantee workers’ safety.
So we’ve been very fortunate to be able to continue. We still have openings for a host and for an expeditor, and we’ve got people applying for those jobs this week; hopefully we can get somebody in. Meanwhile, we’ve been moving people around, occasionally working with one dishwasher instead of two. But our business has been going up, up, up, especially since the latest CDC guidelines. So even though we haven’t opened 100 percent of our tables, we’re pretty much making pre-COVID numbers, which is very good.
It’s amazing, really.
Yep, and I’ve put a lot of prayer into my business. I try to face every day as if it’s a brand new day and not let the stress get to me. My dad used to say, “Let go and let God,” and I’ve had to say that a whole lot lately. And it seems that we’ve had just enough to get by each night we’re open. I call them my little daily miracles. And so I’ve been able to keep a positive attitude toward it.
You have to be the father here, with the positive attitude, helping all your staff.
Absolutely. I’m the school nurse, the call monitor, the father, the cheerleader, the hand holder—all of those things.
Since COVID started, especially since we reopened the dining room, I go in before 5 p.m. and then I go home and come back at the end of the night. It’s really not a safety issue now, because I’m fully vaccinated. However, I’ll be 66 in November, and it’s gotten to a point where this is like my semi-retirement. I’m in there every day, just not while the service is going on. Vince is nine years younger than me, so he can still handle walking around and making sure all the tables are happy.
I never thought of anybody getting into the restaurant business as a “semi-retirement.” It’s night work and also hard work, isn’t it?
Oh, yeah. I sleep from 5:30 in the morning until 12:30 p.m., and I have breakfast around 1:30. Then I go into the restaurant. I try to get there by 3 p.m. and I stay until right after 5:00; lately it’s been about 5:30, since I’m not as worried about catching anything. Then I go home and relax. I have my lunch around 8:30 at night, and then I go back to the restaurant. I get back home about 1:00 in the morning and have my dinner. Then I watch TV and relax and wind down and go to bed about 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. It’s a crazy schedule, but I’m used to it.
Sounds like life in the music business, which you also know a thing or two about.
Yeah, we’ve been out of the studio for a year now, my friend Bill Ramsey and me. When I went into cover bands, I abandoned all my original music that I wrote in the late 70s and 80s. So when I quit the cover bands, Bill and I got all the demos out and we started taking them one at a time into the studio. We put out about two CD’s worth of music on the Internet. But in the past year, the studio that we’d been so happily using has changed their business model and is no longer doing what they call “a la carte recording.”
I’ve heard you many times singing lead for The Groan-Ups. When did you quit the cover bands?
I quit doing cover band stuff when we opened downtown, because I was no longer available at night. Plus, it wasn’t worth the money anymore. The last gig I did was at the Women’s City Club, and dressing in a tux and carrying equipment up the stairs—it just wasn’t worth it to me anymore. Also, there’s this: I never have to sing “YMCA” ever again, you know? Or “Brown-Eyed Girl.”
Well, let me get back to restaurants. Bruno’s started way back in 1949, and you were born in 1955. What was like growing up in the family business?
Our house was on the parking lot; I started making pizzas when I was 9. Actually, before that I worked as a dish dryer, because they didn’t have automatic dishwashers back then.
But mostly I was the pizza man and the bread man. And as soon as I was out of high school, my brother Jay went off to college and I stayed home and ran the restaurant. My dad’s health was going by that time. He died in ’84 and I ran the restaurant. Then, I want to say around 1985, Bruno’s went out of business. A year after my dad died, we had a horrible real estate situation where something was going wrong all the time because the building was built wrong; this was when we were on Old Forge Drive.
So my brothers Jay and Vince went back in the business with an out-of-family backer, and I got out of the restaurant business for 25 years. I was in advertising. I worked at Cranford Johnson. I worked for Arkansas Times for two years as an advertising art director. Then I moved to UAMS for five years and did their publications and stuff for their alumni, as well as their employee newsletter. Then I moved to Blue Cross and was doing ads and the employee newsletter and the public magazine and all that kind of stuff for 15 years.
Then in 2013 Bruno’s went out of business without there being anything wrong with the business itself. It was because the outside guy, the guy who wasn’t in the family, leveraged the business against his political campaign and lost; he ran as a state representative or something. And so my brother Vince was suddenly out of a restaurant. That’s when I started to craft how I could retire from Blue Cross and roll my retirement into a new restaurant, and that’s how we got downtown.
Did you always expect to take over the business?
No, no. If you had told me I would ever go back into the restaurant business, I would’ve told you that’s insane. But Vince is my little brother, and in my mind I’ve got my dad on his deathbed saying, “Take care of Vince.” And it just was perfect timing for me to do what I did and get out of Blue Cross. There are ways to fold your retirement into another business without paying anything on it, and so I took advantage of that and took up all of my retirement from Blue Cross and rolled it into getting the building we’re in now. We were also the first ones on our block. There was nobody on Main Street except way down on South Main.
I loved it downtown, because I’d been at Blue Cross for 15 years, looking out windows and I fell in love with downtown. Plus I was really good friends with our customers Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker. And so Moses/Tucker took us under their wing and made it very palatable for us to move where we did and paid most of the finishing and that kind of thing. They also gave us a really good deal on the rent; we looked out on Highway 10 and in West Little Rock, and the rents were twice what I’m paying here. And now we’re at a point where we’ve paid off all of our initial equipment loans and all that kind of stuff, so we’re in a good place.
Well, since we’re ACDS, talk to me about technology. How is running a restaurant today different than it was in your parents’ time?
There are a lot of things. Take POS—point of sale—systems. If you used a credit card at my dad’s restaurant, they put it through the old little swiper, over the carbon paper. Now everything is in the Cloud.
It was very helpful for me to be in advertising for 25 years because I pooh-pooh a lot of these businesses that exist only to help “your” business, but actually it’s to make them money. You would not believe the number of calls and emails I get every day from POS systems, from people who want to run our website, people who want to help with our social media. I do all of our posts on Instagram and Facebook myself, and that’s all I use. Because of my love for Olivia Farrell, who treated me so well when she was still at Arkansas Times, before she took over Arkansas Business, whenever the AB people come ask me to put something in the visitors guide or the guest guide, I’ll buy an ad a year; otherwise, I mostly don’t advertise.
I did just now buy some food spots with MeTV because they’re cheap, and they come out and do all the production and I don’t have to pay them money—I pay them in food. I’ve been waiting for our new awning, which is going up tomorrow morning, so MeTV can come shoot the spot that I wrote. And, because I’ve written so many radio and TV spots over the years in advertising, I just took over the thing and I’ll do the voiceover. So we’ll have some spots on MeTV, which I think is our demographic. I watch MeTV.
You talked a while ago about your supply chain, and I’m interested in how technology helps you run your business better and smarter, how it helps you keep your margins and all that. Can you talk more about that?
I’m old school on all of that. For eight years downtown, we’ve been trying to price out exactly what goes into a dish, so we know if we’re making any money. We still haven’t finished that process.
Instead, we just do it like Dad always did it, and how he taught us; that’s how we teach. I teach all the pizza makers because I was pizza boy for most of my early life. And our newest pizza maker isn’t faster tossing a pie in the air yet, but she still makes a good pie, so I’m happy with her. She’s brand new. And what’s really funny is, we lost her predecessor, who was fantastic, to Blue Cross. Because she wanted benefits.