PITTSFIELD — Running a restaurant is never easy.
An eatery's average life span is five years. About 60 percent of restaurants close in their first year of operation, and nearly 80 percent are shuttered by their fifth year, according to CNBC.com.
But, there are exceptions.
Mazzeo's Ristorante in Pittsfield is one. It has been around since 1988, in two locations — the current one on South Street, and the original location, on Winter Street in Pittsfield's Morningside neighborhood, which was surrounded by billboards.
Mazzeo's even has managed to do well during the COVID-19 pandemic, devising a system to deliver family-style takeout meals to customers who picked up their food in the restaurant's parking lot.
Tony Mazzeo and his brother, Michael, co-own the restaurant and the new Mazzeo's Importing Market in Lenox. The market will replace another family-owned eatery, Mazcots Sports Bar and Grill, when it opens in a few weeks.
We asked Tony Mazzeo recently what it has been like operating a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic, his take on what the restaurant business is like in general, and why he never will follow his wife, former Pittsfield City Council member and mayoral candidate Melissa Mazzeo, into local politics.
Q: There's no road map or guide for operating a restaurant during a pandemic. So, can you tell me what it's been like?
A: Honestly, I was very concerned when it started. I was worried about someone coming into my restaurant and getting sick.
On March 14, I notified all my staff to let them know I was going to shut the restaurant down, hopefully for a couple of weeks, because there was no guidance. I think the next day, if I'm not mistaken, the governor [declared] a state of emergency and ordered everyone to shut down before St. Patrick's Day. ... I just didn't want a customer to get sick, didn't want my staff to get sick. It was a stressful time.
Q: So, how did you adapt?
A: Right, away we came up with a nice little package of food [family meals to be sold at takeout], so I was able, during the pandemic, to keep all my kitchen staff employed. ... Trying to learn a new routine was difficult.
Q: From what I've seen and been told, you've done pretty well. I heard your takeout service was mobbed on Mother's Day.
A: Mother's Day, it was crazy. I don't think there were many places open. At one point the line went from my parking lot ... through the [traffic] light past Guido's.
Q: When you came up with the takeout meals concept, did you expect anything like that?
A: I did not. My first thought was, hopefully, to keep all my employees. I didn't want to let people go who had been here a long time. I wanted to just get through this and, hopefully, generate enough income to keep everybody working. It ended up working out very well for me.
It's thanks to my parking lot. We put in a drive-thru, and every day there was someone with a radio to check you in. The radio went up to the kitchen. We boxed the [food] up and gave it to our customers, and it worked out very well. ... I've gotten a lot of good, positive feedback.
Q: How did you learn how to cook?
A: My mother [Gabriella Mazzeo, who founded the restaurant with Tony's late father, Pasquale] was a great cook. She still is. ... [It was] just watching her and whatever. I do very little cooking now. I did more in our previous location, on Winter Street.
Q: Did your mother inspire you to go into the restaurant business?
A: My father and uncle owned Mazzeo's Importing Market. In 1988, the brothers decided to separate. My uncle [Rodolfo] wanted to build a bigger store.
My father didn't want to do that. Ironically, we used to sell food to Chuck Coppola [who operated Dino's at Mazzeo's original location, on Winter Street]. When [Dino's] closed, we had a lien on the building. There was going to be an auction ... so, we called the option and we bought it.
Q: So, that's how Mazzeo's Ristorante began?
A: That's how it started. My father and grandfather [Canio Mazzeo] immigrated [to America from Italy by way of Venezuela]. In Venezuela, they had a small little market, a bar and a very small restaurant. So, my father had a little bit of experience [in the restaurant business]. It wasn't as big as it is today.
Q: So, how did things develop?
A: I don't know if there was a set plan when we went in there. One thing just led to another.
Q: Why did your father and uncle come to Pittsfield?
A: The opportunity. They came to New York City, and I believe they had an aunt living in Pittsfield [according to Eagle files, Pasquale Mazzeo, who died in 2002, came to Pittsfield to visit his aunt, Mrs. Lucy Frieri, in 1957, before coming back to live here permanently in 1960].
Q: Did anyone in your family ever think Mazzeo's would still be around 32 years later?
A: Ah, no. It's a long time to be in the restaurant business. It's a lot of hours; a whole different lifestyle.
Q: Why did you move Mazzeo's from Winter Street to South Street in 2009?
A: We outgrew the Winter Street location. As you know, the parking is limited there. ... If I was going to stay in, I had to figure out how I was going to stay in.
Q: How has being on South Street helped the business?
A: I'm more visible. I'm on the highway [Route 7]. I tripled the size of the dining room and tripled the size of the kitchen. The only downfall was, the banquet room [on South Street] is smaller. But, I addressed the parking issue. On Winter Street, people were parking up and down the neighborhood on the the street a few blocks away.
Q: That's quite a difference.
A: I had four billboards blocking me in [on Winter Street] for 22 of the 32 years I've been in business. ... I guess if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere. It was a challenge in itself.
Q: What's the most important thing you need to do to run a successful restaurant?
A: Based on my experience? Being here and being a part of it. I'm here just about every night ... I'm here working with the employees. I love seeing the customers. They like to see you. I've made a lot of friends and a lot of relationships over the last 32 years.
Q: Why is being on-site so important?
A: People like to see the owners. I think it's a big plus. Plus, a restaurant is crazy. It gets hectic when it's busy.
There's just so many moving parts. It's good to be part of a team with the employees, and they appreciate that. At least where we are, being an absentee owner is hard to do. Maybe in Boston or New York, where you have millions of people, it might work.
Q: Are there other Mazzeos waiting in the wings to replace you and your brother?
A: Maybe. My daughter [Mia] graduated from the Isenberg School of Management at UMass-Amherst. She's working here with me right now.
Q: Have you ever thought of doing anything else, like going into politics like your wife did?
A: Never. It's not for me.
Q: That's a very honest answer.
A: That's a whole different animal.