“We are blessed that we have a business where our customers think about us. We survived because of them and I will never forget that."
“2020 was my first year that Café Italia was making some money. I'm five years in the business and it takes a while for restaurants to start marking a profit. So, at the beginning of 2020, business was going very, very well. January through April is the peak season, when you really make some money and then you have to put it aside to get through the summertime. That's how it works in Fort Myers because it's a very touristy area.
But then, March 7, March 8, when it started, the dream of the business doing so well was over.
Most of my customers are a little bit older and when they heard what was going on, they automatically said, ‘Okay, we will stay home.’ But to help me, to keep me open, my customers were ordering takeout at least once a week. And I have to tell you that surprised me. I never closed, I was open all the time. I wasn’t making so much, but enough to pay my bills. I’m very thankful for that. I had a couple of people working for me, but I had to let them go. Me, my wife and my son, we stayed all the time, and we survived.
One of my neighbors is a sports bar and the other one has fine dining, very expensive plates that people don’t take out. They are three times bigger than I am and need more staff. They closed and I’ve stayed open. I can work by myself in the kitchen, no problem. And I am selling lasagna, stuffed shells, spaghetti and meatballs, which is great, and it’s easy for people to take home.
My relationship with my customers has become more of a friendship this year. It's like I'm a neighborhood café. I know their names, I might know how they’re doing. The couple of seconds or minutes when they come into my restaurant to get the food, the little conversation we have, it grows, it grows into a relationship. And after, it becomes stronger. It's not any more the customer coming in, it’s Mrs. Fishburne, or Mr. Jones. It’s a friend.
So at Christmas time, I gave them baskets of food. It's more of a personal thing, so I could thank them. They really came together, they were saying, ‘We want you to stay, we want to try to help you.’ So not only did a lot of them come once a week, but when the government allowed us to sell wine, they would say, ‘Oh, you know what, give me a bottle of wine.’ They had never done that before. They just wanted to help.
And then I have another customer who paid for one semester of college for my son. We were shocked and we just said, ‘No, I cannot take this.’ And he said, ‘No, I did this for 20 other kids too.’ So he paid $1,500 for the next semester in school. It was amazing.
I survived to this point, I will survive the rest. I'm not not worried anymore. Everybody needs money to survive, you know, but, you see, my dad always used to tell me, ‘Money, you can always make it back. It comes and it goes and there’s nothing you can do to control it.’ Friendship, family, that is what you cannot lose, what you must protect. And this is what I'm feeling.
I do this job because I have passion and it's not only the cooking. It’s like, I love when I see people, they eat the food and they smile, you know, that's what I love. That's what keeps me going, to make good food for these people.
My family and I are blessed. We are blessed that we have a business where our customers think about us. We survived because of them and I will never forget that. In a worldwide pandemic, in a business like a restaurant, you have a very little chance to survive. So many are closing and I'm still here. It's just amazing.” - Mike Romano, Café Italia #Florida