Walnut Creek’s Rocco Biale grew up in the restaurant industry. He’s held just about every job in food service, from busboy to owner. Biale recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of his restaurant, Rocco’s Ristorante & Pizzeria, where he spends each day, alongside his three adult children, who also work at the Ygnacio Valley Road eatery. In between serving pizza to hungry patrons, Biale sat down with this news organization to talk about the future of his industry and the challenges of running a full-service restaurant in the Bay Area.
Q: How did you get into the restaurant business?
A: I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life. My parents were in the restaurant business. My dad owned restaurants in San Francisco and my uncle owned restaurants in San Francisco and Hawaii, where I worked for a couple years. It’s really all I’ve ever done. I’ve never had another job. I’m one of those old-story busboy, waiter, bartender, manager … and then saved up my money, took a chance, rolled the dice back in 1999 and here we are.
Q: What are the biggest challenges the restaurant industry faces today?
It’s a very labor-intensive business. The Bay Area is a very expensive place to live. Finding labor is becoming harder and harder, keeping labor is becoming harder and harder, but really the pressure has been on wages. It’s not so much a comment on the minimum wage going up, but it’s the trickle-up effect on the restaurant business. You’ve got a high school junior with no experience coming into the workforce at soon-to-be $15 and hour — that doesn’t seem like very much money but multiply that by a very labor-intensive restaurant and it adds up. Now, you got a worker that’s been here five, seven, eight, 10, 12 years going … ‘I need $25.’ The pressure on wages is a challenge for keeping full-service restaurants open.
Q: You mentioned full-service restaurants. What does the future hold for restaurants like yours?
A: You’ll notice a lot of places that have opened up recently really don’t have full service. It’s my belief that, in time, the restaurant industry is going to slowly morph into a non-service model because it’s an unsustainable business model when you have to pay food servers — who, by the way, earn every penny they make.
Q: What is the pay disparity between the visible restaurant workers and the kitchen staff?
A: It’s stunning. The front of the house can make three to even six times as much. Seven places opened up across the street here. Not one has service. They are all counter models. You either get a buzzer or a beeper or something like that. In time, with more pressure on wages, I think you are going to see fewer and fewer restaurants open up that have a full service business model. Some will survive and most won’t, in my opinion. I think that’s the biggest challenge along with the labor shortage facing the industry.
Q: How have you held on, even as other East Bay Italian restaurants haven’t in recent years?
A: We have a good thing going here. My family all works here — it is literally a family-owned-and-operated restaurant. All three of my adult kids work here. I’m the hands-on general manger. I’m here seven days a week. That allows us that cushion, if you will, that buffer. As for the closure of restaurants, people talk about the high rents, that’s a factor, but in my opinion it’s the pressure on wages.
Q: What’s lost in the counter-service model?
A: There’s a fine line between going out to dinner and getting something to eat. To me, at a burger lounge, you are just getting something to eat. Going to a restaurant, there is somebody else taking care of you and there is a social interaction component. That, in time, is what I see being lost. Due to costs, something has got to give and it’s going to be the actual waiter or waitress. Tipping is going to go by the wayside, you are going to see, service charges added to the check, or surcharges or both, and that extra money [will] be divvied up among the staff. The fact that the California Legislature doesn’t recognize tips as wages, as is the case in 45 other states will, in my opinion, slowly, over time, reduce or eliminate full-service dining in this state.
Q: Tell us one of your secrets?
A: Being here every day. Customers like to see the owner busing a table, answering the phone, seating somebody, serving a dish. There’s a certain level of respect or admiration.
ROCCO BIALE PROFILE
Position: Owner, Rocco’s Ristorante & Pizzeria
Birthplace: San Francisco
Residence: Walnut Creek
Education: Mt. Diablo High School, Concord
Family: Wife of 30 years, Jacquie, sons Dante and Dominic, daughter Nina and grandson Scotty.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ROCCO BIALE
- His family has a home in Sassello, Italy, passed down through the family for more than 400 years. It still has the original floor.
- He has been playing competitive bocce with his sons for 18 years
- In what little spare time he has, he makes furniture in his wood shop
- Biale lived in a hotel in Waikiki with his brother for three years while working at Rudy’s Italian Restaurant, owned by his uncle, Rudy Biale
- Every November, he runs a local trivia contest with 200-plus contestants
Source: Thanks https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/02/23/qa-his-names-on-the-menu-but-this-walnut-creek-restaurant-owner-might-bus-your-table-or-carry-out-your-pie/