By Tina Irgang
When Robyn Santiago started working at Hartsdale, NY’s Villaggio Italiano restaurant as a bartender in her early 20s, she never knew the experience would change her life. Santiago met her future husband, Danny, at Villaggio, and in 2015, the two bought the 30-year community fixture from its original owners. Here, Santiago shares how the two have made their mark on Villaggio, and how they keep their work and home lives separate.
How did you and Danny come to work at Villaggio, and how did you meet?
Santiago: I started at Villaggio as a bartender when I was 22, and it was just a part-time job for me. I met Danny when I was working there around that time. He was a waiter. I worked at Villaggio for about a year, and then I left to move to Hawaii for four years. When I moved back to New Jersey, I went back to Villaggio to see if they needed a waitress or bartender. The owner at the time said, “Talk to Danny, he’s running the schedule. If he needs help and hires you, great, otherwise I’ll call if I need you.” I spoke to Danny and he hired me as a waitress, just working nights. So I worked there while I was starting my PR business, for about five-and-a-half years. I got my business off the ground, and a year and a half into it is when Danny and I started dating. Fast forward, Danny and I have been together for 10 years.
When and why did you decide to buy the restaurant?
Santiago: The owners [of Villaggio] had owned the restaurant for 38 years and Danny had worked there for 27 of them. We both had very good relationships with the owners, like everybody who works here. We’re all family at this point because we’ve all worked together so long — everybody has been there 15 to 35 years. … So when we were speaking to the owners, we knew they were getting tired as far as running the business. They were looking to retire. We spoke to them and said, “Before you decide to put it on the market, we’d love to be able to talk about it first.” And that’s exactly what they did. The husband came to me and Danny and said he’s getting ready to sell. We talked to him about pricing and all that, and I don’t know how we were able to figure it out, but Sept. 15, 2015 is when we closed on the restaurant.
Since Villaggio was an established restaurant already, how did you make sure there was continuity when you took over?
Santiago: When we bought it, we didn’t say anything. We didn’t do any type of grand re-opening or anything like that. We spoke to all the staff, the day that we signed papers, and we told them what was happening and wanted to make sure everyone wanted to stay with us. Every single employee stayed. Little by little, our customers started to find out the previous owners retired, and I think the customers that have been coming into the restaurant, their parents used to bring them in, and now they’re coming in with their kids. So we [already have] relationships with practically all the customers that come into the restaurant. Once people started to find out that the previous owners retired, everybody was so supportive, almost as if they started to come in even more. It’s like a dream, knowing where my husband started in the business and that this is how we met. It’s like our little love story, as corny as that may sound. I think people respected that we worked so hard to get to where we are. Business has definitely increased — I would say at least 15 to 20 percent since taking over the business. The transition was really smooth and I think the best thing we did was not announce it, because I think there are still people who don’t know.
What’s been the biggest challenge about becoming restaurant owners?
Santiago: A lot of the staff practically grew up with my husband, so the transition from being friends and co-workers to being their boss was a little bit difficult for him … putting on an owner’s hat, as opposed to speaking to the staff like co-workers. Other than that, my husband and I have really gone above and beyond to embrace all the staff. I think the previous owners, this was their business —
they ran it and they went home. I understand that, but what we do differently is, at the end of a shift, on a Saturday night, we have everyone come and have a beer with us. On their birthdays, we invite their families in. They spend most of their time at the restaurant, as opposed to a 9-to-5 job, so their birthdays we all celebrate together just to make everybody feel more connected.
Running a business together as spouses, how do you make sure you don’t bring work home?
Santiago: Sundays have always been our day that we spend with our family. We had a conversation prior to buying the restaurant, and we said that for this to work, we still need to have this one day to spend with the family and my husband’s kids, who live with us. Otherwise, we’ll lose sight of what made us who we are, which is our family. We’ve said to our daughters — and we’ve said to each other — that if something goes on at work, it needs to be handled without emotion, without any attachment. We can’t involve our feelings in it just because we’re family. We’ve been impressively good about following through with that. There’s definitely trials and tribulations and stress that go along with running a business together, and it’s nice that we’ve both stuck to what we agreed on originally, which is keeping work separate from family.
Are you hoping your daughters will take over ownership of the restaurant?
Santiago: We were hoping one of them would be interested, but it doesn’t look like that’s the case, and that’s OK for us. It’s similar to the family that sold the restaurant to us — they had three kids and none of them were interested in going into the restaurant industry, which is why we were able to take on such a great opportunity. So if both our daughters aren’t interested, maybe someone else will be as fortunate as we were.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.