Tucked away in the back corner of a Lincolnshire strip mall that has yet to reach its potential is a little piece of Italy. Bontà Italian Deli & Wine Shop at 430 Milwaukee Avenue, about a block north of Route 22, opened its doors in the spring of 2011 and has attracted a loyal following of locals and far-flung foodies who don’t mind traveling many miles for a slice of authentic Italian cuisine.
“Bontà means overall good quality, deliciousness and can even describe a good personality,” said Antonella Granito, whose own Bontà personality sets the tone for hungry customers at the business she and husband, Nunzio Bottiglieri co-own and manage. Working 70-hour weeks or more is not uncommon for the couple who also balance their time as mom and dad to their 10- and-14-year-old children at home. With help from a small staff of full-time employees at Bontà, they continue growing their unique business – one small step at a time.
On a recent Tuesday evening as customers enjoyed entrées served on gleaming white table plates, I sat down with Granito during some rare free moments between cooking and greeting customers to get the full scoop on what it’s been like to open and grow a business in Lincolnshire. Full disclosure – we both graduated from Maine East High School in Park Ridge and her sister was a classmate of mine.
In addition to welcoming people throughout the day, Bontà also generates business opportunities and word-of-mouth awareness through deliveries, offering catering for school, corporate and social events, hosting monthly wine tastings and even setting up at area businesses as a “pop-up restaurant” for employees. When looking at everything though, Granito says her steady lunch service for regulars and first-timers really makes the difference.
“We have a really loyal lunch crowd of people working around here and our neighbors have really been great. We’ve also done some advertising and been asked to be at local events,” she said.
Granito says she also greets regular customers from Evanston, Glenview and one very loyal patron who drives from west suburban Naperville. But drawing attention has also posed complications and a few surprises, starting with something as simple as a store sign.
With her storefront facing Olde Half Day Road and away from heavily-traveled Milwaukee Avenue, Granito says it’s tough to get people to notice where Bontà is because it’s set back from the street and basically hidden from drivers. She has not been able to persuade the strip mall to add her store signage with those grouped with her other shopping center neighbors and says Lincolnshire’s rules for business signage make it tough to post a permanent sign along the Milwaukee Ave side of the mall. Granito came up with a “colorful” solution to offset her “disadvantage point” by parking the highly-visible, Italian flag-painted “Bontàmobile” car on the busy side of her mall’s parking lot.
“A lot of people don’t even know we’re here,” she said. “Even if I’m running a special, it (a temporary sign) has to be approved and you’re only allowed a certain number of days or weeks. If the signage rules were loosened up a bit, that would help. A business with no sign is a sign of no business!”
Schedules and staffing can also be tricky, especially when requests come in for Bontà to set up for an entire day or more at local festivals. Sometimes Granito says she finds herself torn between the opportunity to be at a big event or keeping her business open because there aren’t enough people to do everything. She says those decisions are tough, but easy – the primary business comes first.
Another challenge is covering the costs of being an approved provider of products containing alcohol. Granito explained that because her business sells alcohol and also serves wine by the glass, she must obtain a retail liquor license and a separate serving license from the police department – not just one liquor license to cover all sales. It may not be a big expense for a restaurant that’s regularly packed, but a different story for a small business looking to carve its own niche.
“On top of the licenses, we also need insurance just to cover alcohol and we have to sell a lot of wine to cover all our fees,” said Granito. “I got questioned once about why we charge a corking fee to open a bottle of wine and found it tough to explain all the steps involved just to provide that service.”
One nice surprise has been the mostly positive ratings Bontà has received from online restaurant review sites, such as Yelp. Granito says she’s met many out-of-town travelers staying in nearby hotels who discovered her place through online restaurant reviews. As we were talking, Granito waived goodbye to a family from Texas that had just finished up dinner and was heading out.
She also says it’s very rewarding when Lincolnshire village trustees and other officials stop in or when she gets calls from local organizations with food orders. Granito loves the fact that prominent community members choose to support her business and says she’d like to see a few more restaurants open up in the strip mall and in the neighborhood to create more of a buzz for people to walk around and check out the area. That could happen soon if something new replaces the tall grass now growing in a vacant patch of land she often notices across Milwaukee Avenue that’s next to a new Dunkin’ Donuts. Granito says some of her customers who live in condominiums behind the yet-to-be developed area admit they’d make more trips over if they could walk straight through instead of going around the field.
On top of all the challenges of running her business, there’s one important thing this mother of two would like people to know that’s not so easy to convey through advertising – you get what you pay for. Granito explained with pride that all the food sold at Bontà is made on site with fresh ingredients, even the soup. So when a discussion about price comparisons with chain restaurants comes up, she is more than happy to describe the care and quality that goes into each dish, in detail.
“People who know what they want and know what they like are going to come here,” Granito added. “We don’t get our stuff delivered in a frozen tub that offers a three-month shelf life. So if we raise prices by 50 cents or a dollar, I can tell you every single ingredient in what we make. There’s attention to detail in our food; we take a lot of pride in what we do and what we serve.”
Eric Scott is a Pioneer Press community contributor and former TV newscast producer now working in corporate communications. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Lincolnshire Lightning Travel Soccer Club and on the Stevenson High School Foundation’s Communications Committee. Interested in writing or blogging for the Pioneer Press? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions also can be made here.
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