SOMETIMES NICE GUYS DO FINISH FIRST

Boston Restaurateur Nick Varano is a Prime Example

By Peter F. Stevens

Photographed by Eric Levin

Baseball great Leo “the Lip” Durocher famously uttered words that all too often embody the business world: “Nice guys finish last!” In the literally and figuratively carnivorous restaurant arena, Nick Varano is the antithesis of that harsh mantra. Varano is a testimony that major-leaguers in the business world can embody not only their successful brand, but can also remain genuinely nice guys. His legion of friends and loyal patrons know that Nick Varano is still the same giving, caring guy he has always been – long before he worked his proverbial tail off to become a restaurant mogul on the move.

Profiles about Varano have appeared numerous times on the printed page and online, and while most relate his charm, wit, and flair, they usually miss the most important aspect of Varano: his kindness, compassion, and generosity. It doesn’t matter whether one is famous or the humblest of people to Varano. Every guest is woven into his brand – Strega, Strip and his other successful restaurants – every bit as much as the drive and acumen that have and continue to propel his restaurants’ success in Boston and beyond.

Bostonians and out of towners in the know flock to Varano’s restaurants, from the original Strega, in the North End, to his glitzy Strega Waterfront and chic, elegant steakhouse Strip, in the heart of Back Bay. They also crowd Strega Prime, in Woburn, Nico wine bar in the North End, and Rina’s Pizzeria & Café.

No one has ever handed Varano anything in life; he earned his success. His parents immigrated to Boston from Calabria, Italy, in 1970. His parents divorced shortly, and his mother, who owned a beauty shop on Salem Street, imbued in her son both the value of hard work and treating people right. At the age of 12, Varano began to work at his uncle’s East Boston corner store. With his eye on the future and the style he loves, he saved up to buy a Corvette.

Recently, Varano sat down at Strega with Scene. The conversation ranged from his successful restaurants, his plans to expand his unique brand to other cities in the U.S., and most importantly, glimpses of the man who proves in both his professional and personal life that Leo Durocher was dead wrong about “nice guys” if you’re talking with Varano.

Scene: You took a gamble with Strega Seaport – you were one of the pioneers in assessing that the area was Boston’s next big thing.

Varano: Yeah, but I truly believed that the Seaport was the next big thing and that if we got there early, we could make the restaurant special simply by bringing the same ingredients – style, great cuisine, and most of all, our staff, who never forget that diners are our guests and must always feel special and welcome like a friend or family member.

Scene: Does it pose something of a balancing act to maintain your trademark customer service and cuisine without the brand morphing into something with a franchise feel?

Varano: To me, the key is to make sure that growth doesn’t somehow water down the experience that is our brand. Brand is so different from a “chain” approach. All of our restaurants are different in look and menu, but what I believe makes us special is our attention to all the details – the food must be perfect, the service warm and welcoming, the setting memorable. We want every diner to return because the meal is special, the staff is special, and the customer knows he or she truly is special to us. It doesn’t matter whether they’re at either Strega, Strip, or Nico’s – they are special to us. That’s non-negotiable.

Scene: As you explore expanding into such major and competitive sites as New York and Los Angeles, how will you translate such a locally stellar reputation in and around Boston to markets that are inherently different culturally?

Varano: You look at all the angles wherever you want to open – who your customers will be, demographics, and so forth. We bring new and fresh ideas for everything from design to the place settings. We design a menu that will excite diners with new choices, and also offer fresh takes on the traditional staples. At Strip, we’ve offered a high-end approach to the classic steakhouse and it has worked just beautifully. A lot of people didn’t believe we could open a steakhouse in Downtown Boston and make it work, but we have.

Scene: There’s no question that Strip’s become one of the city’s hottest spots, yet it still attracts a crowd of celebrities, athletes, movers and shakers, and the chic, in addition to neighborhood regulars and tourists.

Varano: That’s what I mean about the brand. It doesn’t mean the same food and exact same design at any of our restaurants. It means the same hospitality at all of our places. The essential ingredients are a great culinary experience, of course, and fantastic service. We make certain that we remember everyone’s name, just like the song from the television show Cheers! You can’t put a price on how much just that simple but important saying matters in our business.

Scene: So in many ways, the old adage that the customer’s always right is one of your principles.

Varano: That’s right. My mother taught me that in life, you should always remember people’s names and treat them as we all want to be treated – everyone does matter. In our restaurants, we do everything possible to make our guests feel that way. Sounds simple, but so many restaurants – even some great restaurants – don’t operate that way. The chef’s ego might matter more than anything. For me, that’s unacceptable. We have world-class chefs, some of the best in the business, but they all understand that it is the guests who matter most. We always go out of our way to try and accommodate our customers’ special requests. Any attitude by our staff – by me, too – is unacceptable behavior at our restaurants. I think it says a lot about us that much of our staff has been with us for a lot of years, some of them from the very start. I take great pride in that, but it says more about the quality of our staff than anything else.

Scene: Tell us more about how you accomplish the goal for the Varano Group to maintain a high level of customer service and experience even in restaurants with a different ambience.

Varano: Definitely. Strega in the North End has that classic Old World feel, while Strega Seaport takes that classic ambience up another notch. Strip takes that same concept to an entirely new level. Every one of my restaurants stands on its own, and I’m proud of that – but never so proud that we lose sight of the reason they’re successful. The reason can’t be said enough: it’s all about making the customer happy no matter who he or she is. We’re secondary – the customer comes first.

The Varano Group is dedicated to a one-on-one type of experience. We don’t ever want to feel like a chain. So many of our guests become friends, to the point where we even give them our cell-phone numbers. That’s one of the many things that set us apart from other restaurant groups and restaurant chains. We’re not a chain and never will be – all of our restaurants provide the Varano Group experience that is always there in our unique restaurants. No one restaurant is exactly the same as another, so no chain formula.

Scene: In less than fifteen years, your business has taken off in a tough economic and competitive climate.

Varano: I’m proud that in just over fourteen years, we’ve come a long way. That’s as true in the culinary aspect. We work to provide the best of the best in both our menu options and with the service of our staff. Our cuisine is outstanding and our team genuinely cares. It’s all about teamwork, and one of the first things I learned in this business is that great chefs alone don’t equal great restaurants. What good is a wonderful meal from a genius chef if the customer doesn’t feel appreciated? That customer won’t come back. At our restaurants, we want everyone to come back and we’re proud that most do. We always aim to provide James Beard-quality cuisine with Varano Group hospitality. We make sure that signature dishes are always available for customers, and we make everything from scratch. We work diligently to always say yes to our guests.

Scene: How important is travel to see what other new, as well as traditional, approaches to cuisine and ingredients are evolving?

Varano: Travel to see what others chefs are doing is really important. Whenever myself or our chefs travel to Italy, Las Vegas, L.A., or anywhere, we draw from everything new and great and identify any flaws we don’t want to emulate.

Scene: Many people have read about Nick Varano the restaurateur, raconteur, and entrepreneur, but what might the general public be surprised to learn about you?

Varano: Well, I love to play ping-pong and basketball. My kids are central in my life. They’re number one. I’m so proud of my son, who’s an investment banker in New York, and my daughter, who’s a broadcast-journalism intern at Sony.

Sports are a passion for me. I spend a lot of time at Fenway, Gillette Stadium, and the Garden – I’m a diehard fan of the Sox, Pats, and Bruins, but the Celts are tops for me. I’ve had the great fortune to meet and become good friends with a lot of the players over the years and front-office people, too. I’m blessed that so many of them, past and present, are regulars at our restaurants. One thing that any celebrity knows is that when he or she comes to one of my restaurants, we give them their privacy. Our other customers immediately see that and give them privacy, too. A win-win for all.

I don’t think a lot of people know that I’m a devoted sports memorabilia collector. My love of sports and my business has given me the chance to work with athletes and celebrities on a lot of great charities and foundations such as the David Ortiz Foundation, Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer, the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, the Isaiah Thomas Giving Foundation, Team Tom Brady for Best Buddies, and the Frates ALS Research & Support Fund for Pete Frates and his family. The Frates are one of the most courageous and remarkable families I’ve ever met. It’s beyond an honor to be associated with all of these and other causes. If you don’t give back to the community, what’s the point of success? If you can do something for someone else, do it!

Scene: To what do you attribute your success and was there someone who shaped it in key ways?

Varano: No one gets success without help from someone – friends and family. Some people like to think they did it all on their own, but I don’t believe that. I’ve been very fortunate and lucky – with help along the way. It all goes back to my mom, Rosetta. She was and is still my everything. As a kid, I saw her go to work seven days a week to provide for her family. She taught my heart. She taught me to be honorable and to treat people right. My mom was so caring – she was one of sixteen children and was always trying to make sure to not let anyone she knew go hungry.

My mom’s spirit lives in me and my three sisters, I believe, and in all my restaurants. I want to leave a legacy my mom and my family would be proud of.

As Nick Varano’s legacy unfolds, he proves that sometimes nice guys do finish first!