Mike Rastrelli and his four siblings grew up working in their parents’ restaurant. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he was drafted and served two years in the army as a cook. Today, Rastrelli continues to run the restaurant, which has grown to a 17,000-square-foot institution with about 65 employees. As a National Restaurant Association board member and Key Advocate, he urges restaurateurs to tell share their stories with lawmakers so they can better understand the industry, its make-up and its challenges. This week, he’ shared his story when Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) visited Rastrelli’s.
Making connections: Over the years, many policymakers -- members of Congress, state legislators and the governor – have been to our restaurant for Rotary meetings and community events. But they weren’t there to learn about my business. When I became chairman of the Iowa Restaurant Association, I finally decided to invite them out to my restaurant to meet my employees and hear my story.
Establishing introductions: We don’t tell our story well enough. Many policymakers see us all as executives making lots of money on the backs of our employees. They don’t understand the ripple effect government regulations have on our businesses. We have to do a better job of showing who we are, what we do, how we educate kids.
Gaining experience: In 1939, my parents opened the Revere Candy Shop, a typical Italian shop that sold fruit, homemade ice cream and candy. We all worked or would play around the store. After school, Mom would show us how to make change at the cash register. When I was 13, I started washing dishes by hand during the summer. In the fall, I was allowed to become a soda jerk and wash dishes -- a promotion. I remember that I really wanted to mop the floors when we closed because Dad would inspect to make sure that they were done correctly. And if you got the approval, that was a big deal.
Taste of success: Working with my dad was something I wanted to do from the time I tasted his candy and fresh ice cream that we would devour as it was being dispensed from the batch freezer. The staff would bring their glasses back, and I would fill them with the cold, smooth, creamy treat and enjoy watching them experience the brain freeze and sore tummy. My dad taught me to make the ice cream, and Rastrelli’s continued to make it until 1977.
Continuing the dream: I applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America after discovering a listing for it in a trade-school catalog. Deciding to come back to Clinton and work with my dad in the family business was a no brainer. We had a great relationship and a love of food. Our restaurant was small, but the food was fantastic and unique. We ground our own beef and sausage and made our own bread, sauces, syrups and fudge. It was a foodie paradise and a chance to grow a business that was my parents’ dream. It’s been that way ever since, and I have loved every minute.
Fatherly advice: When I was drafted, my dad, an immigrant from Italy, told me: “This country has been good to me and our family. Make sure you serve it well.” He died a month later. Before he died, he had incorporated the business and made us all stockholders. If he hadn’t done that, I’m not sure we would have made it through to today.
Getting involved: Rastrelli’s has been a member of the Iowa Restaurant Association since the 1950s. Around 2005, I got on the board, went to my first Public Affairs Conference and saw what the National Restaurant Association has been doing for the industry.
Strength in numbers: I had been active in my community, but now I’m more involved on the state and national side. Restaurateurs need to join their state associations, become involved and work together on political issues and all the good stuff we do, Restaurants are the social fabric of their communities.