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That's amore! Three Italians and an Italian-at-heart have blended their love of food and the gentrification of Upcountry Maui into an upscale eatery.

Steven Burgelin and his three partners have been scratching their heads over the schizophrenic character of Makawao since their arrival five years ago. Back then, the Upcountry town was still a sleepy crossroads where cowboys hitched horses at rundown storefronts and Dickie Tam Sing sold fish and repaired tires across the street from a struggling restaurant and a vacant deli. Despite the area's increasingly upscale population, there were few signs of the gentrification that would soon upgrade Makawao's tastes. Would the town be ready, the group wondered, for a gourmet Italian deli selling $5 salmon-and-caper sandwiches?

The colorful history of the restaurant next door, starting with Lahaina restaurant Bob Longhi's abortive attempt to open an upscale eatery in 1978, was cause for both hope and doubt. "The cowboys were using Longhi's place in their style, so there were frequent fights as part of the fun," explains Burgelin, who is originally from Italy. "After about one year, a guy rode his horse inside and Longhi said, 'That's enough for me.' When we arrived, the place was a drinking hall very much oriented to cowboys. Probably the timing was wrong, because by then there were almost no cowboys."

Casanova, the deli that Burgelin Stefano Segre, Francesca La Rue and Pantha Bochniak opened in December 1986, presaged the rapid transformation of Makawao into a collection of trendy art galleries and boutiques, among which even Dickie Tam Sing would open an herb-and-health-food counter above his fish store. With offerings of espresso and cappucino, stuffed zucchini and Italian sandwiches, Casanova catered to Upcountry's growing population of wealthy, cosmopolitan urban refugees. In four years, their appetite has proved strong enough to multiply six-fold--to $1.8 million--sales from the deli and the restaurant, which opened when the drinking hall folded in 1989.

Still mindful of the town's history, Casanova's owners hired four bouncers when they opened their restaurant to live entertainment and dancing last year but found they needed only one. "We are a mirror of the transition of Makawao and Upcountry," Burgelin says. "We have locals who come in to taste cappuccino because they don't know what it is. And the same cowboys that used to come into town to drink and fight now bring their wives and eat pasta."

Motley Crew. Turning cowboys on to pasta was no one's original career goal. Burgelin had burnt out on practicing criminal law in Milan, Segre was a journalist who had co-founded a Milanese radio station, and La Rue was a former graphic artist. The three were longtime friends who had met in high school in Milan, after which Burgelin and La Rue married and had a daughter. At various points, however, all abandoned their high-pressure careers as well as their native Italy, Burgelin and La Rue divorced, and the trio wandered separately through India, West Germany, Kenya, the Far East, New York, South Dakota and Arizona before reuniting at Burgelin's Marin County home in the late 1970s. They were sharing the house and waiting tables in San Francisco when they met Bochniak, a German ex-cinema actress raised in Italy, drew her into their circle and headed on a whim for Makawao.

To them, the Upcountry scenery looked just like Marin County--with a few exceptions. Despite an increasingly upscale population, Makawao still wore the character of its humble origins. The town began as a dusty crossroads where plantation hands, Upcountry locals and cowboys stopped for supplies, haircuts and gasoline. By the mid-1980s, it had fallen largely into neglect and taken on the appearance of a semi-deserted Gunsmoke set: Komoda Store and Bakery, Polli's Mexican restaurant, Kitada's Saimin Stand, Makawao Steakhouse and a boutique called Collections conducted business among empty storefronts. What cars passed through pulled up at rows of hitching posts studded with reflectors. "When we arrived we could still see cowboys from Haleakala Dairy, that grows cows for milk and gives milk to all Maui," Burgelin recalls. "That was not much long ago, but they were changing: less horses and more pickup trucks."

The quartet hungered for Italian cuisine and found irresistible the combination of a latent wealthy market and a vacant deli space for which landlord Longhi was willing to waive three months' rent. Pooling $29,000 in combined savings, they bought a cappucino machine, koa tables, fixtures and ingredients and began their entrepreneurial careers with 12- to 16-hour days spent cooking, painting, tiling and hammering. Their efforts culminated in a disappointing first-day performance of $250, or about $5 per partner per hour.

To their relief, word-of-mouth advertising and the dearth of upscale Upcountry eateries soon drew crowds to the 1,700-square-foot deli. "We saw an area with obvious real estate value and a very sharp upgrading in the kind of people that lived there, but no comparable service," Burgelin says. "What happened to the deli, besides the food catching on, was it became a hang-out place. People have business meetings here, and ladies meet and spend the day. The space is inadequate now."

With no way to expand the 30-seat deli, the partners convinced Segre's exporter-uncle in Italy to arrange two months' credit so Casanova could begin wholesaling imported olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes. Burgelin loaded these into his Nissan pickup along with Casanova-label espressor blended to their taste in Los Angeles and homemade pastas from the Makawao deli. He left the cooking to Bochniak and a newly hired chef, the counter to Segre and La Rue, and took his sales pitch to hotel chefs downcountry. "I said I got the best pasta--homemade ravioli, spinach linguine, black pasta made with squid ink or mushroom powder," he says. "I talked to chefs that don't care about the cost but care about quality." Before long, Casanova's wholesale clients included the Hyatt Regency, Marriott, Westin, Prince and Stouffer hotels on Maui, and the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani on the Big Island. That segment of Casanova's business has fixed the Upcountry operation on the local gourmet food map and boosted overall sales by more than 25 percent in 1988 to $550,000, itself nearly double first-year levels.

Shortly after, the entrepreneurs began coveting the struggling drinking hall next door. Known as Partners, it was a Detroit-based entity that catered to cowboys at a time when urban refugees and Upcountry professionals were crowding out Makawao's old paniolo flavor. Casanova's owners were convinced they could succeed in the 4,000-square-foot space with more sophisticated versions of the upscale Italian fare that was succeeding at their deli. "We were waiting for the moment," Burgelin recalls. "Nobody was giving credit to them, managers were changing. Our deli was packed and full, and every night it was empty next door. Finally one day the door was open and the place was abandoned. Aloha. We got the keys from Longhi the next day."

Longhi still held the 30-year lease on the building and had, since the failure of his Makawao outlet a decade earlier, watched the successive collapses of sublessors Piero's, The Tillerman, and now Partners. Each restaurant had struggled with the schizoid cowboy-gentry balance and lost, by miscalculating and chasing an upscale clientele in the paniolo era or vice versa. Now, having seen his building's other tenant turn a modest investment into revenues headed toward $1 million in under three years, Longhi was happy to turn over not only the keys, but the lease to the entire 15,000-square-foot property, including the parking lot, office space and several small rental units. By summer 1989, the four partners had become deli owners, wholesalers, landlords and property managers, and now, restaurant operators.

Country living. The pace, according to Burgelin, was "like riding a horse, because we change personalities from 8 in the morning to 1 a.m. In the day, the operation is deli, in the evening is restaurant, and after 9 p.m. it becomes a nightclub." The last evolved six months after the opening of Casanova's restaurant incarnation on a $300,000 investment, when the partners hit on the idea of a nightly entertainment schedule featuring reggae, jazz and rock to spread business throughout the week. Segre found himself phoning jazz artists whose discs he had spun in Milan, adn booked acts unprecedented for Upcountry, including Mick Taylor and Billy Preston.

The results outdid the partners' projections. Entertainment, Burgelin says, effected a partial reversal of traffic flows, drawing audiences from the downcountry and resort areas where Upcountry residents routinely drove for special shows. With dinner checks averaging $20-$25, nightly seatings running 50 percent above the anticipated 60-70, and an ambitious entertainment schedule that was making regulars out of young residents and Upcountry cowboys, Casanova's sales jumped to $1.1 million in 1989, $1.8 million by 1990 and were 15 percent higher through March than the same period last year.

An overwhelmed quartet divided the growing list of duties--Burgelin overseeing personnel and promotions, Segre coordinating entertainment, La Rue in charge of deli operations and Bochniak the Kitchen. But until they mastered the rhythms of their eclectic business sometime last year, says Burgelin, "We were looking at each other, asking, do we really want to do this? It takes so much to run a restaurant and 45 employees, and every day we have one or two of them sitting in our office telling us their problems."

In the meantime, broader problems in the town whose dramatic growth fueled Casanova's meteoric rise were becoming increasingly evident. The gentrification that swept Makawao in the late 1980s produced, in quick succession, at least five art galleries, five boutiques, two chiropractors, two acupuncturists, a children's non-plastic toy store and another yuppie eatery next to Tam Sing's herbal counter and fish store, turning the town into a crowded tourist attraction. While the business pleases merchants, increased traffic from Upcountry residents and tourists has clogged roadways behind the stop signs at the crossroads. Burgelin points out that many of the cars have little choice but to park in Casanova's 30-by-50-foot lot--the only one in town--and browsing tourists come up against the problem of no public restrooms.

For Casanova's partners, the issue of the changing townscape hits home in their own plans to renovate the facade of their 1930s-vintage building. As they see it, the question is how to preserve its weather-worn, paniolo-era aspect--a feature that tourists, who make up 20 percent of the clientele, find attractive--while upgrading it in keeping with the rest of Makawao. They are still mulling ideas. "The tourists tell me that in Maui they feel this is one of the authentic places where real people live, not like Kihei. That helps Casanova's business," says Burgelin. "We're very sensitive to the fact that what we change will change Makawao. We're doing our best to improve the rural aspect of the town--and still be funky, progressive and good-looking--without changing its character."
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Title Annotation:Casanova's Restaurant
Author:Taketa, Mari
Publication:Hawaii Business
Date:May 1, 1991
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