A look at Bella’s systematic opening process

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Good things come in threes: Bella’s chef Austin Robbins (top left), general manager Justin Heilbrun-Toft (top right) and owner Douglas Muir (center) make up the team at West Main’s newest Italian eatery. (Photo by John Robinson)

Opening a restaurant is always risky business. In a slouchy economy like this, it’s downright ballsy. Nearly 60 percent of restaurants close within five years of opening, while the survivors get an annual slice of the state’s $12.8 billion sales pie. That’s a dangling carrot that Douglas Muir, who opened Bella’s Restaurant on West Main Street this past weekend, couldn’t resist.

The retired airline captain-turned-private equity business builder had a taste of restaurant success back in 2000, when he opened the first Wild Wing Café franchise (there are now 30) in the Amtrak station. Muir sold two years later and never thought he’d get back into the restaurant business until an underfed, overpaid experience at an unnamed Italian restaurant led him and his Italian-born wife, Valeria Bisenti, to conjure up a concept based on their favorite restaurants in Rome.

In no time, Muir had a 58-page business plan for Bella’s (Valeria’s nickname), an authentic Roman-Italian family-style restaurant, and just the go-getter in mind to run it. Justin Heilbrun-Toft, a Charlotesville native who’s tended bar at the X-Lounge and managed The Biltmore Grill and West Main Restaurant, had met Muir through mutual friends years ago and instantly accepted his offer to be Bella’s GM and a fellow partner. Muir’s counting the years until he cashes in his social security (five), so he knows that while his business expertise and inventory control systems are crucial to Bella’s initial success, its endurance depends on whom he calls the “young and hungry” —namely Heilbrun-Toft and his high school buddy and fellow X-Lounge alum Austin Robbins, who’s Bella’s opening chef and another partner.

So what’s the first thing the young and hungry do when opening a restaurant? They use social media to document each step of the process, to do gift card giveaways, and to take reservations for this opening week. Technology serves them well too, with an iPad point of sale behind the bar and an iTouch for each server to take orders and run credit cards. Pandora’s Frank Sinatra channel sets a commercial-free mood.

The team made fast work of sprucing up 707 W. Main St. and turning it into a 62-seat space that exorcised its ghosts of restaurants past (Blue Ridge Brewery, Starr Hill Brewery, Si Tapas, and Penne Lane). They exposed brick, painted the tin ceiling copper, opened up the kitchen, and constructed a Soprano booth for eight. Walls got swiped with mustard and pumpkin-colored paints, chandeliers were electrified, heavy burgundy drapes were hung, and old black-and-white photos of Valeria’s family lined the walls.

But since “perfect food and perfect service” is Bella’s mission statement, a good deal of time and capital went toward methodically testing the menu. They went straight to the source: Valeria’s parents (a.k.a. Mamma and Pappa) arrived from Rome in early February and cooked every day for weeks with Robbins until he was ready to tackle Mamma’s bolognese on his own. They got the kitchen up to snuff, placed food orders, and hosted two weeks of multi-coursed taste testing evenings amidst sawdust and wet paint. After spending $5,000 and getting fine-tuned feedback on each dish, Mamma and Pappa sat back proud and full.

For that second piece to the perfection puzzle, Heilbrun-Toft conducted a three-day service training for his servers, stressing communication both among the staff and with the patrons.
Muir promises five-star service with two-star prices and “gigantic portions” at Bella’s. Each dish, from pasta alla carbonara to the zuppa di pesce, can be ordered as a family portion or a half portion, but even the half portion ought to be enough to feed you for lunch the next day. In fact, a big part of Bella’s branding and repeat business will be that carry-out bag in your fridge bearing Bella’s black-and-white sticker. A bare bones wine list (there are two sparklers, five whites, and five reds) seem an afterthought to the food, but a full bar promises old-school cocktails for the Rat Packers.

Lunch and dinner’s served seven days a week with later hours Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights when they hope to host live jazz. Mondays, on the other hand, will be reserved for meatballs.

Muir believes their biggest challenge at Bella’s will be handling all the traffic and he’s already dreaming of opening multiple locations across the state. For now, Charlottesville’s got a place serving up big meatballs sauced in tradition with a side order of business acumen and a sprinkle of technology.

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