Local entrepreneur Douglas Muir was up against a tough sell. He wanted to start a new restaurant, but he was concerned his wife, whom everyone calls Bella, wouldn’t buy the idea.
Muir resorted to flattery. He promised to name the new spot in his wife’s honor. He promised to fly her mamma and papa in from Italy to spend several weeks stateside. He said he would use mamma’s recipes on the menu.
Presto. Bella’s family-style Italian restaurant was born.
Muir launched Bella’s on Charlottesville’s West Main Street in 2012. The concept, with large dishes meant to be shared by two or four people brought to the table and dished up by the diners themselves, did so well he decided to take it regional. He opened his second Bella’s, on Broad Street near Short Pump Town Center, three months ago. He’s now eyeing a three-store opening in the Northern Virginia/D.C. area by 2017.
While Muir admitted his expansion plans are “aggressive,” starting businesses is what he does. Since he stepped down from an 18-year career as a U.S. Airways pilot, he’s launched nine companies through his private equity group Muir and Associates. He’s become a sought after speaker and consultant for start-ups. He’s been brought on by UVA to teach classes on entrepreneurship.
Today, Muir and Associates manages Bella’s as part of a multi-company portfolio mostly focused on emerging technology and finance. In total, the group has more than 1,000 employees.
“Bella’s is probably the smallest company we have, but it is definitely the most fun,” Muir said. “It’s where my wife and I decompress.”
Muir is no stranger to the restaurant business. In 2001, he opened the first franchise of the Wild Wing Café in C’ville and held the business for nearly a decade before selling it to another owner who’s still running it today.
Several years after the sale of his wing joint, Muir felt the itch to get back into the food game after eating at a local Italian restaurant. “The bill came to about 280 bucks, and I was still hungry,” he said. The idea was to serve people big portions, sharable by two or four diners, at a fair price.
“It took off like a rocket,” Muir said.
Charlottesville, of course, was a fairly easy conquest with no comparable concept in place. But family-style Italian dining has been growing considerably since the launch of the first behemoth Buca di Beppo in 1993. Muir himself modeled his concept after Carmine’s, which has expanded from its roots in New York City to six locations stretching from coast to coast.
Can Bella’s find its niche among the nation’s reigning dons?
Muir thinks he’s done everything he can to position the concept for success. Before opening, he spent six weeks perfecting his menu. Using mamma’s recipes as his starting point, he served friends at a picnic table several times a week to collect feedback.
The result is a relatively concise list of classic antipastos, pastas, and entrées, rounded out by paninis on the lunch menu. It’s a menu that may not wow the modern foodie but certainly satisfies the craving for classic Italian comfort food like arancini, bruschetta, bolognese, and parmigiana. Plus, the portions are indeed huge for the price.
The food itself is possibly overshadowed by the atmosphere at the C’ville Bella’s, where the dining room is often full even for weekday lunches, and regulars are devoted to the scene. “The community they’ve built at that restaurant is pretty amazing,” said Jen Doleac, a UVA professor of Economics who’s a regular part of the Bella’s dinner crowd.
Muir said his Richmond location has gotten off to a solid, if not record-breaking, start. Going in, he knew opening during the summer would lead to smaller crowds, but that was in fact part of the plan.
“Opening up in the summer is not the best time, but instead of opening up to fanfare and crashing, people are leaving happy,” Muir said.
It’s another cagey strategy for a man that has managed to parlay an engineering degree and background as a pilot into entrepreneurial success and a simple MBA into an adjunct professorship at the University.
“I was blessed to get on with such a prestigious university,” Muir said. “All engineers are considered geeks. We come up with the ideas and then hire the start-ups. But I think I can teach entrepreneurship to these innovators.”
Family-style dining is no innovation. But if Bella’s keeps going the way it is, Muir—not to mention his wife—will probably forgive himself for getting back into the good old-fashioned restaurant business.