From Colorado to Hawaii to Napa to Buffalo, the soft spoken Dino DeBell has walked the walk in each and every role that he has been in. Raised in kitchens, mentored by the best, and ground to the bone by the ins and outs of the industry, yet he’s still in love with it.
When asked why?
Through all the hot hours in all of the kitchens, all of the long nights away from family, all of the uncertainty in a business that is known for a low success level, and now a freaking pandemic? He just leans back and says, “I dunno, I just love to feed people.”
I sat down with Dino in his new beer garden at Allen Burger Venture (ABV). The new allowance of space by the State and SLA have granted restaurants an opportunity to expand their seating outside. Dino took full advantage, creating a beautiful terraced setting perfect for a burger and a beer on a hot day.
ABV is one of few restaurants that seems to have weathered the storm during the quarantine thus far. A quick menu overhaul and an overnight switch to pick-up service kept their doors open at first, but the ingenuity, intensely hard working staff, and customer loyalty that only Buffalo could provide during all this, carried them through.
Let’s start from the beginning.
No, Im from Denver, Colorado. You know, I’ve always loved cooking, I always had cookbooks around ever since I was five – I remember looking though them with my mom and grandma and just really being drawn to the idea of making something that we could eat.
My father had a restaurant and my uncle had a specialty food market which became a wholesale company, so I was working for both. I was able to learn the ins and outs of how a mom and pop restaurant works as well as delivering food for my uncle. I remember delivering olive oils, cheeses, and salamis to all of these different kitchens and just being fascinated. How they were set up, what equipment they used, all of the different styles really caught my eye.
When I was 19 my family sold their restaurant and my cousin was a chef in Vail Colorado, so I moved up there to work under him. He sort of took me on as his project. For 25 hours a week I would work off the books under him and the rest of the time I would work the salad and dessert station doing my part. But he is the one who gave me the opportunity to excel and really learn the beginnings of what it meant to be a chef.
So, you’re in Colorado cutting your teeth, what projected you into a management/ownership role?
Well, that was a ways down the road.
I started moving up by taking on management roles. First managing the breakfast team, then breakfast and lunch, then banquets and so on.
I was working for Jim Cohen, coincidently a chef from Buffalo, and he started giving me the tools I needed to move up. In fact when I told him I wanted to go to school, he said “No, you’re gonna stay here and learn from me, your goal is to have my job.”
So that’s what I did. At 21, I made sous chef status and did the managing, and learned a lot about what it meant to be in those different roles, and after a couple of years, I got the opportunity to work for Michael Chiarello in Napa.
Wow, that’s a crazy opportunity.
That was an intense learning experience. To be 24 years old and working under someone of his status was really an eye opener for me, but the funny thing is, as much as I learned about food and cooking and prep and all that from him, the one thing that he taught me the most about the industry is what a human body is physically capable of – working 70-80 hours a week getting paid $8/hour and only getting paid for 40 of those hours… that is the drive. You have to really want it. So you either have to earn it or you’re going to go home with your tail between your legs. I wasn’t going to do that.
Ok ok, so you’re busting your tail all over… how did you land in Buffalo?
After a couple of years in Napa I became Michael’s number two guy and decided I had proven to myself what I was capable of, so I headed home to Colorado.
When I was back, my old chef, Jim Cohen was offered the executive chef spot at the Phoenician in Scottsdale. So they asked me to fill his spot as executive chef at the Lodge of Vail Orient Express Hotel at 25 years old. I took that opportunity and ran with it. Unfortunately the company ended up selling to a ski company and they economized the hotel. They weren’t looking for the kind of quality that I was used to putting out – they wanted to fill the beds and make their money on the slopes, they didn’t care much about the food and beverage end… so I quit.
But, Jim Cohen was looking back at Buffalo. He put together a consulting team to open up Park Lane and asked me to come on. So, I packed my bags for Buffalo.
Now, this was only supposed to be a six month project. We were going to set up the restaurant train the staff, and then move on to Miami where there was another project waiting for us.
But financial woes and set backs kept us there for two years – I ended up settling in, getting married, and had my daughter Lena here in Buffalo… By the way, she’s in the kitchen right now [proud smile].
What did you think of the food industry in Buffalo at the time?
You know, almost immediately I noticed that there was a loyalty here. I felt that our food at Park Lane was some of the highest quality in town but people stuck to what they loved… the Hutch’s and Biac’s World Bistro’s – places that they knew the staff and owners and such. That’s Buffalo.
I figured if I was going to be in Buffalo, I had to become Buffalonian – I had to earn that kind of loyalty… so I went to the best.
I started working with Hutch in 2002, and we ended up opening Hutch’s Belvedere, from there I worked at Toro for three years, Tempo for two years and split that time between Tempo and Hutch’s.
This is where I started to lose my drive in the industry. I had done all the in-house roles, ran myself down, and was not making the money I needed to give my daughter the life she deserved… really I was just ready to leave it all.
That’s when I met Shatzel.
Mike Shatzel was working and running Cole’s at the time and offered me a spot to come in and consult and chef… I pretty much told him, OK, if we do this, then in a year we are going to start opening restaurants… and that’s what we did.
You and Shatzel went on to work together on several restaurants in Buffalo, which became sort of a resurgence of the Buffalo restaurant scene. The last of which was this one, ABV. How did you land on this concept.
[Laughs] Well I said, “Mike, what do you want to do?” He said, “I wanna do burgers.” I laughed and looked at him in disbelief – “Mike, I can cook fuckin’ anything, you want me to cook burgers?!”
‘Just hear me out,’ he asserted.
And, that was it. We went all in on an age old concept and gave it new life with the attention to detail that it deserved.
I literally spent a year going back and looking at every classic steak dish from any country or city that was known for their steak, and tried to make that into hand held burgers. We made sure the beef was grass fed, and the kicker was the bun, I was able to solidify a deal with Tom Cat Bakery in New Jersey and Latina’s Food that gave us exclusivity to a custom bun. I told them I want the crispy crust of a baguette, but the internal fluffiness of a ciabatta.
In the end it was all about taking a simple idea and making it as precisely perfect as possible.
Well, clearly it works… Ok, everyone wants to know the status of the restaurant industry during these difficult times. You have been able to maintain and even excel in a time where a lot of restaurants closed their doors and a lot of patrons weren’t able to get their favorite food. What was the first thing that went through your mind when they said you would have to shut down?
‘Im going to work.’
Honestly, I didn’t want to close down and re-open a restaurant when we had no idea what it was or how long it was going to last.
One thing that I was sure of was that whenever we came out of this, how we handled it will be our reputation.
We simplified the menu, got rid of the burgers that required a lot of prep time and cost. I knew that a lot of people were going to go on unemployment, so we wanted to make it more affordable for our patrons. So I dropped the burgers from an 8oz to a 5oz went a la carte, and almost cut the price in half.
Also the efficiency was a huge factor, I think our blueprint leant itself to efficiency anyway, so we were lucky in a way that while other restaurants had to learn how to crank out their product in a safe, cost efficient way, we were already set up for that and just had to make a few tweaks to make it work.
I think our customers noticed that immediately. They could come get the burgers they love, and it would be the same quality, fast and safe.
What was it like for the staff working through this uncertain time?
It was a grind. We weren’t sure what to expect, so we just started with four of us. But almost immediately business was picking up, so one by one I started hiring back my staff.
And, they are rockstars.
We were doing 14 hour days and they came to work… it was almost like we were all looking at each other like ‘I’m not going to be the one to complain… Im not going to be the one to give up.’ It wasn’t about ‘that’s not my job.‘ Everyone was doing everything; we had front of the house doing dishes, we had back of the house rehabbing tables, everyone was doing their part just to keep us afloat.
At the end of the day, this is their restaurant and they really showed me what that meant.
When you look at the restaurant industry right now, what do you see happening in the next year?
I think about this question a lot. Honestly I’m not sure. I think that it’s going to be long recovery, I think we are going to see a lot of good places close down. If you didn’t keep your momentum, you lost a lot of momentum… and that’s scary to me.
Or you closed and you lost half your staff… then you re-opened and you’re struggling to get back afloat. People don’t realize, our margins in the restaurant industry are tough at 100% capacity… 50% capacity is not really sustainable, especially if you are starting over.
I don’t know, I think we are going to see a lot places go under, unfortunately.
Well, they certainly already did. By allowing us to open up patios and expand without having to go through permitting in such a short time. That was huge.
Letting us use the sidewalks and parking lots really made a difference, to where we could be able to seat more customers at a safe distance, I mean it really helped out a lot of places.
And I think going forward if they look at the cause and effects of having these new spaces available for business, I think they will find that there is a safe way to take advantage of the space that will help the businesses have a better safer experience.
So earlier, you said that you needed to earn Buffalo’s loyalty… do you feel Buffalonian yet?
Ha, honestly the community is something special. Not just the customers, but the restaurant industry here, it’s like a big family. We all know each other, people like Nick Pitillo (Osteria166), Brianna over at Breezy (Breezy Burrito), honestly we all are here to help each other out. These are tough times and the fact that we are all sticking together and not trying to cut each other down – there are not many industries like that, and not many places like that, there is something special here.
Well, we are certainly happy to have you. Thank you for all that you do, we need you guys right now.
When I first walked in to interview Dino, I sat with the ABV’s general manager Mo, and I asked “how’d you guys do it?”
“It was him (Dino) – he came in every single day, put in all the hours, in the kitchen, with the staff, doing dishes… what other owner do you know that does that?”