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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 18,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Momos: Good Food, Better Business

Nova Terra, the Latin-tinged Mediterranean restaurant

of brothers Carlo and Raoul Momo in New Brunswick opens its doors

to the public on Saturday, October 21, and that’s news. Refreshing

news.

But it’s not the real story. The real story is that by tethering good

business judgment to their love of good food the brothers now command

16 eating places. After 18 years in business, their company, T2

Ventures

encompasses Teresa’s, Pizza Colore, Mediterra, the Witherspoon Bread

Co., and Nassau Bagel Co. in downtown Princeton, Momo’s Market Bakery

on Princeton-Hightstown Road in West Windsor, and the Winepress

on Route 27 in Kingston. In addition, they have links to enterprises

run by their siblings in Denver. What makes the Momos’ story notable

is not the value or variety of the T2 properties, but their vision

of the restaurant business.

With disciplined focus, the Momos survive in a field where failure

is more common than success and where financing is hard to come by.

Their attention to detail is bottomless and they spend most of their

waking time on the business. In fact, Raoul points to his long working

hours as the cause both for his divorce and for the low mileage on

his motorcycle.

Still, the Momo brothers see their properties as an investment only

in part. For them passion and sensuality are as important as business

acumen. They are sensitive to the esthetics of eating and they view

presenting food to the public as an affair of the heart. For them

the restaurant business is an art form.

We meet in the design office of T2 Ventures at 217 Nassau Street in

Princeton, a converted house. The entry is the former living room,

now virtually bare. A large front window lets in the light, creating

favorable conditions for a very large plant. A stainless steel rack

displays cutlery and china. That’s all. No seating space. No

receptionist.

The space implies, "Abandon pre-conceived ideas, all ye who enter

here."

Adjacent is a conference room where directors’ chairs, the color of

bitter chocolate, surround a similarly colored conference table. The

mantelpiece shares their stunning color. Centered on the table is

a large, stark rectangular glass vase filled with fresh, strikingly

dark flowers two feet tall. Off-white walls emphasize the visual

drama.

A second look reveals that the table is covered with Formica and that

the mantelpiece bears no fireplace. "We did this on a

shoestring,"

says Carlo. He introduces Leslie Dowling, the in-house architect and

interior-designer responsible not only for this building, but for

the design aspects of present and future T2 properties.

Her office, the former kitchen, contains the business machines and

archives that drive the conceptual life of T2 Ventures. T2’s

administrative

center on Route 27 in Kingston, with its staff of 25, takes care of

bookkeeping, payroll, and accounts for T2 Ventures’ 400 employees.

"Bigger companies than ours," says Carlo, "companies worth

a couple of hundred million dollars, have in-house architecture and

design. It’s expensive. But we considered the design element

important.

The restaurant business is not just food and service. There’s so much

competition, you need that extra third element. That’s why we have

the stainless rack with cutlery and dishes, and the carpeting samples

and the seating catalogs."

Carlo prefers that the design expert be a member of his team rather

than someone contracted for a particular project because of his

"frustration

with architects. You hire an architect," he says, "and an

ego thing is going on. You had your vision of the new restaurant,

but the architect has his own vision."

"There are sound fundamental business principles that you have

to adhere to in any business," Carlo says, "but it is flawed

to think that you can turn those principles into success in the

restaurant

business. It’s not true that all you need is sound management, and

knowing how to raise money. The restaurant business is about food,

service, and ambiance. It’s really entertainment. People want to feed

their eyes and ears. If you package that idea well, you have a

capacity

for a solid business and for staying in business."

"Banks run away from restaurants," he says. "We work with

a small bank, and have gotten pretty good results with them. But we’ve

been in business since 1982 and we’re just now getting the credit

we need to continue to expand." Touching on the high rate of

restaurant

failures he says, "I have yet to meet someone who has not thought

of opening restaurant." Carlo cites Princeton’s failed cybercafe

as an example of bad judgment for a restaurant startup. "Eating

is social. The computer is personal. You can’t socialize and be online

at the same time."

When Raoul arrives he cites the advice of his uncle, now an Italian

consul based in Brazil, "if a man doesn’t know which way he’s

going, no wind will be favorable." He quotes it in Italian,

savoring

the vowels. "Se un uomo non sa dove va, nesun vento sera

favorabile."

My uncle gave me that advice when my grandmother died in 1984. I wrote

it down on an old piece of paper. I still have it. My father lived

that with us."

"Our family has always gotten involved in things that are

tangible:

buildings, food, products, things you can manufacture, things you

can feel. Yesterday, I read in the Wall Street Journal that you don’t

need a building; all you need is a laptop. I really have my doubts

about that. I feel that people need direction and roots."

The Momos maximize their chances for favorable winds by mapping out

a course specified to the last detail. "If we find a space we

really like," says Carlo, "we put in a concept that we think

would best suit the space and the market. Basically, every detail

matters — what fork, which table service, which flowers, what

color tile, what color paint." Precise specifications extend also

to the ingredients. "We’ve `spec-ed’ out the food," he says.

"We specify exactly which tomato to use, what pasta, and what

kind of olive oil."

"We grew up in the business," says Carlo, 41, the oldest in

a family consisting of four brothers and one sister; Raoul, at 39,

is the third child. Their father, who started out as a blacksmith,

was born in Chile. Their mother, Teresa, is from Bergamo, in the north

of Italy. The parents met when their father was working in Cayenne,

French Guyana, for Teresa’s father, a contractor. Teresa was cooking

for the crew. After their father’s death in 1991, their mother

remained

in Chile. She owns a farm in Chile’s wine country and brokers wines.

The one that I tasted, a merlot with the La Serena label, was a rich

and complex potion.

After many years in the Bronx, the family moved to

Bergen

County when Carlo was 11 and their mother bought a

delicatessen/restaurant.

Raoul says, "We’re a bunch of poor kids from the Bronx. My Mom

bought the deli in Rockland because in Bergen they were three times

the price."

"We would spend every weekend and summer through school at Mom’s

place," says Carlo. "She had cheeses and meats and a steam

table. There was seating for 40. There was no service. Customers would

order at the counter, and then sit down."

"The kids decided to put in pizza," Carlo remembers. "Mom

had a big Blodgett bake oven where she did all her lasagnas. We

started

to do pizzas out of that on Fridays and Saturdays, but we could never

do volume; it baked too slowly. A real pizza oven has a stone that

retains heat for a long time. We just created a lot of work for

ourselves.

The Blodgett required constant stoking." It was never replaced.

"Mother loved the old oven. It was still her place."

Carlo graduated from Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s College, now a

university,

in 1981 with a major in international relations and economics and

began working for Alexander Proudfoot, a Scottish management

consulting

company. The company designed ways to increase efficiency in old

facilities.

"I was working at tube manufacturing factories without automation

in the U.K. All day long I counted how many tubes were not meeting

standards. I did time and motion studies to work out why different

workers were producing different amounts. It was incredibly

boring."

"There were bad vibes," he says. "You had to wear a white

shirt and a tie. Basically, you were spying on these guys. You knew

some of them would lose their jobs."

While Carlo was suffering in the U.K., Raoul was a

Rutgers’

junior, Class of ’83, studying agricultural economics. He discovered

an available store front on Easton Avenue in New Brunswick. As Carlo

tells the story, "when Raoul told me about it I was ready to

leave.

My idea was: we’ll put a couple of kids to work. The kids we put to

work were ourselves. We built everything. It looked like Mom’s place.

It wasn’t more than 1,000 square feet. Maybe 800."

The place was called Teresa’s II (named in honor of their mother’s

original restaurant). A contemporary photo shows a utilitarian deli

case in front of a home-made wall chart listing menu items. The deli

entered a second phase when it expanded into the adjacent store, put

in three dozen seats, and offered pizza. In 1992 a sit-down restaurant

down the street replaced the earlier deli/pizza. By then Carlo and

Raoul had opened other pizza shops.

"Pizza boomed in the ’80s and ’90s," Carlo says. "Part

of our plan was promoting our trademarks to their fullest potential.

We tried to franchise Pizza Colore and expanded out in Denver in 1990.

Being a small company, it was devastating to attempt national

expansion

without the resources. We were into hand-crafted things. It was

impossible

to compete with Domino’s and Pizza Hut. We got our heads handed to

us. We couldn’t copy their marketing concepts." They ended up

calling on their siblings, Venanzio, Caroline, and Anthony to take

over in Denver. Fortunately for their business and for their state

of mind, Carlo and Raoul live by the principle that if you fall down

you get up.

Abandoning the franchise business, they decided to concentrate

locally.

"The expansion of the Palmer Square Teresa’s," says Carlo,

"was a success, but there were a lot of losses along the way.

It was trial and error. We hear people say, `The Momos: everything

they touch is gold.’ It’s not true."

Rather than an innate capacity for success, the Momos have an innate

capacity for turning their failures into self-knowledge. "The

ineffectiveness of our franchise effort taught us that the game of

duplication is another game," Carlo says. "What we’ve been

able to do very well is determine what the market needs are and to

put in the concept." For instance, within a three block area in

Princeton, Pizza Colore has gourmet pizza for takeout and delivery

and Teresa’s is an Italian bistro, while Mediterra has fine dining

with Mediterranean cuisine and a tapas bar.

The brothers form a good team. "We’re very different," says

Carlo. "Raoul is more the bulldog — the lease negotiator.

He negotiates the contracts. I’m more on the wine side and gastronomy.

We complement each other. It’s hard to hire that partner that you

need." Yet, their philosophies overlap.

Without having heard what Carlo said, Raoul notes that "financial

skills alone won’t make a successful restaurant. We have a passion

for food. I couldn’t talk about putting in a furniture store. I just

don’t care about that. Perhaps we might get into the wine

business."

The brothers agree on their strategic long-term plan. As Carlo puts

it, "we want to control our destiny through control of real

estate.

We want to become a restaurant development company. For instance,

we bought the Wine Press and its property in Kingston. We also bought

a building with a liquor license down the street. We want to cluster

two restaurants with different concepts near each other. We think

Kingston is a quaint community, waiting for something like this."

The Momos consider a liquor license virtually essential for the

restaurant

business as they see it. "Not all our restaurants have liquor

licenses," says Raoul, "but we like to incorporate liquor

licenses in our full service restaurants. If people bring their own

bottle, it brings no revenue, and a restaurant can’t afford a good

staff. It matters for chefs, management, and even service. A great

waiter is not going to be in a BYOB restaurant; it affects 15 percent

of the tip."

"Getting a liquor license is primarily matter of money," says

Carlo. "The price in Princeton is obscene. But there’s always

a license owner who wants to sell. There’s one now available in

Princeton

for $3 million. Typically, the license owner will throw in the junky

building."

How do the Momos decide where to expand? "Deals come to us,"

they say. "Two or three a day. We have an antipathy toward strip

malls, but we look over whatever comes our way."

"We have life style dreams," Carlo says. "We’d like to

spend more time in Italy and in Chile. We’d like to travel. Our

passion

for food leads us back to our roots. Italy is blessed for good eating.

Chile has a Mediterranean climate and has potential."

Maybe both men will take their children along on their travels. In

any case, they’re devoted fathers. Raoul has two boys: Gianni, five;

and Luke, three. He spends his weekends with them. The boys don’t

like Domino’s pizza. "It’s amazing how they develop a palate at

a young age," Raoul says.

Carlo’s children are Alessandra, nine; Daniela, six; and Anthony,

17 months. A widower, his wife died of a ruptured aneurysm two days

after Anthony’s birth. "I think I got my life back together again,

thanks to the family and kids, and Leslie [T2 Ventures’

architect/interior

designer]. As hard as it sounds for that to happen to someone with

kids, it’s probably harder if you’re alone. The one thing about kids

is they make you live in the present. Especially a newborn. You can’t

feel sorry for yourself."

Just now Carlo and Raoul’s top priority project is the opening of

New Brunswick’s Nova Terra restaurant. A crescendo of dry runs,

training

sessions, and a family night precede the dress rehearsal on Friday,

October 20, when Nova Terra hosts a fund-raiser for the Child Health

Institute of New Jersey, the newest basic science research institute

at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick. Previous

T2 Ventures fund-raisers have benefited the Arts Council of Princeton,

and the Princeton Medical Center.

Here’s hoping Nova Terra is one of those enterprises that turns to

gold. Carlo and Raoul Momo, with their imagination, openness, and

resilience are just the kind of people whose success warms the heart.

— Elaine Strauss

also see www.princetoninfo.com/200010/01018p02.html

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