Freshly graduated from Miami University with a marketing degree, Natale and his friend and future business partner Ryan Napier were vacationing in Las Vegas. Late one night, Napier was attempting to pull Natale away from the blackjack table to go get something to eat.
“For some reason, I said, ‘How cool would it be if we could go eat Thanksgiving dinner right here and now?’ ” Natale recalled. “Literally four months later, we were open for business (at TGD365).”
TGD365 was an abbreviation for Thanksgiving Dinner 365 days a year. Open since November 2010, the comfort-food emporium at 3897 Everhard Road NW in Jackson Township recently underwent a name change—to the more descriptive American Oven Homestyle Kitchen—plus a major renovation and a menu expansion.
In February of this year, Natale and Napier launched their second restaurant venture, Mata Mediterranean Grill at 7214 Fulton Drive NW in Jackson Township.
Here, Natale, 28, talks about his bumpy start in the restaurant business and how it has led to success and growth.
Q. You were 22 years old when you opened your first restaurant. Would you say that was a pretty bold undertaking?
A. “Absolutely. I had zero restaurant experience, and the extent of my cooking knowledge was Chef Boyardee late at night in my fraternity house. I was advised by pretty much everybody that this is the toughest industry, and you’re not going to make it. Five years later, we’ve definitely had the last laugh because we’re still around and doing well. But I’d be lying if I said it was easy. It was unimaginably challenging. Ryan and I probably made every mistake in the history of restaurants and probably some new ones, too.”
Q. What were your bigger mistakes?
A. “From a marketing standpoint, all we did initially was coupons, which definitely gets people in the door but then they will only come in when they have a coupon in hand. We learned it’s not just about having good food all the time. There’s things like food costs, hiring and managing people, cleanliness. Very early on, we expanded to a second location on the Miami (University) campus that closed within a year. We lost a lot of money and found ourselves in a huge hole.”
Q. How did you overcome that?
A. “Over the years, we’ve grown a huge base of customers, and it’s been great. The plaza (on Everhard) has been a war zone for three years. First, the hotel (Staybridge Suites) was being built, then it was torn up for the redevelopment of the plaza. People were driving over potholes, doing anything to get our food. Sales are good.”
Q. What can you tell me about the food at American Oven?
A. “American Oven specializes in authentic homestyle cuisine, the classic dishes that mom and grandma made at the holidays, all using real fresh ingredients—slow-roasted turkey, roast beef, hand-carved honey ham, meatloaf, baked chicken, sauerkraut and pork, barbecued beef sandwiches. For sides, there’s mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, green beans, corn, glazed carrots, dressing, noodles, cranberry sauce, baked beans and what I believe is the best mac and cheese around. We make our own cheese sauce from real cheese.”
Q. What led you to opening Mata Mediterranean Grill?
A. “Our head chef (Sherry Foresha) at American Oven used to work at a restaurant that had similar cuisine to Mata, and once a month, she’d make a meal of that food for Ryan and I. Then I stumbled on an article in Entrepreneur magazine talking about Mediterranean cuisine being the hot new food frontier. We thought, why not get another horse in the race? It took us about a year from our first conversation (about Mata) to opening.”
Q. Is it true you have no freezer at Mata?
A. “Yes, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another restaurant without one. It’s a commitment to fresh and healthy and not taking shortcuts. I get deliveries three or four times a week, and everything is delivered raw. The meat is trimmed and marinated in-house, then grilled to order. We hand-squeeze lemons, we roast garlic every morning. Hummus is made fresh multiple times daily. We don’t believe in processed foods. It’s not how I grew up, and I don’t want to put it in my mouth.”
Q. What’s next for you?
A. “I have no reason to think we won’t expand both concepts (American Oven and Mata). How many, I don’t know. But I firmly intend on maintaining the integrity of how we prepare the foods.”