Some days, more than 15,000 people walk by the Bavaro’s restaurant inside Airside Terminal C at Tampa International Airport. Lots of them, of course, stop in for a taste of old-school, traditional Neapolitan pizza.
The airport location is the smallest of three Bavaro’s in the Tampa Bay area. Although it’s got the least amount of square footage, it generates the most revenue. Last year, Dan Bavaro says, the restaurant grossed $2 million.
Bavaro’s flagship location on Franklin Street in Tampa, and the St. Pete restaurant (945 Central Ave.), are much more expansive, with upscale interiors and seating. “I felt that we could be in between a regular New York pizza place and a steakhouse,” Bavaro, 39, explains. “That was the idea.”
With dough made daily from scratch, Bavaro’s pizzas are baked at 900 degrees, in wood-burning stoves hand-crafted in Italy (the airport location uses a gas stove, for legal reasons). “We brought the first traditional Neapolitan pizza to the State of Florida,” Bavaro says proudly. “And we were one of the first 12 in the United States that did it like they did back in the 1800s.”
The only things hotter than that oven – which’ll cook a pizza to perfection in 90 seconds – are Bavaro’s financials. The main Tampa store, the founder says, grossed around $1.2 million in 2017. The St. Pete outlet brought in $1.5 million.
And that, make no mistake, is a lot of dough.
There wasn’t really a business plan, ever. Bavaro, a native of Freehold, N.J,. had left school at 16 to work full-time for a catering service in Manhattan. From there, he started his own luxury car service company.
“We chauffeured some of the wealthiest bankers and most famous celebrities in the world,” he recalls. “People say that restaurants are the roughest business? Transportation is really difficult. The demand of that clientele – if you have bottled water available in the back seat, the labels must be facing the right direction. If they’re not, you’re getting a phone call. That’s 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.”
After 10 years, he’d had enough. He wanted to get back into the food business.
“There were only two true, traditional Neapolitan pizzerias in the country,” he recalls. “I honed in on that. Did my studies in Italy, made all the connections I needed to make.
“I developed and researched this concept for two years, so I could open it stress-free.”
But where to open? New York held too many memories, so Bavaro and his wife focused on Florida, and arrived in Tampa, their five kids in tow, at the tail end of 2008. “You can’t buy real estate in New York or New Jersey unless you’re a multi-millionaire.”
It took some convincing by the president of the downtown partnership – Franklin Street wasn’t nearly as “revitalized” as it would become – but they bought the storefront at No. 514 and opened for business.
“We came down here to spin pies in the unknown land, leaving all our family, everything,” Bavaro laughs. “Every dime we had went into that restaurant. The six of us moved into a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. Our fifth child was born in Florida, and the seven of us lived in that apartment for seven years. To get the brand off the ground.”
He was in the store himself, manning that brain-melting stove, every working hour of every day. “The first five years were hands-on, understanding every crack and crevice of this business,” Bavaro says. “So no one could walk in and tell me something that I don’t already know about my brand. So I could go in there and make anything on that menu with my eyes closed.”
Bavaro admits he’s not a “culinary” chef. “I just studied the craft of Neapolitan pizza,” he says.
But experts he brought in periodically, from Europe and the United States, helped him hone a variety of recipes that resonated with the public.
In 2012, Bavaro’s began selling its pasta sauce to retailers. Today, it’s in approximately 1,000 stores around the country.
“I stopped making pizza, and started training people to take my role. When the sauce line took off, I started traveling a lot. And so I thought ‘Look, if I’m going to step away from the oven, I’m going to just go big and see where this thing goes.’ That’s just how I am – it’s either all or nothing.”
It took a while to find a location in St. Pete that “felt right,” Bavaro reports. The Bavaros bought two neighboring business – a barber shop and a hair salon – and gutted both buildings, removing the wall that separated them to create one large space.
“Central wasn’t booming at the time. So I think, unintentionally, what our business model is to go into areas that haven’t gotten their upswing yet.”
Penciled in for a November opening is the newest Bavaro’s, at 27 Fletcher Ave. in Sarasota. The family bought – and pared back to the four walls – the 100-year-old building in old downtown, and their newest hand-made Italian stove has already been installed.
Without any business training, Dan Bavaro has become an entrepreneur to watch. His success, he believes, has been due mostly to hard work, dedication – and paying attention to the important stuff.
“We experienced a lot during the financial crisis,” he says. “I watched a lot of businesses close, and I saw maybe 90 percent of them change who they are. We never changed who we are, and we never will. In these 10 years, I’d say the one thing we’ve never done is veer off track.”
Not that selling an upscale pizza restaurant has been a fun-filled downhill slalom. Bavaro’s marketing stresses the historical aspects of Neapolitan pizza, how it’s made and what makes it different. “Pizza is probably the most debatable food there is,” he observes. “What everybody thinks of pizza is whatever they grew up with – New York, Chicago, frozen in their food store, to you know what. It’s unbelievable.
“So how do you tell someone to eat a pizza with a fork and knife, when they’re used to picking it up out of a box, and it stays flat? We fought that battle.”
Fought and won, as evidenced by the perpetual growth of his grassroots business.
Bavaro says he finally feels like a Floridian, too. “I’m one of the biggest promoters of Tampa Bay. It’s just so supportive. The people are different, the area’s great.
“And honestly, to be a part of multiple cities now, watching them grow, is probably the most amazing experience beyond the business itself.”