Butch Yamali, president of the Dover Group in Freeport, has built his business by buying places he loved as a kid, renovating them, and returning favorite recipes to their menus. At 14, he was working at his father's deli, Dover, in Manhattan.
He went on to work on an ice cream truck, making a $2,000 windfall his first day, and gradually invested his profits to buy a fleet of 50 trucks and launch Carnival Ice Cream. From there, he bought vending machines, catering halls and restaurants including The Sands on Lido Beach, Coral House in Baldwin, Maliblue Oyster Bar, Hudsons on the Mile, and the Malibu Shore Club.
Yamali, 52, purchased and restored the 75-year-old Peter's Clam Bar in Island Park after superstorm Sandy swamped it, and invited its original owners back to teach him how to make their famous recipes. "Peter and Anne Costalas, wonderful people, they're in their 80s. They physically went in the kitchen and showed me," he said.
Yamali said he has quadrupled his business in the past decade, and now also has event planning and day care businesses. He says good commerce is about becoming a regular family destination.
What is key to turning a business around?
Staff and caring about the details. You can't have rips in the chairs, you can't have wobbling tables, dirty air-conditioning vents, bathrooms that are dirty. Everything has to be exactly right because people are eating here.
What makes a successful menu?
Being fair and reasonable with the prices. If you feed a family with good food that's in the $20-and-below range, people will come with their families. If you can get families in your restaurant, you've hit a home run because they celebrate their birthdays, their communions, their anniversaries here.
What's new in catering?
Affordability. Today, people are getting married later in life, in their 30s, not their 20s. So, they're paying for the affair, not their parents or grandparents. They have a limited budget. And if we cater to their budget, we get the party.
You quadrupled your business since 2005. How did you manage to thrive during the recession?
People didn't go on vacation, they just stayed local. They went to the beach, they went to the local little restaurants, they had parties that were affordable.
How do you expect business to be this spring and summer?
I think this is going to be one of the best springs we've ever had because people have cabin fever. They've been stuck in their houses so long with the snow and bad weather. Can you imagine when it's 65 degrees? It's going to be crazy-busy.
When do your ice cream trucks start rolling?
If the weather ever gets better, we're ready to go. It has to be in the 60s for a good period of time. When the kids start playing ball and they are in the fields and people go to the playgrounds and on walks, that's when we do business.
You've turned many restaurants around after buying them. What do you look for when you buy a business?
I look for a place that I remember as a kid, because I grew up in Nassau County. I remember going for Cub Scout dinner at the Coral House, I remember going by Peter's with my parents for dinner. I remember going to the Malibu Beach Club when going to the beach. These were all great places. They just needed a little more attention; they needed to be resuscitated. . . just by cleaning it up and doing a little boost -- and bringing back the old recipes.
WHO: Butch Yamali, president of the Dover Group in Freeport
WHAT IT DOES: Catering and event planning, restaurants, vending, ice cream sales and distribution and day camp child care
EMPLOYEES: 225 full time, 565 part time
REVENUE: $28 million