We had the good fortune of connecting with Steve Fortunato and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Steve, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
I am a “lifer”. I’ve been working in the Hospitality Industry for 34 years. Like so many in the industry (especially on the service side), many of those years, I viewed service in hospitality as a “stop-over” to pay my bills while I pursued other careers. So much of my desire to graduate from the industry had to do with many of the norms that sadly, epitomize a hospitality job: long hours, low pay, working to build the profile of a chef, a lack of dignity, entitled customers, the monotony of tasks, and especially–the mediocrity of catering. I worked in fine dining restaurants, and at the time, that community saw catering as the orphaned step-child of our industry.
I realized there was an opportunity. The twin parasites of celebrity chef culture and social media has commoditized the timeless space of hosting, and turned occasions for invitation into opportunities for demonstration. And there was a wide gap between the fine dining experience and catering special occasions. I found that gap tragically ironic, since catered special occasions are once in a lifetime, and dinner out was well…just Thursday.
Like many entrepreneurs, I wanted to offer an alternative to accepted norms, but success seemed unlikely. I didn’t have investors, or a public platform, or experience in starting a business, much less running it and marketing it. Entrepreneurs are gifted in what they lack: the logic of why they are disqualified. So while being acutely aware of what I lacked, I looked at the opportunity, and the deeply held conviction that despite what I lacked–I had a vision of what I could offer. So I ran with it.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
We are entering our 15th year of business. The vision of why we exist has been there all along. But how to get there, how to communicate, inspire and mobilize that vision has been a work in progress. The first decade was all about survival-incrementally growing the revenue, then growing the operation to sustain the expansion, all while growing my own mindset as a CEO. As a California native and 30 year resident of LA, I’ve seen a lot of projects skyrocket then plummet. I found that companies rarely fail for a lack of talent. Usually companies fail due to a lack of Cash, a lack of Character in the leadership and lack of Cohesive Culture.
One of the hardest lessons to learn was that to build a company that stands the test of time–my greatest challenge would be to grow my own leadership. Leading a “mom and pop shop/ sole proprietorship” is very different than leading a company that has broken the $1m mark. And leading a company that has broken the $5m presents different challenges than leading a $1m company. Embracing lifelong learning has been critical for me.
What I’m most excited about is the clarity we have around our guiding principles–why we exist, where we are headed, and how we are going to get there. You could knock on our door, and ask whoever answered: “why do you exist, where are you going and how will you get there?” and anyone in our company could immediately answer.
At our essence–we are activists. We believe that true (or what we call “virtuous”) hospitality is about making people feel valued. Many in our industry have flipped the script: leveraging other’s special occasions as an opportunity to feel celebrated for their craft. We believe that is upside down. Virtuous hospitality is about leveraging our crafts to make others feel celebrated on their special occasions.
We fall for buzzwords like connection–but forget that the key to connection is generosity–especially generosity of intention. We don’t create beautiful dishes, pair them with great wines and cocktails and tirelessly train servers so that guests can get out their phones and post pictures of their plates on their feeds. We attend to details so that when guests celebrate, they experience beauty and intention as a service to their experience. It’s a hard world out there. And we all want to feel a break from the mundane, an occasion where we feel valued and celebrated. The pursuit of comprehensive excellence is meant to make people valued, not impressed.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
As a lifelong surfer and nature boy, I don’t think you can experience the fullness of what Southern California has to offer without getting into nature. I attended college at Pepperdine, so Malibu is my home away from home. Any trip I host has to include surfing in Malibu followed by lunch at Malibu Seafood. Beyond that, Tacos at Tito’s, Fish and Chips at Fisherman’s Outlet downtown, Wonton Soup at Joy, Coffee at Civil, more tacos at Home State, breakfast sandwiches at Cos and Pi, Sushi at Sushi Gen, Union and U Street Pizza, the Shrimp with Spicy Salt at Hong Kong BBQ and Sushi Gen are musts.
Fancy dinner and cocktails at my friend Kevin Meehan’s restaurant Kali as well as Providence would be on there as well.
Hikes in Eaton Canyon, the canyon hikes in Malibu, and to the Griffith Observatory are classic.
There’s a thriving music scene in LA, and whether it’s a small gig at the Troubadour or a larger gig at the Hollywood Bowl or the Greek, any trip to LA should have a concert on the itinerary.
Oh…and a Dodgers and Lakers game.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I would not be here without the help of so many. The main ingredient I possess as a founder and business owner is a love of learning and the knowledge that masters are humble. I have become passionate about pursuing guides. My first guide was a longtime caterer in the city, Richard Mooney, owner of Kensington Caterers. Shortly after, I sought out Paul Bolles Beaven as a business coach, who a managing partner of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. And then by a mysterious grace, I was introduced to Curt Richardson, founder and owner of Otter Box. Curt became a key mentor, guide and friend in my journey.
The E Myth by Michael Gerber, Good to Great by Jim Collins, Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, 4 Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Huling and Covey, Blue Ocean Strategy by Maugborgne and Kim, Reboot by Jerry Colonna, The Choice by Eva Eger, Atomic Habits by James Cleary, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Win Forever by Pete Carroll and everything Brene Brown writes have been mainstays and repeated reading in my repertoire.
Instagram: @roomforty, @thefighouse, @theharperoc, @pharmacie_