Fifth Avenue Restaurant Group
Frank Bonanno is the first to admit he is one lucky guy. But from the outside, it is clear that a lot of hard work has also helped him become a successful vetrepreneur.
“I’m truly honored to have earned this award,” Bonanno said. “My military training plays a huge part of who I am and the way I run my business, so this recognition is very special to me.”
Bonanno owns 47 franchise locations in Las Vegas and other areas. But his entrepreneurial success began in 1966 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
A recent culinary institute graduate, Bonanno was concerned about his high draft number and the likelihood of heading to Vietnam. Luckily, he was selected for officer candidate school.
“After we finished school, one-third of us went to Vietnam; one-third went to Europe and one-third of us stayed in the states. I was sent to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas,” he said.
Thanks to his formal food service education, Bonanno landed an assignment managing the Officer’s Club at Fort Leavenworth and became an instant hit with base commander Maj. Gen. Michael S. Davidson’s wife, who consulted him for all her social event planning needs.
“She enjoyed throwing a party, so we were always working with her,” Bonanno said. “It didn’t hurt that the guy before me did a terrible job either.”
After a year, when Bonanno should have been sent for his tour in Vietnam, once again Lady Luck came along in the form of the general. His hard work, dedication and attention to detail in his assignments on post and his work with the general’s wife made him too valuable of a resource to lose, so the general ensured that he stayed in the states.
“He asked for me to continue on at the base and so I stayed,” said Bonanno, “I really consider myself one lucky guy.”
Lucky indeed – Bonanno later read that the company he would have been assigned to was involved in President Nixon’s Cambodian Campaign.
“Like I said, I am one lucky guy,” said Bonanno.
EARNING HIS STRIPES
After three years, one month and 16 days (he’s rather specific), Bonanno reached the end of his obligation to the Army. Despite attractive offers from the military and guaranteed promotions, he chose to go back to civilian life to cut his teeth as a professional in the food service industry.
In 1970, Bonanno began his civilian career working for ARA Services (now Aramark). He worked in California for two-and-a-half years before he was transferred to New Jersey. In his new post, he managed ARA Services’ food services contracts with public school systems in the greater New York metropolitan and New Jersey area.
By 1974, however, Bonanno was looking to branch out on his own. His time in the food service community helped him make several connections to other like-minded individuals. Bonanno, along with two friends, decided to strike out on their own and formed a firm called Food Management Services that serviced many of the same types of contracts that he managed for ARA Services. Since all three partners were experienced in the food service business, they worked well together and decided to pool their resources.
“We started our lunch business by making the food ourselves,” Bonanno said. “We rented a production facility to make the food at night. Then we’d drive the trucks during the day to deliver the food and then come back at night to do the paperwork, bookkeeping and other administrative duties.”
Bonanno insisted that even though the hours were sometimes overwhelming, the fact that he truly loved what he was doing made the hours seem to go by effortlessly.
“We did get to choose our own hours, but we were still working 90 hours a week,” Bonanno said. “Starting out you have to watch everything. It has to be fun and you have to enjoy what you’re doing.”
FEEDING LAS VEGAS
In 1976, Bonanno and his partners decided to expand their operation beyond government contracting and launched a new venture called Fairfield Foods Inc. This new venture specialized in chocolate chip cookies stores in shopping malls.
They were able to streamline the operation by utilizing their own production facility to make the cookie dough. The company continued to flourish and by 1982, it had 75 locations. It was so profitable that Bonanno and his partners were making enough money to no longer need the school lunch business and decided to leave the government contracting hassles altogether.
“We opened stores selling chocolate chip cookies and had over 75 locations when we sold them,” he said, “We made a lot of money, but like a lot of young, stupid guys, we went through it pretty fast.”
In 1983, the company was acquired by Mrs. Field’s cookies. Bonanno stayed on for a couple years with Mrs. Fields, but also decided to launch another business, 5th Avenue Ice Cream, Inc. In 1983, Bonanno bought his first Haagen-Dazs Shop franchise, and then in 1989, he bought his first Nathan’s Famous franchise. In 1993, he opened his first restaurant in the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
“I vacationed in Las Vegas in 1993 and saw all of the growth there and knew it would be a good place to be,” he said.
SERVICE SKILLS STUCK WITH HIM
While he maintains that luck has been on his side, Bonanno is quick to credit the discipline he learned in the military as a canon of his successful work ethic.
“The military is a huge part of my business,” Bonanno said. “The military really opened my eyes. It made me think of where I was going with my life and how I planned to get there. Plus, the discipline that comes from reporting to superiors who expect tangible accomplishments and being held accountable for those achievements was the best experience of my life.”
He said even today his company is structured like the military.
“Restaurants are broken into groups with a very similar reporting process,” Bonanno said.
In 2002, Bonanno’s remaining partner decided to retire, so he bought all the stock and in 2003, he moved the company for growth to Vegas.
“I have 47 restaurants in hotels and casinos,” he said. “We realized if we had different brands, we could have four or five restaurants in the same hotel.”
While most of his restaurants are located in Las Vegas, he still has a couple back in the New Jersey shore area, his hometown.
Today, at 69, Bonanno doesn’t even entertain the idea of retirement.
“Maybe I would slow down and work only three or four days a week, but I’ll never stop,” he said.
And of course, he still feels lucky.
“I have a business to pass on to my family. My son, Robb, works with me and I hope my other children will if they want to,” he said. “But my businesses have given us a great life. I’m a lucky guy.”