Sarasota staple Cafe Baci is closing its doors in May
The landscape of Sarasota has changed around the tenure of Cafe Baci, which opened its doors more than 30 years ago and will close for good in May.
| 7:40 p.m. April 15, 2022
Cafe Baci wasn’t always in the geographical center of Sarasota.
It just seems that way to more recent transplants.
When Roberto Mei opened the Italian staple more than 30 years ago, it was on the periphery of Sarasota’s traffic pattern. And now that he’s on the verge of closing the landmark, he sits overlooking a strip of road that is clogged with cars both day and night.
“Keep in mind that in 1990 and 1991, there was a major real estate depression,” says Mei, who will close Cafe Baci after its final service on Mother's Day. “The owner that sold me the building made a bet with the broker that a restaurant this far south would never survive. The hospital was as far south as people wanted to go. None of this stuff was here. And now Bee Ridge and 41 is the busiest intersection in town. But it didn’t have to go that way. I was super lucky.”
He might have been lucky, but he was also prepared for whatever challenge lay in front of him. Mei, now 68 years old, says that he is a fifth- or sixth-generation restaurateur with roots in the old country; his grandparents owned and operated a restaurant called Trattoria Mei in Rome, and then his family successfully opened Fontana di Trevi in New York’s Theater District.
By the time Mei moved to Sarasota, he had already been in the restaurant industry a couple decades. He says that his father started him out when he was 10 years old and that by the time he was 18, he had become one of the youngest restaurant managers in America.
Over the years, he learned to do every job in a restaurant there is to do, but the challenges at Cafe Baci came even before he opened his doors for the first time. Mei says he purchased the property for just shy of $700,000, but he immediately had to undergo a major renovation to fix the kitchen from damage incurred by the previous owner.
“The restaurant that was here before was called Western Sizzlin,” says Mei, recalling the early days before Cafe Baci opened. “Their menu was more steaks and fried foods, so they had a battery of five deep friers. They were huge on french fries and onion rings. Because of all that grease, the drains in the kitchen, you could put a toothpick in it. So I had to tear up the floor, I had to put in all new plumbing, I had to put in all new electrical. It was a total gut job."
Mei estimates that the renovation only took three or four months, but that was only the beginning of the structural problems that he faced. When Mei moved his family to Sarasota, he did it to escape the cold and the gloom and doom. But he didn’t realize the lengths he’d have to go just to obtain ingredients to cook traditional Italian fare in Florida.
“Believe it or not, I had to import products from Manhattan,” he says. “Nobody knew what a cremini or a portobello mushroom was down here. I had to call my suppliers, and you can imagine what it would cost. I would go to the airport and pick up five boxes of mushrooms and other things like escarole. Things they had no idea existed. Today, you just go to Publix.”
Promoting from within
Mei, who learned to cook from his grandmother, said that he’s had only about seven or eight chefs in 30 years operating Cafe Baci. His first chef was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and his most recent chef has worked for Cafe Baci for two decades.
The current chef, Eldis Rodriguez, began at the restaurant as a dishwasher, and Mei has promoted him through the ranks multiple times. That’s a key part of Mei’s philosophy: He believes that you give people a chance and let them determine their own future.
“That’s really the best way to have employees because they’ve learned every position in the house, and there’s nothing they can’t do,” says Mei. “And also they’re loyal because you gave them a chance to grow. They recognize that I give them a chance.
"What employees need to understand — some do and some don’t — is that employers give them an opportunity. What they do with that is up to them. They can go ahead, or they can stay stagnant.”
That’s the one regret Mei has in closing the doors to Cafe Baci. He says that he knows it’s time for him to move into the next phase of his life, but he wants to make sure that he can find healthy and productive places for his staff to land and continue their careers.
What will happen to Cafe Baci next? Mei says he isn’t sure. He was one of just three Italian restaurants in town when he opened, but the city’s restaurant scene has matured since then. And the property’s location might cinch that the next owner isn’t a restaurateur.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be sold to another restaurant. I tend to doubt it,” he says. “It’s probably going to be sold to a developer. I have people interested in putting medical buildings here, which is a no-brainer. … If you drive up and down 41, there’s not that many businesses you can get into from 41. Normally, you have to go down the street and come in the side.”
Mei says that the final few weeks of the restaurant have been full of people sharing their memories with him. Several of his regular customers have had their wedding or rehearsal dinner at Cafe Baci, and they return every year to celebrate their anniversaries.
“It’s going to be emotional, no question about that,” says Mei about closing his doors. “A lot of our customers are like family.”
“It’s really hard for me,” adds Rodriguez about Cafe Baci closing down. “All my life, I’ve worked here. I started at dishwasher then moved to sous-chef and to chef. It’s been an amazing group of people to work with, and I’m going to miss Roberto and his family.”
When Mei thinks about the final years running his establishment, he will think of the resilience and determination it took to keep things afloat during the COVID-19 era. Cafe Baci was experiencing record highs in customers, he says, when the pandemic began.
The rules kept changing, he said, and his customers weren’t sure how to react.
First the restaurant was closed, and then it was allowed to operate at 25% capacity.
“Then it went to 50% and 75%. And finally 100%,” he says of the pandemic. “We finally got business back to where it was, and then there’s a labor shortage. When we finally get our labor back in order, the food prices are going crazy.
“But we made it. We stuck together, we hung in there, and we made it.”
Mei says he’s been in the hospitality industry for 51 years, and he hopes to stay in it in retirement.
Mei wants to use his restaurant know-how to aid a food philanthropy organization, such as Meals on Wheels, in retirement, and when asked to give advice to the new generation of restaurant owners, he suggested that they enroll in a culinary school.
“It’s important that whoever gets involved in a restaurant knows every aspect of it,” says Mei. “If a dishwasher doesn’t show up, you’ve got to be a dishwasher. If the cook doesn’t show up, you’ve got to be a cook. You’ve got to be able to know how to do everything.
“And you never want to be at the mercy of anybody. You want to be able to do it.”
Looking even farther down the line, Mei sees trouble on the horizon for business owners, and he hopes government can find a solution for management and labor alike. The Sarasota business community has changed in his tenure, and he thinks it needs to change again.
“Sarasota is going to have an issue with labor, particularly in Longboat Key and Siesta Key due to the lack of affordable housing and public transportation,” he says. “The people that work in restaurants on Siesta Key, how are they supposed to get there? It’s crazy.
"And Longboat Key is the same thing. Here, at least we have parking, and we’re centrally located. But when you’re talking about the keys, they have to do something with the public transportation.”