The Michigan Engineer News Center

Larry Mindel: Restaurateur

Larry Mindel has been at the forefront of the dining industry for over 40 years. Deeply influenced by the culinary traditions of Italy, his trailblazing restaurants influenced California’s dining zeitgeist.| Medium Read
Larry Mindel has a retrospective like few others when it comes to the restaurant business. In his Entrepreneurship Talk, Mindel takes us through his 40 year journey in the dining industry and the invaluable lessons he has learned along the way.

The talks were part of Entrepreneurship Hour (ENTR 407), a weekly speaker series that invites distinguished members of the entrepreneurial community to share inspirational startup stories with aspiring entrepreneurs. The series is sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan.

See more eHour talks

About the Speaker

Larry Mindel has been at the forefront of the dining industry for over 40 years. Deeply influenced by the culinary traditions of Italy, his trailblazing restaurants influenced California’s dining zeitgeist. He began his career by selling instant coffee door-to-door while a student at the University of Michigan. He branded it “University Hall.”

Larry’s career took root in San Francisco with his purchase of venerable Caswell Coffee Company (founded, 1829) for 1 million dollars in 1963. He was 26 years old and had $36.00 in the bank. Emboldened by youthful naiveté, he overestimated his power of negotiating! Unable to bring the price down, he raised the money they requested, primarily from a local bank. With passion and hard work, Caswell doubled in size for 3 years. In the 4th year, he took a leap of faith and made a 15 million dollar commitment to become the exclusive buyer of Kona coffee from Hawaii. They branded it as a premium product and locked in a set price. Subsequently, Caswell’s success attracted a bidding war between larger Midwestern coffee companies anxious to gain a foothold in the rapidly growing West Coast market.

Following the sale of Caswell, Larry co-founded Spectrum Foods with the purchase of Chiantirestaurant in Los Angeles. He and his business partner transformed Chianti from a failing trattoria into a restaurant with the most coveted seats in Los Angeles. Under Larry’s direction, Spectrum created 14 trend setting restaurants in California. These included Ciao, with one of the nation’s first exhibition pasta making stations, and Prego featuring a wood-fired pizza oven in the dining room. Both innovations were the result of spacial problem solving. In 1984, Saga Corporation acquired Spectrum Foods and Larry served as President of the Saga Restaurant Group, overseeing more than 200 restaurants generating a combined $375 million in annual revenue.

Upon the merger of Saga with Marriott in 1986, Larry departed and acquired Il Fornaio, negotiating the deal on the back of a napkin. At that time they were a collection of six money-losing small Italian bakeries in California. Under his direction, Il Fornaio reorganized every aspect of the operation into a bakery-backed restaurant and within ten months the first Il Fornaio Cucina Italiana e Panetteria opened in Corte Madera, California to overwhelming public and critical acclaim. In 1997, Larry’s ultimate goal of taking the company public was realized on NASDAQ (ilfo). By 2008Il Fornaio operated twenty-two restaurants with revenues of $145 million.

Larry was the first American and the first person of non-Italian descent to be awarded the Caterina de Medici Medal from the Italian government, recognizing excellence in the preservation of Italian heritage outside of Italy. He opened Poggio Trattoria in 2003 near his home in Sausalito to showcase his passion for Italy. For the past decade it has been a highly acclaimed, three-starred top-ranked San Francisco Bay area restaurant. In 2012, as the result of a contested margarita making competition between Larry and chef and author Joanne Weir, they co-founded Copita Tequileria y Comida in Sausalito. New projects are in the works for 2014.

Larry graduated from the University of Michigan in 1959 with a major in English Literature.

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Sarah Bachleda
Graduate Student Research Assistant

Michigan Engineering

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The outside of the Ford Robotics building

U-Michigan, Ford open world-class robotics complex

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