Shop Talk

Gocciolina owner, chef shares lessons learned in his first year in business

The small restaurant in a northern Durham strip mall didn’t necessarily get off to the best start. First, Aaron Benjamin opened his first small business on Friday the 13th of June 2014 under a full moon.

And just as Benjamin, chef and owner of acclaimed Italian eatery Gocciolina, started to prepare for his soft opening “the whole place went dark,” he said, as they lost power for three hours.

Ten minutes after it returned around 7 p.m. guests started coming to the restaurant that was about 90 degrees.

“We were completely unprepared,” he said. Fortunately, Benjamin initially didn’t market his business as he purposely sought to have a gradual opening.

By winter the restaurant had consistently busy weekends, and the bustle in the 55 seat eatery was only amplified after News & Observer restaurant critic Greg Cox gushed in December about Benjamin’s food and the independent spirit behind the concept.

On Jan. 29, Cox named Gocciolina 2015 Restaurant of the Year.

“With every repeat visit, it grows more obvious that nothing should be overlooked here, from blackboard specials to a la carte sides featuring local produce to desserts,” Cox wrote in the review.

After that, it got really busy, like 250 calls a day and people coming in to with their cells phones to show him they had called 55 times an hour and still couldn’t get a reservation.

“We upset a lot of people because we couldn’t answer all the phone calls,” Benjamin, 39 of Durham, said.

Still, he said, he did what he could and focused on delivering a consistent and quality product.

Here are three lessons Benjamin learned in his first year:

▪ Don’t underestimate finding and training the right employees.

Initially, Benjamin hired whoever was interested. But as he built his reputation, he learned to ask harder questions and take advantage of the opportunity to pick and choose people with a complementary personality and a willingness to work and learn.

“You can train people...,” he said, “but if they don’t want to learn and have a bad attitude, it is not really going to work out.”

▪ Relax and communicate with staff.

When Gocciolina first opened, Benjamin was really stressed about cash flow.

He didn’t exactly take it out on employees, but would just get “angry and stressed out” with the employees after not clearly laying out his expectations. Over the last couple of months, he said, he has really made an effort to relax. No one wants to work with someone like that.

“It was just after a certain amount of time I had to be more relaxed and communicate with people,” he said.

▪ Stick to your concept.

Many questioned his vision, his experience, his location and his pricing.

But Benjamin stuck to his plan, and worked to developed it by coming in every day, focusing on the food he wants to create and not cutting corners.

“I think it’s worked out pretty well,” he said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917;

Twitter: @virginiabridges