30 Years and Counting
Johnny Carrabba Shares His Family’s Success Story
The abundance of great food is Houston is widely known, and foodies can find trendy, beautiful, satisfying restaurants on almost every city block both inside and outside the loop. But the Carrabba family and the huge success they’ve experienced is unique. Why? Not just because they are family-owned and operated or because they are Italian; there are plenty of those kinds of eateries around. What has led to Carrabba’s longevity is the Carrabba family whose personalities have defined it, the restaurant’s warmth and comfort, the mature servers who know their customers by name, and of course, its reputation for great Italian food.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Johnny Carrabba at the Kirby location for an interview to discuss their 30th anniversary in business. I arrived early and sat down at a place where I could easily observe what was going on during lunch. What I saw were people enjoying themselves and their food, alternately smiling, talking and eating. Those being seated waved and spoke to friends they recognized at nearby tables. Those exiting did the same. The waiters moved freely from table to table to serve not only their own customers, but to say hello and chat for a moment with those they recognized at other tables.
When Johnny arrived, a new buzz circulated as he moved first through the bar, where he shook hands and greeted several patrons, then through the front dining room, where everybody stopped what they were doing and waited for a chance to say hello. Watching the ease with which he moved through his restaurant was a demonstration of how and why his family has achieved the level of success they now enjoy and a testament to their ongoing legacy. When he finally turned to me, the smile, handshake and ensuing conversation were as if we were old friends. Any nervousness I had initially felt melted smoothly, just like mozzarella over pizza.
The Carrabba and Mandola families arrived from Sicily through Galveston and New Orleans and brought with them a rich culture of family heritage, work ethic and a remarkable food. Rose “Rosie” Mandola Carrabba and Johnny “Mr. C” Carrabba, Jr., are first generation Houstonians who owned and operated a small grocery store, Carrabba’s Friendly Grocery, in the East End on Canal Street, which was started by Mr. C’s father, John Carrabba, Sr. Mr. C was the butcher, and Rosie made lunches for the workers on the port and kept the books. Together, they attended to every detail, maintained a high level of cleanliness and organization and set a standard of customer service that are all still practiced today.
Rosie and Mr. C had two children, Johnny Carrabba III and Mary Louise “Weesie” Cruse. Johnny was raised in his parent’s grocery store, and eventually went to work for his Uncle Tony Mandola at Tony Mandola’s Blue Oyster Bar, where Uncle Tony eventually asked him to run the restaurant. Another uncle, Damian Mandola, opened an Italian restaurant with an open kitchen and a wood-burning pizza oven. He, too, wanted Johnny to be a part of the project. Johnny agreed. So on Dec. 26, 1986, Carrabba’s on Kirby opened its doors with only 3,000 square feet, seven bar stools, a main dining room, and a tiny prep kitchen. Nothing on the menu cost more than $10 and the wine list was a short one, but the place was a hit.
With the success of the Kirby store, a second Carrabba’s location was opened on the corner of Woodway and Voss, where Rosie’s presence was primary, and where she continues to be the matriarch to this day. In 1993, Outback Steakhouse created a joint venture partnership consequently opening over 250 Carrabba’s Italian Grill Restaurants nationwide; however, Johnny and his family continue to own and operate the two original Carrabba’s locations in Houston.
In May 2012, Mia’s, affectionately named after Johnny’s daughter, opened just one block away from the Original Carrabba’s on Kirby. Soon after, Grace’s (named for Johnny’s grandmother, Grace Mary Mandola), opened directly across the street. Then in 2015, with partner George Joseph, Johnny purchased the acclaimed Houston bakery, Common Bond Café and Bakery in the heart of Montrose.
When I sat down with Johnny, armed with all this amazing history, I was a bit starstruck and had lots of questions to which he offered honest and thoughtful answers.
Cheryl Alexander (CA): Let’s start with your family. Your family is kind of larger than life in the Houston community and obviously your biggest influence. Which traits from which family members do you think you possess?
Johnny Carrabba (JC): My family is everything to me and I aspire daily to emulate them. And like most people, I have a little bit of all my predecessors in my own character. I inherited my business sense from my Grandfather Carrabba, who believed that you have to be willing to spend money to make money. From my grandmothers, both Carrabba and Mandola, I inherited my flavors for food. Both of them believed that the best ingredient in any dish is the heart and love that goes into it. And from my Grandfather Mandola, I inherited my sense of humor, my awareness of good manners and my desire to live a principled life.
CA: What about your family makes you most proud?
JC: The success of my extended family and our legacy is something I’m very proud of. But as for my immediate family, I’m very proud of my son, Johnny IV, who is 17, and my daughter, Mia Rose, who is 16, because they are truly good people and very nice kids; they understand that they must find something they love and work hard at it — I make sure they get a little sweat on their brow — and they know that family comes first. And my wife Randi, well, she has a big heart for charity and gives of herself 100 percent in everything she does.
CA: Let’s talk about your food. What is your most memorable family meal?
JC: We were at my grandmother’s home for Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving Day meal was a traditional Italian dinner prepared by my grandmother, but that was not what was most memorable to me. It was the next day’s meal. After my dad had butchered the turkey, rather than dispose of the carcass, my grandmother wrapped it up and put it in the refrigerator — all of it — the neck, the bones, everything that was left over. The next day, she took it out and put it in a big boiler and began to assemble a soup. I was amazed how she nursed that soup from throw-aways into the best tasting soup I’d ever eaten. It shows that she’s never lost her sense of heritage, which meant using as much or as little as were available to make a great meal to feed her family. Growing up, we didn’t know what “prime” cuts of meat were. We would fight over the “fat.” As long as my grandmothers had some tomato sauce, they could add chicken feet or pig feet — whatever they had — and make it taste amazing. When they didn’t have cheese or tomatoes available, they would make pasta dishes with bread crumbs and olive oil. I love that devotion to cooking, and I’m proud of where we’ve come from.
CA: What is your favorite meal to prepare for other people?
JC: I won my wife over with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, mustard greens and cornbread, so that’s kind of a go-to meal for me.
CA: What is your favorite meal to prepare for yourself?
JC: I love to make my grandmother’s suga — tomato sauce — with some braised meat. It’s my favorite and in fact, at family get togethers now it’s my job to make the suga. My uncles Vincent, Tony and Damien are all great cooks — don’t get me wrong — but my suga has surpassed their skills. In fact, at one meal with my grandmother, Vincent told her she could go ahead and die because “Johnny’s suga is as good as yours now.” She replied, “It’s great suga, but not as good as mine.”
CA: What are the “must have” spices in an Italian family kitchen?
JC: Salt, pepper, dry oregano, dry Italian parsley, and garlic powder. If you’ve got fresh, use fresh, but always have those in your spice cabinet.
CA: When you remember your grandmothers’ kitchens, what details stand out?
JC: The aromas and the warmth. Something was always cooking and my grandmothers were always multi-tasking. It’s now the same at my house.
CA: What meats and pastas go best with which sauces?
JC: Every pasta is made for a sauce. Delicate pasta requires delicate sauce; heavy pasta, heavy sauce; they must marry. Heavy tomato sauce is great with braised fatty pork that has been cooked slow for four or five hours and served over rigatoni. A lighter option would be a traditional Ammoghiu, which is primarily olive oil, maybe some vinegar, lemon juice, garlic and fresh basil mixed and ground with a mortar and pestle. Maybe you don’t even add meat to this, but if so, something light, maybe seafood or chicken.
CA: Now let’s talk about your restaurants. Your staff is legendary in Houston. What are three traits you look for in a waiter?
JC: Thirty years later, I still do the final hire, by the way. First, they must come prepared to meet me in their appearance, dress and how well organized they are. Next, they must give me direct eye contact. And finally, they must reveal their character to some degree by answering questions about their education, their other jobs, their background. From these details, I can tell what kind of heart they have, how hospitable they are and if my customers would enjoy talking to them.
CA: Which of your restaurants best represents your “style” of cooking?
JC: Probably Grace’s. My grandmother Grace Mandola was so good at blending flavors — Italian, Louisianan and American. She was great with stews, roasts and gumbo. I feel like my cooking and my taste for food reflects that variety and that blend.
CA: Who, aside from family, influenced you in the restaurant business?
JC: My No. 1 mentor outside my family is Chris Sullivan of Outback Steakhouse. He taught me the importance of staying involved in my business. He made lots of money in the business, and worked hard at it not just for himself, but for the people he made promises to. I also admire Paul Prudhomme, who was a personal friend of mine. He, too, put family first, valued his people — both his customers and employees — and wasn’t afraid of hard work.
CA: You’ve just published your book, With Gratitude, which commemorates Carrabba’s 30th year in business. So I’m wondering what other media projects may be in the works. Cooking shows are television hits these days. Do you think you’d ever translate the success of Carrabba’s into reality TV?
JC: Well, if I did TV, it wouldn’t be about celebrities or making celebrities. It would be a real down-home show about the real life of a restaurateur. Not glamorous at all. There have been many days and nights, especially when I first started, when I sat in the back of my restaurant on a milk crate and cried. Not because I didn’t love or believe in what I’m doing, but because business is hard. Especially the food industry. People have no idea what it is really like. That is what my show would be about.
CA: What’s in store for the future of Carrabba’s?
JC: On Dec. 26, 2016, the 30th anniversary of Carrabba’s, I actually went for a walk in Memorial Park. I focused on deep breathing and prayer. First I thanked God for our success, and then I asked Him, “How will I do this for 30 more years? I will be 88 years old!” I realized that I want to keep working, not for money. I’ve made lots of money. I’ve achieved success. I want to work because I have great people that I support and who depend on Carrabba’s for their own success. I also want to keep working in order to leave a legacy — not of being the biggest or the best — but a legacy of family and culture. I intend to arrive at 88 years old as a grounded individual who’s enjoyed longevity in business and built a strong sense of family and culture that will never be forgotten.