The Kardashians aren’t the only family we need to be keeping up with these days. Meet the Smeraldos, an Italian family who holds the value of breaking bread as an imperative part of their business’s success. Since their late father, an Italian immigrant, opened the doors to the family's first restaurant, Il Terrazzo Carmine back in 1984, CJ, his brother Philip and their mother have now opened two more. Intermezzo is a modern craft cocktail bar, and Carmines, upscale and elegant like their sister, is on the east side of town in Bellevue’s historic neighborhood.
Often described as a benevolent dictator, Carmine Sr. was old school when it came to discipline and running his restaurant. Never wanting to show favoritism, Smeraldo treated his sons like the rest of his staff. The two brothers started working at their family’s restaurant when they were in high school. From peeling potatoes to busing tables and washing dishes, they took on every task.
"Working over the summers was an important part of the way that we were raised,” CJ says. "As a restaurant owner, my father was away from home a lot, so having us work there was an opportunity to spend more time together.”
The two brothers enjoyed watching their father in his orbit. The experience gave them a fresh perspective on what running a restaurant entailed, and more importantly, a new appreciation for all the hard work that he did.
After the legendary Carmine Sr. passed away in 2012 of a devastating stroke, his wife took over as the matriarch of the business and kept the doors open to one of Seattle’s most iconic and beloved establishments. The family values a clean and pristine business and is well known for their level of quality in service, food and ambiance. Several years ago, the torch of leadership was passed on to the two brothers, but their mother still remains a strong asset to the company.
“When you're younger, you look to your mother for guidance, as someone to lean on," Philip says. "It’s been eight years since the tragedy of my father, and she leans on us now –the dynamic has sort of shifted and it feels good to be able to repay her."
Carmine and Philip, two years apart, get along really well.
“We are on the same team and support each other,” Philip says. "When one of us is weak, the other one has got to be strong. I love our customers, but their loyalty lies with how good their next meal is. Family love is unconditional. Family always comes first.”
With college degrees in business and economics, CJ and Philip are self-taught in all aspects of the restaurant business from cooking to bartending and waiting tables. Placing themselves in different positions helps them to better understand their customers and staffs needs.
When asked what they love most about carrying on their family’s business, CJ takes the stand.
“It's very much a whatever-it-takes attitude," he says. "This is such a rewarding business on so many fronts. We watched our father go through periods of love and hate with it like any passion and career that you're so involved with. While it is easy to be so in love with what we do, it's still a job. At the end of the day, to be able to create something from the ground up and stand back and look at it, in any avenue of work, there is no greater award or opportunity. I don't think there's anything you can love more than that.”
When it comes to hiring their staff, the family focuses on big personalities that remind them of their own.
“One of the biggest strengths for our family has come from managing over a hundred different personalities," CJ says. "We hire people that we truly would want to see in our own family. We are not meek individuals. When you hire right, the product comes alive, and you become more authentic. We want it to feel like family in here.”
The trio of restaurants brings unique differences to the table that set them slightly apart from one another. Il Terrazzo maintains a traditional fine dining experience with white table cloths and intricate china. Intermezzo offers a more accessible, updated establishment with a menu that appeals to a younger crowd and features craft cocktails, smaller plates and lower price points. Carmine’s, now almost 3 years old, mimics the first restaurant with similar menu options but has additions like handmade pasta, woodfired pizza and a more rustic aesthetic.
“We want to stay the same because people like who we are, but you have to change to stay the same.” —CJ
At this time, there are no plans for another restaurant, and the family remains cautiously optimistic about their businesses.
“The bigger you grow, the harder it is to maintain your quality," Philip says. "Stuff will inevitably start falling through the cracks. We are detailed oriented and rely on a family's personal touch. When the butter gets spread too thin over the toast, you lose a lot of the essence and the taste of what makes things so special in the first place."
Every day that they come to work and do another good job is another step toward establishing themselves further into the city’s community, and at the end of the day, that’s what they are all about.
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