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 have influenced California’s dining zeitgeist.
Millions of people across the country have enjoyed visiting Larry’s restaurants, though many are likely to recognize the establishments before they recognize the man. 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! With passion and hard work, Caswell doubled in size for 3 years. In the 4th year, he took a leap of faith and became the exclusive buyer of Kona coffee from Hawaii. They locked in a set price and branded it as a premium product, “Kona Coffee”. 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 Chianti restaurant 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 spatial 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. By 2008 Il Fornaio operated twenty-two restaurants with annual revenues approaching $150 million.
One of the highlights of Larry’s tenure at Il Fornaio was leading the company’s initial public offering in 1997 when the company began trading on NASDAQ until 2001, when the company went private again. “Growing restaurants rapidly really isn’t my thing,” Larry shared about the experience of being a publicly-traded company. “I try to do one restaurant at a time and make that the best restaurant I know how. If over time that turns out to be successful, I’ll do another. But usually after we open, I swear I will never open another restaurant, ever. Fortunately, that feeling always passes.”
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. In 2003 he opened Poggio Trattoria in Sausalito as the ultimate expression of his passion for Italy. For the past decade it has been a top-ranked, three-starred San Francisco Bay area restaurant and received its highest accolade in 2015 when Poggio received the coveted Bib Gourmand designation from the Michelin Guide which recognizes "exceptional good food at moderate prices.” In 2012, as the result of a contested margarita making competition between Larry and celebrity chef Joanne Weir, they co-founded Copita Tequileria y Comida together.
Now, with dozens of Italian restaurants under his belt, Larry brings his passion for Italian culinary traditions to beautiful Santa Barbara, with Convivo. Santa Barbara Inn owner Richard Gunner and Larry opened an Il Fornaio restaurant together some twenty years ago at the Pine Inn in Carmel, Ca. “When Richard showed me what he and his family were building along the Santa Barbara waterfront, I knew I wanted to be part of this beautiful property and I knew exactly who my partner would be.”
Chef Peter McNee, Larry’s Executive Chef at Poggio for many years, was his one and only choice to helm the kitchen at Convivo. Larry and Chef McNee envision Convivo as a gathering place where fellow Santa Barbarians and guests from around the world can do just that – come together to catch up on life, grab a drink and share a meal while watching the sunset. As Larry puts it, “The really great restaurants are both a destination for the weary traveler and a place for locals to meet and unwind.”
Larry resides in Sausalito, along with his wife and family.