For 20 years, Frankie Tomatto’s (Frankie’s) has been synonymous with fun, family dining. The Ontario-based Italian buffet-style eatery is celebrating two decades of success and patronage, serving more than 9 million customers since opening in 1994. From a casual family dinner to a relaxing date night or surprise birthday bash, Frankie’s has 11 dining rooms well-suited for large or small groups and a 425-seat capacity. The buffet serves up more than 100 different Italian favorites daily from 15 food stations, ranging from meatballs, pizza and ravioli to fresh baked cannolis and garlic bread.
Hal Roback, owner of Frankie’s, founded the restaurant with one main concept at heart: a fun atmosphere. “We’re constantly trying to add fun elements to the experience,” he stresses. “As with any restaurant in this business, if you don’t keep reinventing yourself, you’re falling behind. We’re always thinking about the next step and the next new thing we’re going to do.”
Holy Cannoli; What an Idea
Roback has understood the need for innovation from the start after spending many years learning the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business. “I’ve been in the restaurant industry for the better part of my life,” he shares. “I went to cooking and baking school and worked for a few years on the food service side. I realized I didn’t know very much – it’s funny how a job makes you realize how little you know – so I went to Cornell for hotel and restaurant management school. Once I finished I accepted a job in Toronto. Why Toronto? Because it paid the most and I had a student loan to pay off.”
After three years, Roback opened his first restaurant, the Fish House, with partners. “I did that for five years and eventually sold the Fish House to two partners and started to think about the next step,” he recalls.
Roback was inspired by the popularity of Asian-style buffets and created the concept of Frankie’s as a result. “There were no Italian-style buffet restaurants,” he explains. “Everyone loves Italian food, so I found a location and did the deal. I signed the lease in July 1994 and after four months of construction and design, we were open.”
Frankie’s signature leaning tower and arches, as well as central piazza, are selections one would find in Italy; it didn’t take long for the competition to follow Roback’s lead. “We were the first all-you-can-eat-Italian buffet,” he says. “Once a concept is successful, it doesn’t take long for others to try to get on the bandwagon. A few imitators followed us after the first couple of years. They tried calling themselves similar names like Tony Pepperoni’s and Vinnie Zucchini’s, and so on, but if you don’t understand the overall offering and positioning of the restaurant, then you’re not going to be successful and that was their problem – some only lasted as little as six months.”
A Good Value and Fun Times All-around
Frankie’s has risen above the competition and those trying to copycat Roback’s model by offering the best value backed by a fun, enjoyable environment. “We have to communicate with, and show value to, our customers,” notes Roback. “The more value we can execute, the better the response.”
Even after 20 years in operation, Frankie’s has remained close to its Italian roots, using proprietary recipes as the base of nearly all buffet items. “Our soups and sauces are made from scratch, usually every day, and the items that are made for us by private contractors are designed to our specifications with only our recipes,” ensures Roback. “When using a supplier, we actively look for local ones because we want the homemade attention to detail that large processors just aren’t set up for.”
“Our customers are happy with the full Italian profile we offer,” says Paul Dykeman, vice president of Frankie’s. “If they want Asian food, there are plenty of other places to go, but they come here when they want authentic Italian at a fair price.”
In fact, Dykeman says Frankie’s Italian cuisine continues to attract all types of customers and cultures. “A third of Toronto doesn’t speak English, but that’s not really a barrier for us because there’s no menu and very little server interaction even though we’re a sit-down restaurant,” he explains. “Customers can just go up and choose whatever they want and they love that.”
The company runs specials throughout the week, including deals for small children, seniors and a popular weekend brunch menu. On Saturdays and Sundays Frankie’s serves up breakfast items, including assorted omelet sliders, red velvet pancakes, freshly made waffles, crab cake eggs Benedict and much more.
“We’re always looking for new, exciting things to add to the buffet and specials to run,” adds Roback. “Most recently, we’ve renovated the piazza where the food is cooked and displayed out front. We added a carvery and bakery expansion, as well as a meatball station featuring five different selections and a fresh garlic bread station. We now have 15 food stations in total.”
Still Going Steady
While Roback admits that Frankie’s faces the same challenges many other Toronto restaurants do, he says the business is still going stronger than ever. “It’s a constant battle of trying to keep costs under control to offer the same quality and variety of items for a popular price, but that’s a daily challenge,” he explains. “The last couple of years have been very strong and this year is looking to be the same even though we’ve gotten off to a slow start with the weather.”
Roback says the most rewarding part of the restaurant is seeing customers who first came as children bring their children, thus the Frankie’s tradition is being passed to the next generation. “I think we play a big role in developing individuals,” he shares. “I’ve seen many employees go from busser to server to supervisor, and onto higher education and its rewarding to know that we’ve played a part in that and have given people the opportunity to progress.”
Since 1994, Frankie Tomatto’s has been the original Italian-style buffet in North America, building memories and friendships and brightening the community.