Customers were looking forward to Bonici Brothers Italian Restaurant opening back in August, but when it did, owner Ralph Higdon knew something was wrong.
"In 10 days, we knew it was a mistake, at least the way it was going then," Higdon said. After 30 years of building a reputation in the restaurant business, he said, "we wound up with two black eyes."
Customers noticed it, too. One commented that it was an adventure every day, coming to Bonici Brothers, because you "never know what the sauce will taste like today."
And the fast food atmosphere wasn't a hit with customers. One left a note saying she wouldn't be back to a place "where my husband has to eat in a black plastic dog bowl with plastic forks." The bread sticks, too, tasted different every day.
"In that first 10 days, we had nine different kinds of bread sticks," Higdon said. He shakes his head now remembering the slide into the pit every businessman dreads.
"Part of it," Higdon admitted, "was that we didn't dot all our I's and cross all our T's in the rush to get opened." But, he blames the Franchise Division of Tyson Foods, too.
"They (Tyson) were new to this kind of business, so there was too little follow-through on problems here, and they were delivering a different tasting sauce about every day, sometimes sending in sauces with little or no taste at all," Higdon said.
It called for quick, drastic (and expensive) action.
But it was a challenge to the Higdon Brothers -- Ralph, Charlie and James, who were awarded the Chamber of Commerce's Small Business Award in September. "I've been told by some of the people there that a businessman can't make a living in Leitchfield," he said, "and I'm out to prove that's wrong."
The expense of the change came with Higdon & Associates (also owners of the Captain D's franchise, a restaurant that's worked well for the Higdon's) buying the rights to BB's from Tyson. There was an advertising campaign to plan and budget, something to keep customers aware of the new direction for the restaurant.
Today (Nov. 10), a new BB's holds its grand opening, and plenty has changed. A chef from
Nashville who specializes in Italian food has spent over a week with the staff, and Higdon himself has been in the kitchen stirring a new marinara sauce, one he says is the result of a lot of combinations of the sauce's ingredients.
"We've got a sauce here people will like, one we're proud of," he said. Marinara is to Italian food what hamhocks are to navy beans. It is a sauce that makes a statement.
"We've got an Italian sauce that has a taste that's unique to us," he said. Most of the food served now at BB's is cooked on the spot, "so when the menu says 'homemade,' we mean it," Higdon said.
The fast food atmosphere is gone.
"We serve good food fast today," Higdon said. Waiters in clean, pressed tuxes bring food to tables in the new sit-down dining arrangement.
Compare the old menu to the new one, and there's almost no resemblance. Lunches range from $4.50 to $6.50. Five salads range from $2.99 to a $5.50 BLT salad to a $5.99 chef's salad. Pasta meals start at $4.99 and range to $9.99, and there's the Big Bambino for anyone brave.
This menu item lists three pounds of spaghetti, a large dipper of sauce, meatballs, Italian sausage, parmesan cheese, garlic bread and all you can drink for $19.99.
"Eat it in an hour," Higdon said, "and you get the meal free and your picture on the Wall of Pasta Fame that's right behind the restaurant's hostess and dining room supervisor, Karen Cooper of Leitchfield."
Baked pasta bowls range in price from $5.50 to $6.50, the menu shows, and there's pizza, a children's menu, plus chocolate cake, Granny Smith apple pie, key lime pie, Spumoni ice cream, cheesecake and more.
"We're shooting for giving people in Grayson County a dining experience that's equal to anything they can find in Bowling Green, Louisville or Elizabethtown," he said.
The risk involved in a business shutting its doors, doing a complete overhaul and trusting that customers will give the restaurant another try has been tough for Higdon, but he thinks it will work.
"We're going in the direction of offering quality service, a quality product and a quality atmosphere," he said. "There is some risk to that, always is when you're starting any business, but people do eat -- at least twice a day!" he said.
Higdon may be on to something. On the first day of the "soft opening" Thursday (Nov. 6), there was a steady stream of customers, even with no advertising.
Higdon thinks the renovated and redirected BB's will work. "We're looking to bring more new products and services to Leitchfield, because we like it here."
What might that new venture involve?
"It's still in the dream stage," Higdon laughed. "You need a year to 18 months to plan a new business, and now, we expect that every detail might not be ironed out beforehand."
It's like those menus...
"We ordered 120 of them," a frustrated Higdon said, "and we got 36!"