Paul Cannella has a clear vision for his business empire: He wants to own 10 businesses by 2020. That'd likely be nine restaurants and one nightspot, Scarlet Bar in Lakeview, which he has already owned for five years.
"Ten is just a number, but you have to set a goal and have something to shoot for," he said.
Cannella, 42, who lives in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, is a highly successful, openly gay entrepreneur. He left corporate America as a marketing and advertising executive to lead a more relaxed, yet still stressful life running his own businessor businesses, as they've become.
Cannella, who graduated from Wheeling High School and then the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, started his personal business empire with poopbags.coman at-home business that sold biodegradable dog-poop bags. He launched that business in October 2003, and though it remains an online-only business, sales have increased every year.
In May 2007, Cannella purchased Gentry Bar in Lakeview, and quickly transformed it into a younger, hip must-visit spot along Halsted Street. In November 2007, he changed its name to Scarlet.
Scarlet was closed for seven months and three days in 2009 due to a fire, reopening Sept. 31 of that year. It has since blossomed into a cool, hip, fun, albeit loud hang-out spot in the heart of Boystown, particularly for the 20- and 30-something group, anchored by Frat Night on Thursdays and Liquid Brunch on Sundays.
Last June, Cannella opened Taverna 750, a small, trendy Italian restaurant in the former spot of Cornelia's.
Taverna 750 is best known now for low prices, high-quality food and popular cocktails, particularly, martinis. (This business has also been affected by fire, as its shed was burned May 9. The restaurant remained open for business.)
"One thing I'm debating is whether there's value to expand Taverna into, say, Lincoln Park and elsewhere in the city, or just go a completely different direction," for future restaurants," Cannella said. "The biggest obstacle to growth is developing a management and training pipeline."
Cannella has about 45 or 50 employees among his three businesses, about 15 of whom are full-time. Of his employees, about 95 percent are male, and about 85 or 90 percent of all are gay. He does have a transgender singer at Taverna 750.
So what's the key to Cannella's business success, particularly in a troubled economy?
"I think people are looking for a good value," he said. "I think people are sick of hearing that, due to the economy, you're not suppose to go out anymore, that you're not suppose to spend any money, that you always have to stay home. People want to go out; they want to experience life, have an enjoyable night out, but do it at a good value.
"At Taverna 750, we have really pushed that [philosophy]. Thus, a couple can go out, split some entrees and have a cocktail too, and it's only about $25 per person."
At Scarlet, Cannella said over the past few years he definitely has noticed a shift in customer's drinking habitsfrom noted, name-worthy top shelf liquor to well vodka and well whiskey, and things like that. Plus, many customers often start their night's drinking at home or a house party, and then hit the bars.
Cannella receives daily reports from Taverna 750 that detail exactly what sells and what isn't. Cannella and his management staff can, and do, react to trends in sales.
"When an item is a dud, you have to be quick to say that change is needed. You can't take it personally. If the public doesn't like an item, hey, they don't like it," he said.
Plus, adding items to the Taverna 750 menu is always based on a simply philosophy: It is an Italian restaurant, so how do you make the item Italian?
A case in point is the popular hamburger, sold during the week and on Sundays. It includes Italian sausage, spicy marinara sauce, fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese and more. (The burger is in the form of two mini-slider patties, served on a pretzel roll.) Basically, it's an Italian cheeseburger, "and it's been a huge hit," Cannella said.
"Anything you do in business, you have to be quick to adapt," Cannella said.
Scarlet's most popular event is Frat Night, held every Thursdaywhich stemmed from a casual brainstorming session about drinking 40-ounce cans of beer.
Since its launch, the evening has been a "tremendously popular night," he said.
The same can be said for Liquid Brunch on Sunday.
"Each [concept] is going strong, though started from small ideas," he said.
On the other hand, Music Mondays, with live music, has been the biggest event that Scarlet stuck with that, ultimately, "just wasn't good or well received," Cannella said. "Live music just isn't what we do," he said.
Scarlet is now closed on Monday nights.
Cannella said he always listens to customer feedbackconcerning all of the businesses. "But you cannot make decisions based on a few comments; you have to look at the bell curve," he said.
He said that, within the gay community, it's likely a higher percentage of people who associate Scarlet with Taverna 750. However, Taverna has a very, very diverse group "including my straight locals," so they, naturally, aren't too interested in Scarlet.
"I'm usually awake at 5:30 or 6 a.m., answering emails, and then start meeting by about 10 a.m. which often continue through about 5 p.m.," Cannella said. "A lot of what I do during the day is the strategic direction, the marketing plans," for the overall business plan.
It seems to be working.
Scarlet will mark its fifth anniversary Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 p.m., with Johnny Weir and Traver Rains as co-hosts. See www.scarletbarchicago.com .