The Front Line: Front of House Restaurant Magic

Arguably the most important job in a restaurant is that of a general manager, but few know the far-reaching, all-or-nothing nature of the role. We shine the spotlight on three who are at the top of their field in Southwest Florida.

BY January 6, 2021
Rick Giannasi from Ocean Prime, Irena Wigley from The Continental and Denny Genge from The Veranda (Photography by Zach Stovall)

The restaurant world, in the simplest terms, is truly a tale of two houses.

The back of the house is the one that gets most of the attention: It refers to the kitchen and all those who work in it. Most of the focus is on the wizardry behind those swinging porthole doors—what chefs are coming up with to dazzle, comfort or nourish you. But the front of the house, the very public face of servers, bartenders, managers and others who tend to the guests’ needs, constitutes the other side of that coin. At some restaurants, such as Pazzo! on Fifth Avenue South, there is a hostess who has been with the team since it opened 25 years ago and guests know her by name. Likewise, people will plan a visit to Bar Tulia around which of their favorite bartenders is working that night.

But while there is a focus on the quality of service—arguably that it makes or breaks a night out—there is very little attention on how the people at the front of the house go about their jobs. The general manager is the glue that holds the restaurant together, as he or she motivates, informs and supports the entire team. They are ringleaders, quality-control officers and train conductors all rolled into one. GM’s are some of the most recognizable people on staff, but customers barely know the scope of what they do beyond saying “Hi.”

At any time, you might find one of them stocking the bar or training their staff or being the chief complaint department officer or throwing on a tuxedo to help serve if someone calls in sick. There’s almost nothing they don’t have a hand in. Here we shine light on three exceptional general managers who take the restaurant experience from ordinary to extraordinary.

Rick Giannasi, Ocean Prime

If you happen to pass by the wall of windows looking into Ocean Prime from Sugden Plaza in downtown Naples, you’ll notice that every day at 2 p.m., like clockwork, there will be a table of the restaurant’s leaders chatting over some nibbles from the menu. There’s an even larger group that convenes there at 4:30 p.m.

The constant at both of the daily “pit-stops”—where everyone downloads and shares important information for the night of service ahead—is the uplifting, warm and steady presence of the gregarious and gracious Giannasi. “In many ways it’s like a production, like live theater. Every night is opening night for us. It’s one of our philosophies and part of our culture. The lights are set right, the music is on point, the temperature is perfect, our uniforms are our costumes—I love seeing the servers looking in the mirror and checking that their ties are straight,” he says. “We’re feeding people, but it’s an experience at Ocean Prime. What we do is why they come back—the genuine hospitality, the warm welcome, the entire experience.”

And he should know.

Rick Giannasi, the general manager at Ocean Prime in Naples, has worked as a bartender, a bar owner, an actor and held essentially every front-of-the-house job you can name. That breadth of experience informs his current role. “We’re feeding people, but it’s an experience at Ocean Prime,” he says. “What we do is why they come back—the genuine hospitality, the warm welcome, the entire experience.”

Before being offered the job to launch what has become one of the most contemporary, yet elegant, spaces on Fifth Avenue South from its debut in 2016, Giannasi had a robust professional life in acting and hospitality for 40 years. He even remembers being a host before then as the captain of his high school football team and amateur party planner in New Jersey. He laughs recalling those event-planning days, remembering the operation he’d run out of his family’s home: checking keys at the door, having cups of water for friends and cab numbers on speed dial.

Until finding a permanent home and a position that perfectly embraces his strengths at Ocean Prime, he’d make strides simultaneously in acting and the restaurant business. He’s held every role in the front of the house at some point in his career, which gave him an unrivaled breadth of experience. He was a bartender at The China Grill when a producer of the soap Another World approached him because she felt he’d be perfect for a part they were casting. It was his first big break and he acted opposite Anne Heche in that scene.  He got a taste for royalty, like Prince Rainier, and their well-heeled compatriots working at places like the Four Seasons in Manhattan. He owned his own bar, The Construction Zone, in SoHo that he sold after seven years (he remembers being ahead of the times by using exposed ductwork and hanging light bulbs long before they became popular because he was on a shoestring budget). He also starred in an indie comedy that got a three-star review from a New York Times critic and later took on cult classic status (search for Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. and you won’t be disappointed). He joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), moved his young family to Los Angeles, California, and earned more roles on shows, including one on the science fiction television series Star Trek: Voyager.

Giannasi pitches in behind the bar. He encourages the staff to go above and beyond what would normally be expected of them. His years as a performer help him to enhance the dining experience. “In many ways, it’s like a production, like live theater,” he says. “Every night is opening night for us. It’s one of our philosophies and part of our culture.”

When his wife’s father passed away, he relocated to Detroit. There, his acting career was able to flourish monetarily. “I was a big fish in a small pond and booked lots of car commercials and SAG videos,” he says. And he got his first GM job at the local branch of Blue Martini.

After a few years, the family of four relocated to Orlando, and Giannasi got a job bartending at Ocean Prime, where his cocktails would sell out night after night and his affable demeanor drew regulars to the bar. He was eventually promoted to a managerial role and then given the honor of being the founding GM of the Naples location.

Although he’s no longer officially in the acting business, he has a penchant for theatricality and how it can enhance a guest’s experience. He reminds his staff to go above and beyond. One of his happiest moments was when he saw in the reservation system that a couple who had met at Booth 24 wanted to get married in that same booth a year later. “To take it to another level, I thought, how can I make this special,” he says. He spoke to The Naples Players, next door, and borrowed a bridal arch from the props department, which the team mounted over the booth. “Each year they come back on their anniversary and sit in the same booth,” he says.

Every day, after those afternoon pit stops, Giannasi does a perimeter check, a facility check and a line check. Then he settles into what he does best—hosting. He makes sure to check on every one of the 280 available seats throughout the night. “Studying acting really pushes you into being observant of body language or an attitude—an aura or demeanor around somebody—and you can act honestly. Part of being a great leader is making a connection with a guest even if it’s a glance over to let them know there’s someone they can turn to,” he says. “My eyes are everywhere. I’m the innkeeper. ‘What’s wrong with this picture, and how can I make it better?’ Nothing’s perfect in life. We’re all human. How you handle the hiccups is what makes the gravy.”

Irena Wigley, The Continental

Most days, Wigley goes to bed long after the sun goes down and wakes up hours before it starts peeking out. At 5 a.m., without fail, she laces up her running shoes and logs some miles. Then she starts checking her email and looking at the restaurant’s reservation system before her kids rise to get ready for school. “If I’m working at the restaurant, my phone is never off. It’s a 24-7 job—it’s a lot of emotional labor,” she says. She has an enormous amount of compassion for her team and tries to always be there for them. “For me, I try to see potential and just grab it—and hold each person accountable for their growth,” she says. “I will be by their side to help them get there.”

This single mom of two, who holds the reins at one of the most exclusive steakhouses in downtown Naples, didn’t grow up thinking she’d be in the hospitality industry. But she has the gumption, ambition and experience to rival anyone in the field.

Irena Wigley, general manager of The Continental, studied to be a reporter in her native Czech Republic. In a field with very few women, this single mother of two has worked her way up the ladder at a number of Naples’ best-known restaurants. “If I’m working at the restaurant, my phone is never off,” she says “It’s a 24-7 job—it’s a lot of emotional labor.”

After having studied to be a reporter in her native Czech Republic, a friend suggested she come along on a vacation to Naples in 2002. Wigley met and fell in love with her now ex-husband, and the rest became history. Wigley got a job as a server at Riverwalk, and its owner, Vin DePasquale, took her under his wing for the majority of her 20s. He  promoted her up the chain of command first at that restaurant and then at The Dock. Intrigued by the possibility of working in upscale fine dining, she heard about a managerial position open at the Third Street South stalwart Campiello in 2008, and that’s when she found her calling. She’s climbed the ladder under the D’Amico & Partners umbrella ever since.

In a field with very few women and fewer female leaders, Wigley has the distinction of being the opening GM for first Masa (a critically acclaimed Mexican spot in Mercato for several years) and then The Continental. For the latter, she worked side-by-side with owner Richard D’Amico for six months in 2014 before its December opening, hiring the 100-person team, calling vendors, ordering silverware, light fixtures and chairs.

In D’Amico, she’s found a truly supportive boss and he’s found someone he can trust. “It’s funny, I was speaking with Richard earlier today. He knows single mothers are not usually general managers of restaurants. He was asking how I was doing, making sure I was alright,” Wigley says. Then she notes that, to conserve funds mid-pandemic, the GMs are pitching in to help with things like caring for the restaurant’s lush botanicals.

Wigley considers her relationship leading her staff as paramount. “I have an enormous amount of compassion for my team, and I always try to be there for them,” she says.

One of  Wigley’s most unique experiences is doing a “stage,” or apprenticeship, in 2018 at the Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. Wigley had met the great chef Dominique Crenn—the first woman to ever achieve three Michelin stars in the United States—at a party for the chefs being honored by the Naples Winter Wine Festival at The Continental. The practice of staging is a thousand times more common for chefs than managers, and regardless of who is doing it, it is unpaid. Wigley approached D’Amico about the possibility of going to learn from Crenn. He not only supported her going during the summer, but offered to continue her salary for the six weeks she was gone. “A lot of it was poise—handling the dishes—because she’s so focused on the poetic aspect of the dish,” Wigley recalls. “But the most beneficial aspect for me was knowing they have a team that sits down daily and goes over every guest. They do max 50 to 60 per night whereas we have 300 to 400 reservations in season, but I always look at who is coming in and I read those notes. I may not remember every guest specifically on a full March night, but I have a general overview of what is happening and I convey that to my team.”

She admits it was incredibly hard to be away from her kids for that long (she missed her daughter’s first day of kindergarten), and that it’s a difficult lifestyle for anyone. But she encourages people to not limit themselves. “We ourselves have to change the mindset. Apply for these positions. Sometimes women have to work harder than men and sometimes we get paid less, but if we just give up and don’t apply, then we’re not part of the solution,” Wigley says. “I’ve hired many women over the years, and I say to them all the time, ‘You tell me what you want, where you think you are and how I can help you succeed.’”

Denny Genge, The Veranda

In Fort Myers, Genge has a bit of a celebrity following. Most regulars know him by his name, as he does by theirs. He’s technically Dennis, but even went so far as to name a restaurant he owned on a canal in New York State’s Great Lakes region Denny’s Harbor Hideaway.

Chances are if anyone has been to The Veranda in the past decade, he’s walked you to your table from his podium at the entrance and checked on you mid-meal. “I put in a lot of miles,” he says.

It has been his spot every night, except Sundays, for the past 15 or 16 years. He chuckles trying to remember the exact timeline. But he’s been with the Pedens, who own The Veranda, since he and his family first arrived in Fort Myers in 2000, yearning to escape the long New York winters. He had gotten the job lead through a friend and started as one of the storied property’s tuxedo-clad servers.

Denny Genge, The Veranda’s general manager, started at the Fort Myers restaurant as a tuxedo-clad server 20 years ago. He still keeps a tuxedo—along with a kitchen shirt and a pair of jeans—in his upstairs office, just in case he needs to lend a helping hand to his 34-member team. “I like dealing with people. I like to make them smile, I like the conversation,” he says.

The restaurant, a national gem that’s comprised of two 100-year-old houses attached by a kitchen, occupies a tree-shaded courtyard that’s essentially a gateway into downtown Fort Myers.  It’s an integral part of the community that’s been under the same ownership for 42 years. It has a reputation of being the place for bigwigs to slice into an aged Black Angus NY strip or fork through a piece of seared snapper, and Genge knows discretion is greatly appreciated. “A lot of deals get done here. They come for the anonymity. I think you could say I’m the gatekeeper of it. When we get celebrities in, we are professional and let people have their experience. The staff is really good about it—we don’t ask them for a picture and an autograph.”

But that’s not to say pictures are not a part of The Veranda experience. A few years back, Genge decided to introduce complimentary on-the-spot photo taking and printing. He was inspired at first because the restaurant gets a lot of special-occasion business (anniversaries, birthdays, etc.). But the practice has become a mainstay, with Genge trying to get to every table each night. “They remember that kind of thing, the little things that make them feel special,” Genge says. He also prints business cards for every server—another touch from what seems to be a bygone era. “Everybody takes pictures on their phone now, and that’s where they stay. So I thought why not take a picture? It’s something they can put on their fridge or their coffee table. I thought it was a nice touch and people seem to enjoy it.”

The Veranda is as well known for its discreet atmosphere as it is for its fine cuisine, which has secured it a national reputation. “A lot of deals get done here. They come for the anonymity. I think you could say I’m the gatekeeper of it,” Genge says. “When we get celebrities in, we are professional and let people have their experience.” Still, everyone is welcome to a complimentary photo, courtesy of Genge, to memorialize their meal.

He’s one of the rare examples of a front of the house team member who has extensive back-of-the-house experience. Aside from running the kitchen of his own restaurant, he worked for decades in the kitchens of country clubs up north. To this day, he likes to walk a certain path back to his host stand so he can pass by the kitchen window to make sure the consistency that The Veranda prides itself on is there. Genge is always in a black jacket, but he keeps a whole wardrobe in his upstairs office—a pair of jeans, a kitchen shirt, a tuxedo—because he’s always ready to jump in and help his team of 34 wherever an extra pair of hands might be needed.

Asked why he ultimately has chosen to make the front of the house his permanent home, he says, “I like dealing with people. I like to make them smile, I like the conversation. If you don’t love what you do, there’s no sense in doing it. I want to be around people and make sure they’re having a nice experience. The conversation could be short or long, but as long as it’s sincere, that’s what’s important.”

He recognizes the industry’s long hours can be grueling and that support from home is paramount. All three of his kids were in elementary school when he started at The Veranda. “You’ve got to love what you’re doing and want to come to work everyday. Everything else can be trained or learned,” he says. “My wife, Shelly, is a very supportive person, and you need that. It is very demanding, and you miss things with your kids and that kind of thing. It’s a sacrifice she understands, and I’m fortunate.”

Related Images: