Before Frank Guido’s Little Italy opened on a recent Tuesday, the server noticed something awry. There it was–a string dangling from the tablecloth. At once, she grabbed a pair of scissors and snipped it.
Her boss was watching from a distance.
“Nice going, Amanda,” he said. “You saw that string and took care of it. Good job.”
Frank Guido is that sort of guy.
He notices things like the crooked picture on the wall or speck of dust on the table. His eye will spot the server who doesn’t smile or the glass that doesn’t shine quite right.
There will be none of that at his four restaurants in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Guido, who works alongside his son, Mark, son-in-law Carmine Ercolano, and cousin, Sal, wants and expects the best from the 200 or so employees who represent the Guido name, a mighty one in Upstate New York.
The 73-year-old Guido has owned and operated upwards of 20 restaurants in the Northeast. Over five decades, he has groomed generations of courteous, meticulous and efficient men and women, who have gone on to become judges, public servants, business leaders and fellow restaurateurs.
His Guido Hospitality Group includes the traditional Little Italy, the modern Front Street Tavern and seafood-based Mariner’s Harbor in the city of Kingston, as well as the seasonal Frank Guido’s Port of Call in the village of Catskill.
All of them are known for exceptional cuisine and service. They have garnered countless awards, high marks from crowd-sourced forums and the praises of celebrities, sports stars and governors like George Pataki and the late Mario Cuomo.
“It’s all about doing the right thing, caring about your customers and doing the best that you can,” Guido said. “We train everybody about what is best for the customer.
“It comes from my experiences going places and getting aggravated. I can’t stand it when I go for an appointment and the receptionist is on the phone and doesn’t even look at you. That won’t happen here. I tell my people to make eye contact and be pleasant no matter how busy they are. I’m a stickler for common courtesies.”
The square-shooting Guido regularly assembles his team to reiterate his expectations. Whether it’s a regular weeknight, holiday party or evening when a heavy theater crowd is expected, he drills his code of conduct into their skulls.
“You might wait on 35 people and have only one complaint, but I always remind them that it might be your mother complaining,” he said. “There are people who go out once a year, and we don’t have the right to ruin someone’s meal. One year, we did 1,200 covers at Mariner’s on Mother’s Day. We worried about the two people who weren’t happy.
“I try to get a little better every day. My motto is ‘Good enough never is.’ My philosophy is that the customer doesn’t need us. We need them. There are more than 30 restaurants nearby, so it’s my job to make you want to come here.”
And they do come. From big gatherings to small, business functions to graduation parties, holiday celebrations to retirement soirees, Guido restaurants are Hudson Valley hot spots, even in times of mourning.
“We do a majority of after-funeral gatherings in the Kingston area,” Guido said. “At my age, I know a lot of the people who are passing. We lose probably a half dozen customers and friends each month, and it’s a real
compliment that they specifically request their families gather here after the funeral. It’s their final visit, and that’s an honor. Again, it goes back to treating people well.”
He is legendary for his acts of kindness. Guido often will pick up the tab when he is aware of customer hardships like job losses or family deaths. He’s even been known to treat the diner eating alone on a major holiday.
Each Veterans Day, he hosts a complimentary buffet for hundreds of active and retired military personnel. Guido was raised to respect the men and women of the U.S. military and considers it an honor to offer free meals to those who have served, a tradition at his restaurants for 15 years.
Guido, who grew up in the tightly-knit Italian enclave of East Kingston, is fiercely proud of his heritage and the values he learned from his parents, James and Mary, and neighbors who looked out for each other.
He discovered early on that food was at the heart of life’s most precious moments and was a bonding mechanism.
Butch, or “BG” as he was and is still known, would watch his grandmother slaughter pigs and help her knead bread when she got older. It was his Uncle Chuckie and Aunt Tessie who inspired him to go into the hospitality business. The pair owned a lively tavern that fascinated him as a youth.
Many of his relatives owned restaurants and bars. As a teenager, he learned the ropes from his Uncle Ernie at Frank’s Pizzeria on Broadway in Kingston, working as a dishwasher and cook. His relatives always reminded him to smile and put the customer first.
After Guido earned a bachelor’s degree from Marist College and worked a short time for the IRS, he opened his first establishment near Ulster County Community College in 1968. He called it BG’s.
“It worked out well because they were building the college at the time. I was only 21 and knew a lot of the students and most of the construction workers. I did very well.”
Guido also noticed in the ’60s that bartending was predominantly a male-oriented profession, so he went against the grain, training and hiring women for the role. BG’s became one of the first restaurants in Upstate New York to hire female bartenders. To this day, most of the bartenders at his establishments are women.
In fact, women occupy key leadership roles at Guido restaurants from ownership to management to finance.
“I have found that overall, women are great at customer service and more attentive to detail,” he said. “Collectively, the women in management at our restaurants have more than 100 years of experience in the hospitality industry, and we’re proud of that.”
The women who have worked with Guido for decades said he continually pushes his team to do amazing things.
“My co-workers and I have learned the ‘ins and outs’ of the restaurant business, as well as many life lessons that you always carry with you,” said Marie Cina Schultz, Little Italy’s general manager. “In our eyes, Frank’s a celebrity. He shows up seven days a week and never gives up on old-fashioned hospitality. With his vast knowledge and larger-than-life personality, he remains a constant in the industry and our community.”
Anne Marie Crooks has been with Guido for 15 years. The manager at Port of Call said the female leaders on his payroll have become team-builders and mentors, and they owe everything to the man who believed in them.
“Everything we do is because we’ve learned it from him. He’s a genius with his own little book of rules,” she said.
“After having worked for Frank, you can’t help but notice all the things that are wrong at other restaurants like the uncapped ketchup container or steak sauce dripping down the side of the bottle. These are small things, but they matter.”
Bonnie Mayer, a manager at Little Italy, agreed.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 15, and in the past five years working for Frank Guido, I have a whole new perspective on how a
restaurant should be run. It’s almost like looking at it with a new pair of glasses,” she said. “To work in his restaurants in any position, it’s big shoes to fill.
“As everybody knows, he’s the most generous man in the world, but at the same time, he’s discerning. People don’t like criticism, but you learn from it and will be a better employee and most of all, a better person for it.”
That, to Guido, is the highest compliment.
“So many people got their start with us, and I’m so proud of them,” he said. “They learned about honesty, self-respect and responsibility. A good friend once told me that I was lucky because I surrounded myself with the right people. I know it. That’s why I’ve been successful.”
One of his most successful ventures is Mariner’s Harbor, which he originally opened in Highland in 1981. The restaurant, on the banks of the Hudson River, established a national reputation as the place to go for fresh seafood.
“We literally became known from coast to coast, attracting millions of customers and hundreds of celebrities,” Guido said. “To this day, Mariner’s is the standard that all successful restaurants in this area are measured by.”
The stories of Mariner’s are legendary. Famous entertainers like Cyndi Lauper and Steve Lawrence often stopped by and surprised the staff. Among the regulars were Phil Rizzuto, Floyd Patterson, Muhammed Ali and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who still visits when he’s in the area.
One of the most memorable celebrities to pay a call was Frank Sinatra. To this day, former and current staffers still talk about how he went around, handing them $50 bills.
The high point came in 1992 when Mariner’s was named among the top 500 restaurants in the country.
Success, however, has not come without challenges. Guido, a cancer survivor, has endured bankruptcy, eviction, vandalism and two back-to-back floods at Port of Call. The riverfront restaurant sustained millions of dollars
in damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Guido dug in and rebuilt it twice.
On top of that, he bounced back from a Memorial Day kitchen fire at Port of Call in 2018 which severely impacted his bottom line at the seafood restaurant open from April through October.
Again, Guido fought back. He kept his employees working and patrons happy by setting up tents and a portable kitchen on the deck while the interior was being renovated. While he was unable to serve his signature Maine lobster during the rebuild, Guido improvised by creating a new menu to make up for the loss.
“I could have thrown in the towel, but I kept it going for our people–the 30-plus employees, who rely on a steady paycheck, and our patrons, who were so supportive during the disaster,” he said.
Guido has outlined his experiences in a book called “Been There, Done That! A Memoir of Food, Family and Friends.” The memoir, released in 2018, was so popular that the Kingston Barnes & Noble couldn’t keep it on the shelves.
Some of his employees joke that he ought to write a sequel as new experiences arise. Guido is not so sure, but one thing he’s certain about–he has no intention of retiring. While he has groomed his son, son-in-law and cousin to run the restaurants, he remains busy dreaming up ways to make them better.
That means keeping the sauce red at Little Italy and not going in some newfangled direction.
“I’m definitely old-fashioned and proud of it. I always say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The locals like our traditional dishes. Chicken parm is still our No. 1 dish.
“I’m not interested in being trendy. Today, it’s hot and the next day, it’s not. We’ll keep right on doing things the tried-and-true way, while still looking for new way, while still looking for new ways to meet our customers’ changing tastes,” he said.