Donna's steams right along, with more expansion brewing

April 27, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Somebody's always got another spot in mind for Donna Crivello, who is not just a woman but also a brand name. One friend envisions a Donna's coffee bar/cafe in Columbia, another suggests Philadelphia, another Dupont Circle in Washington, or maybe Annapolis. Somebody calls and wonders if the caffe latte and black T-shirt routine might adapt to a Mexican sports bar.

Limits, she says, there must be limits.

"I don't want to feel like we're just multiplying," says Ms. Crivello. Franchise? Forget it: "I don't want to worry about a Donna's in Dallas."

All right, Dallas is out. What about Pikesville -- a coffee bar/cafe in a new bookstore roughly the size of Cleveland? Or might the focaccia and roasted vegetables play in, say, the new skylit tower at the University of Maryland Medical Center? Then there's Harborplace, how has she managed to avoid Harborplace? Wouldn't that be a natural?

We'll soon find out. Donna's empire is about to grow from six businesses to nine. The Pikesville restaurant will open tomorrow, soon to be followed by a kiosk at Harborplace and a cafe at the medical center.

Less than three years ago, Donna's had six employees; now there are 140. Consider an investment tip: black napkin futures.

Still the calls keep coming -- about one every other week from somebody who wants Ms. Crivello to open a Donna's restaurant, cafe, kiosk, espresso cart, something. As if nobody in town ever had a decent cuppa' joe before the saucer-eyed woman and her partner, Alan Hirsch, opened the first coffee bar/cafe in Mount Vernon late in 1992.

Now the partners occasionally ponder a cosmic question: How many Donna's are too many?

How much olive oil and tapenade can one city of 700,000 absorb? Already people are calling it McDonna's. Soon you won't be able to throw a rock without hitting a skinny 23-year-old in a black get-up hustling Italian sodas.

For the moment, the Donna's partners say this: enough already.

"We're not interested in any more locations," says Mr. Hirsch, who is no relation to this story's reporter. For at least the next six months, he says, no more serious discussion of expansion. "We're going to completely focus on the quality of our operation."

Ms. Crivello, former design director of The Sun, acknowledges that it's probably time for a rest, although she dismisses the notion that her business is advancing over the landscape like some espresso-crazed Col. Sanders.

"I don't think we're McDonna's," she says. "Not every place is the same."

True, the menu varies from one place to another, with more elaborate selections in the two restaurants than the cafes. But there's always pasta, salads with slices of cheese, the ever-present roasted vegetables. Always that terribly chic, California-Mediterranean feel. Decor ranges from the casual, quasi-ice cream parlor ambience of the Towson cafe to the elegant restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- a warmed-up Bauhaus look with steel columns, polished wood partitions, suspended canvas panels and black accents. There must be black -- napkins, chairs, track lighting. And white. And natural wood.

Not since former Colt Gino Marchetti about cornered thhamburger market in the 1960s have we seen such a rapid proliferation of locally owned restaurants with a common name, similar look, similar menu. For the time being, it's working.

"People are very into casual meal or a bite settings . . . places where they can feel comfortable," says Olga Boikess, who has edited Zagat's Washington-Baltimore restaurant survey since it started in 1986. Zagat's reviewers use such words as "cool" and "sophistication" to describe the cafes and restaurant in Mount Vernon and Towson, which were rated "very good to excellent" for food in the 1995 survey. The chief complaint about the Mount Vernon cafe is that it's too noisy, but the acoustics have improved a bit with the recent addition of sound-absorbing materials in the ceiling.

Growth is difficult

With rapid expansion, Ms. Boikess says, the trick is keeping the qualities that worked in the first place while adapting to changes in the market and to the demands of different locations.

Mark Caraluzzi, who started the American Cafe in Georgetown in 1976, knows about this. He added a restaurant a year before he sold the business to W. R. Grace & Co. in 1983. Grace & Co. has since sold the business, and there are now about a dozen American Cafes scattered around Washington and Baltimore.

"Growth in general is difficult," says Mr. Caraluzzi, who now owns Bistro Bistro and D'Angelo restaurants in Arlington, Va. "The business revolves around people. Every time you open, you have a whole new staff. . . . The day you decide you've got great quality and great service is the day it starts to go downhill."

Ms. Crivello is doing what she can to make sure that doesn't happen. She says she's compiling a recipe-picture book for the kitchen staff to make sure everybody knows not only how dishes are made but how they're supposed to look.

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