Donatella Arpaia: Serial Entreprenista, Attorney turned Restaurateur and Head Judge on Iron Chef America
Describe your business in a few words:
Donatella Arpaia is a serial entrepreneur, trailblazing attorney turned restaurateur, celebrity chef, cookbook author, motivational speaker, brand ambassador, and mother. Donatella is best known for her recurring role as Head Judge on Iron Chef America.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
My background was growing up in the business, but I never worked in the restaurant, my father never wanted that for me so technically I didn’t have the correct “background”. I did have a very real insight into what a difficult business it actually was. I was extremely driven and passionate about Italian food and the service industry. There were very few women in the industry, it was completely male dominated, so I didn’t have any other women I could speak to about fine dining in NYC.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I knew that I was very driven to succeed in life and I thought that meant to succeed as a lawyer, but when I actually started to work as a lawyer, I almost immediately realized that not only was the practice of law not a career that I wanted, but that working in that law office was the last time I was ever going to have a boss. Once I made the jump to becoming an entrepreneur, I never once looked back and knew there would be no other path for me. When I jumped ship after only a few months of practice and once I became an entrepreneur I knew there would be no other path for me, being an entrepreneur really defines who I am.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out, and did it go as planned?
Truthfully when I launched my first restaurant in the late nineties, I really didn’t have a marketing plan nor the funds for one. I quickly realized not only the importance of PR and marketing, but that I was uniquely gifted at it. Initially, my marketing plan was very grass roots, I started marketing myself without even realizing it back then and building a brand based on me, because I had no choice, no more money, and a huge rent to pay. Literally every customer that walked into my restaurant was mine to win over. I made them feel extremely special and taken care of, I learned every name and would write down all their preferences, I would ask them for a business card and hand write them a personal thank you card for coming to my restaurant. I cannot overestimate the impact these handwritten notes had. I literally built my customer base one at a time. Customers were so moved by the attorney turned restaurateur who was offering the best in customer service. Everyone always asks “what is your favorite restaurant?”, and the answer undeniably will be the one where you are recognized and made to feel special. 20 years later, this is truer than ever, especially when we can’t even get a live person to answer the phone.
I also had to give great food and service, that was a given, but in the early days and in a competitive market when I was a complete unknown, what gave me the competitive advantage was my personalized customer service and attention to details. I made every customer feel like they were the most important person to me, and it worked because they were! Slowly but surely, my restaurant became the “who’s-who hangout” for politicians and celebrities. It was a popular hangout for Walter Cronkite, Mary J. Blige, and more.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
The accomplishment I am most proud of is not any award or achieving a certain profit but my resilience. Resilience is a key success factor for an entrepreneur. Resilience and maintaining my integrity through many storms is something very important to me.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
I believe in it more than ever and have made it a mission recently to find more balance. When I was younger and single, I had no balance, I was all work and at the time it worked for me. When I became a mom for the first time at 40, and then a mom to twins in my mid forties, I craved balance. I found I wasn’t very good at any one of my roles if I didn’t strive for balance and that means making time not only for my work, my children, and my husband, but time for myself also.
What have you achieved recently that you’d like to celebrate with our community?
I’m proud of my work with Philips as their brand ambassador, it grew out of the pandemic, and I love how my business is constantly evolving with my life. I’m proud of the content my team created at philipsbydonatella.com to help busy working parents put healthy food on the table for their family.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
I am actively looking to open a restaurant in my new hometown of Miami, write another cookbook, and I am enjoying motivational speaking engagements. I am also building a new website with e-commerce attached. I have a lot going on!
What excites you about being an Entreprenista League member?
I wish they had this league when I started as an entrepreneur! Brava to the founders, how can I not be excited about a league of like-minded motivated women wanting to elevate other women through community?! I find female entrepreneurs to be so generous with their need to share their story and to help other women. It’s hard to find other women like me, although I know there are a lot of us out there. We can all share what we have learned and help others on their journey.