CULINARY Concepts… Skip Quillen Style

By Jeff Lytle

Skip Quillen has learned a thing or two since training in Switzerland as a chef and first coming to Naples to work in 1981. Example: He knows the folly of those celebrity chef TV shows, which portray cooks
as the only stars at restaurants. “We are a whole company of stars,’’ says Quillen, whose Culinary Concepts launched the first of its Fifth Avenue South restaurants, Pazzo!, 23 years ago. “When you need a glass of water, that busboy is a star.’’ He leads by example. He worked as a waiter everywhere he cooked – including Santa Barbara from 1984-87, before coming back.

He still pulls shifts in kitchens and occasionally directs chefs to wait tables. Quillen does all of that in an affable, approachable way, setting the tone for success that now heads north. Where other restaurateurs would be satisfied with a single victory in Naples, Quillen has three – including  Yabba Island Grill and Chops City Grill – and strives for more with a Chops in Bonita Springs and The Saloon in Estero.

“Never a dull moment,’’ Quillen says, citing the employee team that now numbers 300: “It takes a village to run them all.’’ And a sense of humor doesn’t hurt. Pazzo is Italian for crazy and yabba translates to cool in Jamaican. Chops is obvious for meat-lovers, and The Saloon is a grazing and bar place with a
Western feel – complemented by his own collection of Western art. Freshness counts in all ways.

Pazzo! debuted a $1 million facelift this season. Yabba has added a stage for live music – aiming for more of a supper club than a nightclub effect; blue denim sound-absorbing baffles on the ceiling lend to the island motif. Menus at all five sites are tweaked constantly, keeping the high-powered photocopy machines at Fifth Avenue  headquarters humming night and day. “We don’t live in a world that’s static,’’ he says.

His restaurants are challenged as well to bond with customers over an ever-growing marketplace. Culinary Concepts uses social media to reach card club members with discounts, freebies, coupons and pop-up specials. A single web site – gr8food.net – connects diners to all five venues.

Good help is hard to find these days, Quillen acknowledges, while noting that some crew members have been with him since the beginning. Success at recruiting, he says, has a hidden payback: Existing staffers appreciate working with other good people.

There is one more kind of payback important to Quillen – helping charities. He chooses to do with little fanfare, as with sharing proceeds from featured cocktails with non-profits such as St. Matthew’s House and Grace Place, which get plugs on menus. “We are lucky to be in this business,’’ he tells employees. “We do these things because we can.’’

His ethic does not go unnoticed. “He is a true success story!’’ says Naples Mayor Bill Barnett. “His restaurants are all top-shelf and he is a consummate professional. “He is one of the reasons that Fifth Avenue South remains popular.’’

The Culinary Concepts corporate team pose at Chops City Grill in Naples for an aptly whimsical portrait; from left, Jason Mattozzi, Adrienne  Mattozzi, Kendra Rizzi, Jan Kerrigan, owner Skip Quillen, Jennifer Chin, Christopher Metzler and Christopher Principato. Photo courtesy of Culinary Concepts

Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host at the Naples Daily News. Jeff can be reached by email at Jlytle@comcast.net

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