NEW YORK — Claudia Schiffer, Elle Macpherson, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington aren't your average business partners. Nor would one expect to see these slender supermodels as part of a restaurant venture where apple-caramel pancakes and sirloin steak are the fare.
But Tommaso Buti, the 29-year-old founder of New York's Fashion Cafe theme restaurant, persuaded these raving beauties to forget the rice cakes and join his team. Now they--and their glamorous image--are reeling in the crowds while Buti manages the business from behind the scenes.
"The supermodel I see as the star of the '90s. I also think that theme restaurants are so much of the '90s," Buti said. "That's a combination and it works very well."
It's been six months since the Fashion Cafe opened its doors in Rockefeller Center, just blocks away from the internationally known Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood theme restaurants. Crowds don't come to the Fashion Cafe for the superb cuisine, but instead are intrigued by its museum-like setting and near-celebrity experience.
Few eateries can claim to have a full display dedicated to a Prada outfit and matching pocketbook or the Giorgio Armani suit Jodie Foster wore to the Academy Awards. Perched high above the dining area is Madonna's bustier, an artifact that's nearly impossible to rival.
And while the supermodels may not actually be at the restaurant when patrons arrive, their aura--and the hope that they might show up--are there.
"Theme restaurants make eating like a fun event," said Bill Carlino, senior editor at the Nation's Restaurant News, a New York-based trade publication. "They may serve you very average nachos, but the display booth next to your table is exciting to be around."
Behind the cafe's sequined suit decor and sexy model portraits is Buti, a Generation Xer new to the restaurant world elite. Soft-spoken, yet confident, Buti smirks when he discusses his evolution from little-known caterer to prominent restaurateur.
Born in Florence, Italy, Buti wasn't much of a student growing up, squeaking his way through high school. He did, however, know that he never wanted to go into his father's steel business.
After a few trips to the United States to learn English, Buti finally decided to make the move across the Atlantic in 1989 with $8,000 in his pocket and the ambition to get started in the restaurant business.
Soon after his arrival, he and two friends founded Foccacia, a gourmet delivery service that catered to Wall Street corporations and 7th Avenue showrooms.
"I came here with a big wish and I wanted to achieve something in my life," said Buti, who still struggles a bit with his English. "If you have your own money on the line, then it's more important."
Foccacia found quick success, with clients such as Merrill Lynch, Chase Manhattan and fashion designer Donna Karan soliciting its services. But after 2 1/2 years, Buti, ready to move on, sold his stake and formed his own company.
In 1994, Buti says, he had the "inspiration" for a restaurant focusing entirely on fashion--a place where the beautiful could mix with the ordinary folk over smoked pork chops and pizza.
"People have started changing their focus when they go out," he said. "In the '80s, there were all these nightclubs and discos. In the '90s, going out means to go out to dinner and entertain yourself."
Buti's concept was easily accepted in a world already inundated with theme restaurants, but his claims that he was first to drum up the Fashion Cafe name are still under debate. A number of lawsuits have been filed alleging that he stole the trademark from other restaurants bearing the same name.
Fashion Cafe spokesman Greg Salsburg said the company went through the proper channels under U.S. law to receive ownership of the name, and the lawsuits are nothing more than a publicity stunt.
The allegations haven't stopped Buti from moving forward with plans to expand. More Fashion Cafes will be coming to cities around the world--in New Orleans, London and Jarkarta, Indonesia, in 1996 and Las Vegas, Paris, Madrid and two other Asian cities the year after.
His company, now called Fashion World Co., has taken on other ventures as well, including a travel agency, a health food company and two Italian restaurants. A clothing line too may come in the near future. More than 28,000 Fashion Cafe T-shirts were sold within the restaurant's first four months of operation.
"In order to be profitable in the restaurant business, you need to keep reinventing yourself and try different ventures," said Wendy Webster, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Assn. in Washington. "Models are very 'in' right now, but will they be, let's say, 10 years from now? That's why it's important to be very flexible and change with the times."
His hectic schedule leaves Buti with little time to spare, although he enjoys playing tennis and relaxing at his Miami home with his wife, Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model Daniela Pestova, whom he married in early 1994.
For the most part, though, Buti is focused on business. He works just blocks away from the Fashion Cafe in a grand office off 5th Avenue that is highlighted by two huge, original Andy Warhol portraits of Marilyn Monroe.
Buti is tight-lipped about the worth of his privately held company, declining to give any figure even when pressed. Reports dating back to 1993 estimated its value at $10 million, but that was before the Fashion Cafe was even a thought.
He also shies away from any questions concerning the actual role the supermodels play in the business. Buti contends Schiffer and friends are "part owners" of the venture, but published reports refer to them more as figureheads.
Whatever the case may be, all parties involved can't wince at the publicity they have gotten since the Fashion Cafe opened its doors last spring.
And Buti knows that more than anyone else.
"We really couldn't be doing any better," he said, laughing, "not any better."