By EMERY NICOLETTI
When describing her start in the restaurant business, Donna DiFiore – owner of the iconic Delectables Restaurant on Fourth Avenue – has very specific work-related memories.
“One of my first duties,” she said, “was to pick up the fresh French bread every morning at La Boulangerie.”
She would carry out loaves of the freshly baked bread, and bungee cord the package to her motorcycle. Looking back, it seemed she was destined to become the owner of a restaurant that housed Tucson’s very first Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership.
Owning a restaurant was not what a young DiFiore thought she would do with her life, figuring that she would be a lawyer or a politician. Her early experience in the legal field dampened her desire to make that a career.
“I was a probation officer, and it did not suit me working in a field where people were sad and disappointed with their choices,” she explained. “I left that field, and decided to vacation in Tucson.”
That was 36 years ago, when DiFiore started her career at Delectables, as part of a small five-to-six person crew.
“When presented with the option of working at Delectables, I jumped and never looked back,” she said. “I started as a server, then to line cook, from there to manager, to business owner and then property owner.”
The business climate of Fourth Avenue has been nurturing and supportive for Delectables. It is a comfortable place and one of many businesses on the avenue have been taken over and purchased by internal staff. They include Delectables, Antigone Books, How Sweet It Was, and Desert Vintage.
Instead of opening a new location elsewhere, DiFiore focused on the Fourth Avenue location and purchased the property where Delectables is currently housed. She has fashioned the restaurant into a staple of its district. Delectables has often been described by DiFiore as “The heart of Fourth Avenue shopping, and entertainment, offering gourmet casual dining to nourish your life.”
Delectables is certainly an anchor business that draws many to the avenue it seems. Lasting relationships are a clear pleasure for DiFiore, one she nurtures in her staff, customers, and with everyone she calls “friend.”
“Staff is the key to delivering any product,” she said, adding that “the majority of the hundreds of folks that have worked for me would give me a warm hug.”
When asked to describe DiFiore, Delectables general manager Christopher Baldwin said she was always honest, and that you knew where you stood with her.
“She’s smart,” he added. “She’s our Mama Bear, sweet fuzzy and protective, and always willing to give you a third chance.”
Baldwin acknowledged a couple of diners leaving the restaurant, and asked if everything was OK.
“Always good,” said the patrons, as they headed towards the avenue.
“Donna clearly has a vision,” he continues. “She’s an alpha-personality, the queen bee; but that’s not to say that she can’t hear other’s input.”
He pauses. “She is a great entertainer and has good leadership and managerial skills which work well together.”
After 25 years, Baldwin – known for his signature vest and fedora – is a fixture at Delectables, much like the restaurant itself is a landmark on Fourth Avenue
Tara Martinez, a head cook at Delectables, described DiFiore as being fair, and nurturing.
“If you have a good work ethic, you’ll do well here,” she said. “If you don’t, then pay attention. She’ll teach you.”
As if recalling a past moment in time, she smiled and added: “She’s always willing to support you outside of work.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing in the restaurant business over more than three decades of management and ownership. DiFiore had to demonstrate keen management skill in lean and uncertain times as demonstrated during the recent year’s long modern streetcar construction.
“In the best and worst of times, managing all assets is challenging and leaves little room for surprises” she asserts. “Controlling cost of sales and labor is critical and that job is never finished. I’ve learned how to narrow the product selection in lean times as well. For instance, do I really need three Chardonnays by the glass? Do I really need 11 draft beers?”
Despite what appears to be a successful completed street car project as evidenced by cars packed with riders, DiFiore is critical of the modern streetcar implementation, execution and its impact on the businesses on the Avenue.
“The construction part was the most painful business interruption I have experienced in my career with Delectables. The project should have been done in smaller segments so that all the merchant districts were not shut down all at once.”
There are other challenges as well, though all seem to be manageable for this successful business owner. DiFiore wishes that the city provide better insight and planning regarding parking, both on Fourth Ave and in the surrounding west university neighborhood.
But the challenges faced by businesses in changing times do not seem to intimidate those that have seen and done it all. The pleasures of owning a business far outweigh the small and large bumps in the road. Having a vision of success, anticipating what is needed to get there, and looking good while getting there are three tenets of business success espoused by DiFiore.
Also critical to success is the ability to be a good listener. Regarding traits that she learned throughout her life that contributed to her success, DiFiore said they are “listening and hearing your words and ideas completely – and when you are done talking, then I’ll talk.”
When DiFiore is not at work, she does find time to relax at home with family. A great evening is described as, “Working side by side with Mitchell (her husband) while he cooks us shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, fettuccine alfredo or one of his many great family meals at home, drinking a nice glass of pinot grigio, a nice scotch or a hearty cab, and all of us around the table telling stories.”
Having raised two college-bound children, nurturing a loving marriage and operating a successful business, DiFiore can claim to know a few secrets:
“Humor is mandatory at work and at home. Sitting at the dinner table with a delicious meal is a bonding unifying event that happens as often as is possible. Speaking factually about likes and dislikes is essential as well.”
For those seeking to open their own restaurant, DiFiore has this sage advice: “You have to be a multitasking, super-minutia-oriented, detailed person with a special hide, to train your staff, satisfy your guests, and do it every day.”
She also says it helps to do yoga and meditate daily “It’s food for the soul,” she said.
Although DiFiore as a young girl may not have envisioned a lasting career in the restaurant business, she still reminisces about summers in Cape Cod, the soft and sandy beaches, and it brings back vivid memories of superb lobster salad rolls. Clearly, her destiny was “Delectable!”
Address: 533 N. Fourth Ave.
Hours: Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-9 p.m.