Donna's steams right along, with more expansion brewing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The green salad, for instance. Just the other day, a waitress sets one before a customer at the Mount Vernon cafe, drawing a furtive inspection from Ms. Crivello, who is being interviewed at the next table. She peers at the salad much the way airport security people look at suspicious packages on the X-ray screen.

Apparently, something amiss with the slices of imported provolone set just so atop the verdant heap.

"Should be cut more like triangles rather than big rectangular pieces," Ms. Crivello whispers.

Ms. Crivello, who studied art in Boston, has an eye for such details. She designed the DONNA'S logo that adorns ceramic mugs, T-shirts and paper coffee containers, thus transforming her identity Warhol-style into a product of mass consumption.

So, what's it like being a name brand?

"It's odd," she says. "It's very strange. There's a lot of pressure."

Also work. She cooks five nights a week at the Mount Vernon restaurant and is constantly visiting the other locations to inspect.

Ms. Crivello, 42, learned much of what she knows about food from her mother, Rosemarie. As long as she can remember, she has wanted to run a restaurant. Instead, she became a graphic designer for newspapers.

In 1990, she catered a friend's wedding and soon thereafter found herself running a part-time catering business. At a dinner party in 1991 she met Mr. Hirsch, now 39, who had sold the City Paper in 1987 and was running yogurt shops. They started talking about restaurants.

When the The Sun offered employees a buyout late in 1991, Ms. Crivello took the money and left. She and Mr. Hirsch went 50-50 on an investment of nearly $100,000 in the first coffee bar/cafe in MountVernon, a converted record store at the corner of Madison and Charles stripped of its wall-to-wall carpeting and dropped ceiling. It opened in November 1992.

Empire building

At first, one location was all the partners had in mind, Mr. Hirsch says, but "it was so much busier than I anticipated, it made sense to expand."

When a spot opened on Allegheny Avenue in Towson, they jumped at it and opened a coffee bar/cafe in July 1993, eight months after the first location opened. By December 1993, the business consisted of the Mount Vernon cafe and the adjacent restaurant, the Towson cafe and temporary, holiday-season espresso carts in Saks Fifth Avenue in Owings Mills and Chevy Chase. Ms. Crivello was saying "enough already."

But the BMA had another idea. After 12 years, the museum cafe would be changing management. Might Donna's be interested in opening a restaurant there?

Despite Ms. Crivello's reluctance, the partners embarked on their most ambitious project: a 120-seat restaurant overlooking the museum's sculpture garden that cost about $200,000 to build.

"It was something I couldn't turn down," Ms. Crivello says. "It seemed a privilege to be there."

While the restaurant was under construction, a Donna's espresso cart became a permanent fixture in the Rotunda. In September 1994, the BMA restaurant opened. A month later came Donna's Express, a take-out sandwich shop at Calvert and Centre streets.

Amid all this were more inquiries. A representative of a national company called, wondering if Donna's might be interested in cloning 25 restaurants between Philadelphia and Washington in, say, two years?

No thanks, said the partners.

But then came a call from Brian Weese. The former president of Encore Books was opening a book "super store" in Pikesville. He could see it all so clearly: a giant bookstore, the 1990s. There must be a coffee bar. It adds, he says, a certain "elan," a "cachet." Or at least in this case the usual suspects: latte, mixed greens, roasted vegetables, focaccia.

Ms. Crivello didn't balk at his idea about a coffee bar/cafe in Bibelot books. The store, all 25,000 square feet of it, will open tomorrow next to the Festival at Woodholme.

Ms. Crivello did have reservations about Harborplace. Maybe we're spending too much money, she thought, maybe we're spreading ourselves too thin. Twice in the last year the deal with Rouse Co. crumbled like so many biscotti. Twice it rose again. This month, the parties agreed to terms. So Harborplace it is -- a kiosk in the Pratt Street Pavilion.

A bit overwhelming

The kiosk is scheduled to open June 1, about the same time a coffee bar/cafe is expected to open on the ground floor of the Homer Gudelsky Building at the University of Maryland Medical Center on Greene Street.

Mr. Hirsch acknowledges that the BMA may be pulling trade from Mount Vernon. And maybe the Towson cafe is drawing people from downtown. But he says business overall is good.

"I don't think our quality has suffered" from expansion, he says. "I think that's when we'd stop."

Six businesses, soon to be nine, in less than three years. A total investment of more than $500,000. Sometimes, says Ms. Crivello, it's a bit overwhelming.

"It seems like a lot. It seems like too much," she says. Yet, she acknowledges having paid a recent scouting visit to downtown Annapolis. Just browsing, of course.

"For as much as I say I don't want to do another thing," she says, "I'm always interested in doing another thing."

DONNA'S BY DATES

Donna's locations, in order of appearance:

* November 1992: Coffee bar/cafe -- Madison and Charles, Mount Vernon

* July 1993: Cafe -- Allegheny Avenue, Towson

* September 1993: Restaurant -- Madison and Charles, Mount Vernon

* June 1994: Espresso cart -- Rotunda

* September 1994: Restaurant -- Baltimore Museum of Art

* October 1994: Sandwich shop -- Calvert and Centre, downtown

Scheduled openings:

* April 28, 1995: Coffee bar/cafe -- Bibelot books, Pikesville

* About May 25, 1995: Coffee bar/cafe -- Homer Gudelsky Building, University of Maryland Medical Center, Greene Street, downtown

K? * June 1, 1995: Kiosk -- Harborplace, Pratt Street Pavilion

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