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Published: Monday, 9/17/2001 - Updated: 1 year ago

Cousino's is Toledo success story

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

Tom Cousino started working in his father's restaurants even before he became a teenager. Now, at the age of 55 and as the operator of six restaurants himself, Mr. Cousino can almost say he never left the business.

But there was that one brief interval back in the late 1960s, when he was 21 or so. “I quit,” Mr. Cousino told his father, Earl. “We had an argument,” he recalled. “I don't remember what it was about, but I resigned. I threw the keys at him and said, ‘You run it.' I decided I was going to be a banker. The reality was that nobody wanted me as a banker.”

After a couple of weeks of unemployment, Mr. Cousino returned to what were then Earl's Steak Houses on Woodville Road in Oregon and in the Lamb Building in downtown Toledo.

The family restaurant business, which started out in an accidental sort of way in 1945, has evolved into an operation that employs 387 workers and could reach $10 million in total revenue this year, according to Mr. Cousino, president and chief executive officer.

Mr. Cousino's enterprise really took off in recent years with the addition of four facilities at the Docks development on the Maumee River at International Park in East Toledo - the Navy Bistro, Eileen's Wine Bar, and Tango's Mexican Cantina restaurants, and Courtyard at the Navy, which handles catered functions. He also operates Earl Cousino's Steak House and Caf Chez Vin, both on Woodville Road.

“If a Toledoan can't be proud of Toledo from this vantage point, then they'll never be proud,” said Mr. Cousino of the downtown skyline view from his headquarters, the dockside Navy Bistro. “This was a huge risk. The downtown was lined with [restaurant] failures.”

Competition is now strong. “Tom is a great independent operator,” said Gus Mancy, managing partner of Mancy's Steaks. “It seems there's not many of us left. The independents need to rise above and compete with chains that come in here with millions of dollars. We need to stick together.”

Mr. Cousino's restaurants are among those benefiting from a boom in dining out. The National Restaurant Association in Washington, says it expects the nation's 844,000 restaurants to reach $399 billion in sales this year, for the industry's 10th straight annual gain - up from $239 billion in 1990.

The firm's founder, Earl Cousino, did not start in the restaurant business. He was an insurance supervisor when, in 1945, he sold a home on Letchworth Parkway in West Toledo for $6,000, Mr. Cousino explained. The buyer could come up with only $4,900, so he deeded over an East Toledo restaurant, the former Whitehouse at Fassett and Miami streets, for the rest. The place was about to be closed by the health department, Mr. Cousino recalled, but his father saved it and used it to launch a his restaurant career.

In their 80s now, Earl Cousino and his wife, Geraldine, sold their business to Tom Cousino in 1976. The younger Mr. Cousino continues to use his father's corporate name, Dri-Car-To Corp. - a contraction of family members' names - and formed his own Front Street Ventures in 1996. Under the Front Street umbrella, Mr. Cousino also owns two Maumee River cruise boats, the Victory and the Safari, and a river taxi called Iggy.

“I get angry with him for sticking his neck out too much,” said his wife, Eileen, vice president.

Mrs. Cousino said she and her husband often “borrow” good menu ideas and concepts from other cities. She's particularly proud of a new chocolate martini recipe that she says she wheedled out of the staff at Jilly's Bistro, a popular Chicago restaurant. “I kept saying I'd have another martini if they'd tell me another ingredient,” she said.

Businessman Greg Bollin, a frequent customer at the restaurants in the Docks development, said he admired the entrepreneurship of Mr. and Mrs. Cousino. “This is a vision,” said Mr. Bollin, founder and president of a video firm, RGB Productions, Inc., in Maumee, while lunching at the Navy Bistro recently.

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