If you've ever been to The Clever Koi, then you've most likely been greeted by Nick Campisano. As a partner and general manager of the restaurant, Campisano's job centers around creating a welcoming ambiance, and he has a cool demeanor that immediately puts guests at ease. But as alluring as the job of host and show-runner sounds, the gig isn't quite as glamorous as it might seem.
We sat down with Campisano at the beginning of Clever Koi's lunch service to learn about the day in the life of a general manager. As the restaurant fills up and starts to bustle, Campisano tells us his day starts at 9 a.m., well before opening. Every day he arrives and sets up the patio furniture, sweeps, mops, and cleans the bathroom. These are rare tasks for someone of Campisano's stature, but the way he tells it, it's the only way to start the morning off right.
Before he opened The Clever Koi with fellow owners Jared Porter and Joshua James, Campisano came from an already full career in the hospitality industry. Stints at night clubs, hotels, and corporate restaurant groups, in addition to having been a partner in a business venture prepared Campisano to fill the role of general manager at Clever Koi and his latest project, a doughnut shop called Born & Glazed.
He is conversational and effusive as he tells us about his history. From Tucson to San Francisco by way of Tempe and Los Angeles, Campisano first worked the door at parties and events, and he says it was during this time that he was able to fully realize his natural talent for entertaining. His welcoming personality and ability to help others enjoy themselves was "what emanated from me," he says.
After apprenticing under a Bay Area restaurateur, Campisano became a partner in The Cardiff Lounge in Santa Cruz, where he dedicated himself to studying beverage service, business logistics, and how to manage profit margins. He worked to distinguish The Cardiff Lounge from similar businesses in the area, and recounts a story of hiring Mickey Avalon to bring in live music to the lounge. Campisano picked Avalon up from his hotel, and "it was a fucking disaster," he says. "[he had his] shirt off, probably inebriated, but we ended up throwing one of the most badass parties in Santa Cruz!"
After working in nightclubs, Campisano worked the other end of the hospitality industry in upscale hotels and with Scottsdale-based Fox Restaurants Concepts. He credits both experiences, those with FRC especially, as imbuing him with the corporate skills that lent structure to his already complicated philosophy about hospitality. It was through these companies that he developed the skills necessary to open his own business, he says.
If Campisano's story is starting to sound like the stuff of a long, full career, it's a surprise to discover that at this juncture he was only 24 years-old. But Campisano put the breaks on his career when his sister gave birth to his niece, who was born with Angelman syndrome. In order to be available to her, he took a job serving at The Parlor. "I needed to take a downshift and appreciate life," he says. "I'm very family-oriented."
It was at The Parlor, where Campisano was promoted to a management position, that he met Jared Porter, Joshua James, and ex-Clever Koi partner, Joe Absolor. With shared goals and aspiration, the quartet opened The Clever Koi in the fall of 2013.
Campisano is full of pride as he describes the dichotomy between Porter, James, and himself. They work as a team, with no one owner playing a greater role than the other. He is thoughtful about the complex relationships between their roles, and expresses the importance of hospitality, food, and beverage to work together for guests to have a complete experience. "If I'm an asshole and if people don't have a good [service] experience, they wont come back again, no matter how good the food was," he says.
The philosophy of hospitality Campisano has developed is of the utmost importance to him. He becomes animated as he describes his passion for it, speaking rapidly and with great emphasis. Shaped by the writings of Danny Meyer and Charlie Trotter, and restating the importance of Sam Fox's influence on him, Campisano describes a style of hospitality in which the role of the server cannot be undervalued.
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"It's not about just a smile, a handshake, or a hug," he says, 'It's about guiding guests through the journey of the dining experience." He trains his staff to sense guests' moods, to remember them and their orders. "It's not that the customer is always right, it's that guests must always be heard," he says. Campisano insists that there must be integrity, empathy, and a thoughtful reaction to each individual in the restaurant.
Campisano leads by example, coming alongside his staff "in the trenches" to work as a back server or expediter in the kitchen, and says that good leadership is all about side-by-side growth. The model works for them, he says. Three out of his five original servers are still with the restaurant, and those individuals will share managerial roles when he departs to run the forthcoming Gilbert location of The Clever Koi.
When it came to designing and building the new Clever Koi, Campisano explains how hospitality extends well past guest interactions. A great amount of attention has been paid to the little touches — decor, tables and chairs, serving ware, and cutlery. There will be windows that slide open with screens on them to keep out pests. "It's the small things that make a big difference," he says.
When Campisano is not at work, he is at home with his wife and two children. Restaurant work can often be all-consuming, but in his off-time he says he just wants to focus on being a good father and husband. Campisano's emphatic speech slows when he describes his family, and his tone softens. He tells us that the long nine-to-close days are always for their benefit, and judging by the rapidly-filling lunch crowd in the Clever Koi, today will be especially long.