Jan 01, 2015 03:11PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt
Photo by Richard L. Gaw Tony Covatta, owner of Steak & Main and The Black Pearl Surf and Turf Grill in North East, Md.
Nearly 30 years ago, Tony Covatta first came to North East not as a businessman, but as the owner of a boat. He loved the Anchor Marina, the people he met, the social vibrancy, and the slow beginnings of a town with a vast potential for growth. Now, with two restaurants in town, he has earned a superb reputation not only as a restaurateur, but as a giver of his time and energies to the town he has truly come to love. Recently, Covatta sat down with Cecil County Life to talk about the restaurant business, his passion for quality, and the people he'd love to have dinner with.
Q: You have been in the restaurant business since you were a small boy, and you've seen the Covatta family name become synonymous with fine quality restaurants, not only in Cecil County, but in Chester County and the Main Line. Now you own and operate two restaurants in North East, the Black Pearl Surf & Turf Grill and Steak & Main Steak House & Oyster Bar. What was been the best advice you have received from family along the way?
Covatta: My grandfather Anthony Covatta started in the restaurant business in the 1940s, and although his restaurants were always known as Covatta's, his philosophy was always that no matter what you call your restaurant, make sure that your customers refer to it by your first name. In his case, many of my grandfather's customers didn't refer to Covatta's, but said, 'Hey, let's go over to Tony's for dinner.' In the front of the house, it's all about welcoming customers to your restaurant like they're family. It's teaching your wait staff about wines. It's allowing them to understand what ingredients are in our dishes, so that they're not just serving dishes but are truly involved in the entire dining experience.
In the back of the house, it's teaching your chefs certain culinary skills. Our chefs love cooking and being creative, so I'm back there with them every day teaching them new things, and they in turn teach me new things.
Q: What did you see in North East that said to you, 'This would be a great town for restaurants?'
Covatta: North East was my playground for many years. Being good friends with Butch Trainer at Anchor Marina, I used to be a customer of that former restaurant, having a boat right there at the Marina. When the idea of me taking over the restaurant was discussed, I thought, 'I am not from this area, but there's only one way to find out.'
Butch and I decided that I would take over his restaurant. Instantly, there were lines waiting to get in, many big fundraisers that were fun to do, and national boating events were held there. I later opened a seafood market in North East, which later became Unwined. Then I saw an opportunity for a fine dining facility in Steak & Main, and then I opened up the Black Pearl last year.
It's been 14 years since I've been in North East, and I still have the same feelings for this area that I had when I first arrived here. There's lots of great people I've come to know. For instance, there is a great mixed crowd of Main Line residents who have all settled on the houses on the Chesapeake Bay, as well as regulars I've known for years. There is one couple I met -- The Watkins' -- in 1985 at The Red Rose Inn, a former restaurant, and they've been coming to see me for dinner for almost 30 years, both at my former restaurants and now here in North East.
Q: Your two restaurants are continuing mainstays in a growing town. You've seen the growth of North East since you've been here. From a business standpoint, what factors continue to stimulate the growth within the town itself?
Covatta: I think it has to do with the dedication from the store owners in the area. They do an outstanding job, and people have always loved to come here, from our anchor restaurant Woody's to Steak & Main to The Black Pearl Surf and Turf Grill, to the many stores we have here. The stores are full. The level of retail we have and how great they do in making the customers happy is what makes this entire town move. When you run the gamut, we have everything, from Second Saturdays to events in the Park, to our wine festival. It's not only the retail end of it that's done wonders, but our town hall has maintained clean streets and landscaping. When I come down here in the morning, there are 10 to 20 workers taking care of this town.
Q: Positive attitudes are infectious, especially when one entity comes up with ideas and invites other entities to become a part of it. A great example of businesses working together in North East is the Crab Crawl, a benefit for the local library. Talk about being a part of this event.
Covatta: This was a great idea, and a perfect example of how we all work together in North East. There were five restaurants participating in the Crawl, and two of them were mine. The library sold coupons to the five different restaurants, and each restaurant did five different variations on crab dishes. I donated 207 cups of soup and 207 crab pretzels. The people who participated in the event had an absolute blast. It raised some funding for the library, and they're excited to be able to do it again.
Q: One of the most popular offerings at Steak & Main has been your sushi nights. How did they start?
Covatta: I kept looking in the areas of what was not being offered at restaurants in this area. If sushi was being offered, it wasn't up to the standards of the people who I knew who loved sushi. I began to offer four or five rolls as specials on the weekends. It took really, really well, and then I decided I was going to hire one of the best sushi chefs I could find, and let him control the direction we were going to go. Like any restaurant we've opened, it's always a stab in the dark. You have to take that chance.
Now, it's just ridiculous how busy it is on Monday and Thursday nights at Steak & Main. The sushi bar is now so busy that we've hired a second sushi chef from Philadelphia. We have two of the finest sushi chefs in the area here now, and it's the best of both worlds.
Q: You have given yourself the day off, and you have the opportunity to take your family anywhere in Cecil County. Where do you take them?
Covatta: I'd take my family to Plumpton Park Zoo and Milburn Orchards. There aren't too many counties that have zoos, and Plumpton Park is a great zoo, it is very well maintained, and it is filled with exotic animals. There are so many events there with various themes. They have taken this Disney World concept and incorporated it into something that's great for the entire family.
Milburn Orchards is just an institution. They have tons of fun activities for the kids. Their products are the best, and at this time of the year, their cider donuts are as popular as the beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.
Q: What are the most consistent challenges you have as a restaurant owner?
Covatta: Food costs are going through the roof, and it's challenging to maintain the highest quality I can, and still be able to know that my customers can still afford to come to my restaurants. There are very inexpensive beef products, very inexpensive chicken, and very inexpensive other types of food. We buy the most expensive food that we can buy. Our scallops are dry fresh-packed and not processed or frozen, and you can immediately taste the difference in their quality.
I have so many food salespersons who come to see me and ask, 'Why are you serving this prime-quality steak? I can save you money. Your customers won't even know the difference.' Well, I know, and I think that my customers know, and that's why we stay to the highest standards. At Steak & Main and the Black Pearl, I'm going to die serving the best product you can buy. You'll never hear anyone say, 'We're not going Tony's restaurants anymore, because the quality isn't the way it used to be.'
Q: What's your favorite spot in Cecil County?
Covatta: The Chesapeake Bay.
Q: You're at the head of a restaurant table. Who would you like to see sitting around that table with you?
Covatta: Because I'm Italian, I have to say 'Family first.' I'd like to see my grandfather at that table. He taught me a lot, and it would be great to be able to see him again.. I'd like to see my father there. And then, of course, my immediate family -- my wife and children.
Q: What food is always in your refrigerator?
Covatta: Our refrigerator is just chock full of fresh fruits and vegetables....and next to the refrigerator, there's a lot of red wine!
-- By Richard L. Gaw