The Tenant Feature series is your chance to get to know some of the places and faces in Columbia Gateway. This installment features Joe Barbera of AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar. You can find AIDA at 6741 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia, MD 21046.
Can you describe your background? Where are you from? How did you get into the restaurant industry?
I am originally from Chicago and moved to Columbia, Maryland with my wife Mary and our first child, Marietta, in 1984. I worked in high tech sales and marketing my entire career and traveled extensively all over the country and the world. On 9/11, I was in Canada and couldn’t get back into the country for almost a week. I pledged on that long drive home that I wouldn’t continue that hectic lifestyle and would explore options that kept me closer to home. So in 2002, we decided to open an Italian Bistro and Wine Bar and name it after my mother. We found space in a strip center in an office park called Columbia Gateway, hired a talented chef named Mike Wagner, and brought on a group of people who shared our vision of pairing fresh, local food with fun wines.
How did you decide to open AIDA in this location?
We began in a strip center across the street and as our business grew, we needed more space. COPT had a building that was originally intended to be a bank building but became available as a restaurant site. In Columbia, it doesn’t often happen that a mom and pop restaurant has an opportunity to have a stand-alone restaurant space. Cathy Ward from COPT worked with us to make this happen, and we have now been in our new space for seven years.
How does your location influence the amount and type of business you get?
Location is important in the restaurant business, and we are fortunate to have a loyal business customer base. The private room, outdoor space, and bar areas are used quite a lot during the week for special events, dinners, parties, celebrations, and happy hours. The biggest challenge we face is on weekend nights, when the office park is not populated. Since we are tucked away and off of the main highway, “out of sight, out of mind” is a constant challenge. We continue to work on getting “neighborhood” folks to travel back to Gateway for dinner. And this past year, we received recognition in seven categories from voters in the annual Best of Howard Dining: Best Server, and Honorable Mentions as Best Chef, Bartender, Italian, Wine List, Dessert, and Seafood.
What has kept you successful on the Gateway for 15 years?
Great people make great things happen, and we have been blessed with terrific chefs and servers. The restaurant was named after my mother, Aida Barbera. We joke all the time that she is the real boss here; the name on the building is hers! She brought many of the original recipes from her family, and has stayed involved visiting guests and actively tasting the food for all of these years. We have earned a loyal following over the years and have hundreds of regular customers, who are like family to us all. We have worked with local farmers and producers for the past 15 years, well before Farm-to-Table was popular. We also feature homemade European style food while incorporating classic Italian dishes, homemade pasta and local cuisine. We opened up our kitchen to guests, with a behind-the-scenes experience, sharing the expertise of our talented chef and sous chef by offering a Chef’s Table for up to four guests. And, seven years ago, we installed an innovative, eco-friendly Wine On Tap system, which has brought in customers interested in trying a variety of different wine options. Finally, we listened to our customers. We heard that many wanted gluten-free and vegetarian food options, so we have added these options to our menus. Did you know that our meatballs and crab cakes are 100% Gluten Free?
Who’s your longest-standing regular client? What’s your relationship like? Why do they keep coming back?
That’s a tough question since we have so many regular customers who have been with us since the beginning. I can’t name names, but I can discuss relationships over the years. Mary and I see the following evolution: from first time diner/stranger to regular customer, to friend, and finally to welcoming then into our family. We have made so many lasting friendships and have seen so many of our guests through many celebrations, as well as the hardships, of everyday life. It is the most rewarding part of our experience in the hospitality business.
What’s the most challenging part of owning and running a restaurant?
The most challenging part is when a new guest comes into our restaurant home and doesn’t respect our staff. There is nothing more frustrating and disappointing than when our team tries hard to provide excellent hospitality but the guest is rude, disrespectful, or outright hostile. This hurts because as hard as we try, we can’t please them. Along with that is the guest who has an issue and doesn’t let us know before they leave. We can fix almost any issue if given the chance, and our service objective is to make it right before the guest leaves. When a guest doesn’t let us know until they post it on social media, we have failed. That is difficult on our staff and on us personally.
What’s the most rewarding part?
Making a complete stranger into a friend, when we provide first time guests the best possible experience. I often tell the team that we have to be part of our guests’ event/experience, whether it is a celebration, a night out, or even a sad occasion. The guest should leave with a positive experience, and we should be virtually invisible, meaning we handle everything to make their experience memorable but that during the event we blend into the ambiance. We are all happy at the end of the day when we can accomplish this!
If you weren’t running AIDA, what would you be doing?
Pouring wine at a winery in Sicily! Seriously, Mary and I visited Sicily this past fall and were incredibly impressed with the high quality, variety, and great values from Sicilian wines. We will be featuring wines from Sicily later this year and in 2018 by hosting tastings and wine dinners.
What’s one thing about the restaurant industry that nobody outside the industry knows?
The men and women who work in the hospitality industry are dedicated and hard working. Their great effort and daily sacrifices make all of our lives just that much better.