Cooking his favorite dishes for family and friends, the effervescent Sonny Bono would carry samples on a spoon to his daughter and helper Christy, imploring her, “Check the pasta! Taste the steak!”
“The best time was always in the kitchen,” Christy Bono recalled recently. “It was where we shared so much family time. It was always based around food.”
The indelible passion for food that the late entertainer and congressman passed on to his daughter--along with some of his generations-old family recipes--has helped Christy Bono forge her own burgeoning career in the restaurant industry.
After taking a beating in the Santa Monica restaurant market, Bono built a thriving business with a restaurant called Christy’s on a nondescript block in Long Beach. Last year she opened a second eatery, called Nico’s, after her 8-year-old son, in Long Beach’s upscale Naples area.
In an industry where 80% of new restaurants fail within two years, Bono and business partner George Mlouk found success by picking a location away from heavy competition and starting out small, growing as demand increased for good food at reasonable prices.
Since opening in 1994, Christy’s has quadrupled in size, business has increased about 30% a year, and sales hit more than $1 million last year, finally making the operation profitable.
Patrons knew from the start, of course, that this was Sonny Bono’s kid and entertained notions of catching a glimpse of her famous father or star stepmom Cher. Sonny did stop by several times before his death two years ago in a skiing accident, but Cher, though close to Christy, hasn’t made it in yet.
Christy Bono downplays her birthright, and the restaurants give no hint of celebrity bearing. Christy’s mother, Donna Rankin, was Sonny Bono’s first wife.
“I’m now 41, and I feel much more of a sense of accomplishment doing things on my own,” she said. “Yes, [being a Bono] is a part of my life. And yes, it does bring people in here. But it doesn’t really change who I am. I’m a businesswoman and a mother.”
The success Bono and Mlouk have had with their restaurants has them looking for a spot in Corona del Mar or Hermosa Beach for yet another eatery. But Bono is cautious. She hasn’t forgotten her trying times in Santa Monica.
In 1984, she and former husband Tony Pasce opened Bono Fortuna on Main Street in Santa Monica. The tiny storefront operation focused on Italian desserts and coffees--and was failing miserably.
“I thought the concept would go through the roof and that people were going to flock,” she said. “Well, they didn’t flock.”
About eight months into it, she was in tears as she called her father.
“He said, ‘All right, hang on. I’m going to be right there,’ ” she recalled. “He comes over, brings a microwave and three containers of sauce--the meat sauce, the pesto sauce and the tomato basil garlic--and some fresh pasta. He says, ‘Chris, get the water boiling. Ah, I’ve got to show you everything.’ ”
After a quick tutorial, Christy used her father’s sauces and began to develop a following. In 1985 and ’86, she ran both her own small eatery and her father’s West Hollywood restaurant, Bono’s, after he left to open a second Bono’s in Palm Springs, where he later became mayor.
“I’d call him up and we’d discuss business all the time,” she said. “He was there, and he’d want numbers, and we’d analyze stuff on the phone.”
But Bono Fortuna was only moderately successful in the second half of the 1980s.
“My father would come and eat and say, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t understand why there’s not lines out the door. I’d be here four times a day.’ . . . We knew there was a market; we just didn’t quite tap into it,” she said.
By 1991, competition from the new 3rd Street Promenade and its array of Italian restaurants persuaded her to turn Bono Fortuna into a Mexican restaurant called Yucatan Grill. Both her father and Cher attended an opening night party to launch the new concept, but it limped along for three years, criticized in some reviews for offering bland chicken tacos and non-Mexican pasta and clams, and seeming to be more a bar than a restaurant.
“It was going down and down and down,” she said.
Bono and Fasce closed it in spring 1994, and the couple separated. She headed for Long Beach to start another restaurant in an area where the competition was less intense. She and Fasce were divorced two years later.
Bono spent $16,000 to open a nine-table eatery at the corner of Broadway and Termino Avenue near her new home in the city’s Belmont Shore area.
“I wanted a neighborhood place, and I scouted, scouted and scouted,” Bono said. “I had a good feeling, and I just took a gamble.”
She didn’t have a grand scheme when she opened Christy’s, except to start small in an area that wasn’t teeming with restaurants. With proven recipes, attention to detail and to patrons--and probably some name recognition--she gradually built the modest storefront eatery into a 42-table operation.
“It’s checking and being there,” Bono said. “You have to oversee all aspects, right down to clearing the dishes off the table through the paperwork, through everything. I’m on the sauce, the cleaning of the lampshades. A to Z.”
Mlouk oversees the extensive wine supply, and Bono greets customers, chats with regulars, tastes and creates dishes with chef Matt Hewitt, and picks out which Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra CD to play.
Mlouk, who teamed up with Bono in 1995 and owns half of both restaurants, says the two have been “very blessed.” Christy’s has been “gaining momentum since Day One,” he said. “And we’re just trying to keep up with it.”
Christy’s serves more than 200 dinners on a typical Friday night, Bono said, and Nico’s is starting to fill up too. Christy’s focuses on Italian food, and the new restaurant has a more eclectic menu, with an array of chicken, meat and fish offerings.
“I think she finally found the right fit between the kind of restaurant she wanted to open and the right location,” said half-sister Chastity Bono, the daughter of Sonny and Cher.
Fellow restaurateur Terry Antonelli, owner of three tony downtown Long Beach establishments, has high praise for Bono’s efforts--and eats at Christy’s often.
“She has a little neighborhood place nestled into the residential [area] where I go when I want to get away from the hustle and bustle,” Antonelli said.
But, he notes, “She has to really rely on the repeat business because she is off the beaten path.”
Bono knows she’s losing the tourist trade, which heads for the popular Pine Avenue district where Antonelli’s eateries are. But the following she has built with local residents has been strong.
“Once they find us, they become very loyal and just keep returning,” Bono said. “We’ve got about 90% customer returns.”
Patrons say it’s the Italian food and the cozy, friendly nature of Christy’s that bring them back.
“I remember at first everyone wondered if it would make it,” said longtime customer Troyan Talin. “But with the food and the way that Christy is, we’ve been coming here ever since.”
So has Jon Nguyen, a 34-year-old graphic designer from Lakewood, who happened to drive by the restaurant during its opening week in August 1994.
“It was pure luck that we came across this place,” Nguyen said. “The menu is reasonably priced, and the food is consistent. That’s why people come back to it. When she started to expand, I thought it would lose its charm, but she’s done a good job with it.”
Chastity Bono, a frequent diner at the restaurant, figures her father would have been impressed.
“Having had a few restaurants himself and knowing the difficulties of the business,” she said, “my dad would have really admired her business savvy.”