InterView – Mitch Maisetti

InterView By Chris Murphy

Mitch Maisetti Downtown Modesto used to be the hub of everything in Stanislaus County. Highway 99 went right down 9th St and then in the 1960s, the freeway went in diverting thousands of cars. Then in the late 70s, Vintage Faire mall was built and commerce in downtown evaporated. The grand dame hotels Hughson and Covell were closed and the Strand burned. This could have been the end of the story like it is in so many mid-sized cities. But in the early 90’s Mitch and Tammy Maisetti along with Paul Tremayne created Tresetti World Café. This would set the stage for the return of fine dining to downtown Modesto. At the same time, the State Theatre was reopening and this leap of faith lead the renaissance of downtown Modesto. Mitch, Tammy and Paul are still leading the charge for a vibrant downtown today. Many people know Mitch and have been standing strong with him as he battles cancer, but many don’t know his history and views on Modesto. Let’s get to know Mitch.

MV: Where did you grow up and where did you meet Tammy? MM: I grew up in Patterson and went to Patterson High School, just like my father did. I had a great small-town childhood and was raised in the country as well as the city. When I turned 20, I started bartending for weddings and Mexican quinceañeras. After I turned 21, I worked for the Wong Brothers at the Frontier Club; I worked for $30 a shift and became manager after two years.

The Frontier had a wide selection of diverse customers. In the daytime most of our guests were older, ‘salt of the earth’ working people; but when nighttime came all hell would break loose and our bar crowd turned young and brash — great place to cut my teeth in the bar business. Hank Wong taught me almost everything I know about the bar business and how to succeed, and to him I am grateful.

When I turned 27, I became restless and began looking for new ventures. It was at this time I bought the Tiki and left Patterson for good. The Tiki quickly turned into my home and is also where I met the love of my life, Tammy. I never considered myself the marrying type; I just couldn’t picture myself staying with just one woman. Tammy not only changed my mind, she also changed my life.

MV: How did you discover the restaurant business? MM: Before Tammy and I got together, the bar business was all I ever thought I wanted to do. After we were married, we started talking about expanding and getting into the restaurant game. How hard could it be? Customers are customers. Just treat them right and everything will work out, right?

MV: One of my and many other’s favorite places is the Tiki, how did you get involved there? MM: Going back to the Tiki — I started frequenting the bar in the very early ‘80s. When you’re in the bar game and you get a chance to buy your favorite bar, the one you always hang in, it’s not too difficult to guess what I decided to do. My grandparents always told me they would help me open my first business, but when I proposed they lend me $50,000 to buy the Tiki they practically fell out of their chairs. Luckily, they had enough faith in me to write a check a couple of days later. I mean, can you imagine lending a 27-year old kid $50,000 to buy a bar? I will be eternally grateful for their generosity; without that hand-up I would not be where I am today.

MM: What made you want to open an upscale restaurant in downtown Modesto? MV: When Tammy and I started looking for a new venture, we brought Paul Tremayne into our business family. I was always intrigued with downtown Modesto and figured it was going to be the place to be. We found out the old Front Page bar was having troubles paying rent, so we approached the Reed family and signed a lease on April 1, 1994. Coincidentally, the lease on the Tiki was signed on April 1, 1984 — ten years to the day! April Fools!

MV: The food of New Orleans is a highlight of your menu and I was in New Orleans when you were a few years ago, so what about New Orleans and the food there is so special to you? MM: Tammy and I have always shared a mutual love for New Orleans for its culture, weather, and of course, amazing food. NOLA Food is true comfort food and has almost always used local, homegrown ingredients. We live in California, where so much of the world’s agriculture is grown, and we should really be taking a page from their book. That’s where the local farmers come in. New Orleans has been doing the local thing for many years with its farmers and fishermen. Simple, great food — we love it!

MV: What is your very favorite thing in the world to eat? MM: I don’t necessarily have one favorite food, but I can honestly say I love red meat and cheese. I had a great night in downtown Modesto last week at Camp 4 where I had an amazing salmon and cheese platter. If I had one last meal, that just might be the one.

MV: You and Tammy are such go getters and are so very quick to volunteer and make a difference, what drives you to support the community like you do. MM: Volunteering is essential for the restaurant business in downtown Modesto. We ‘small guys’ are truly at war with the corporate houses that lie, cheat, and steal our customers. The big guys spend millions trying to make our customers think that they are like us. Their marketing strategy is to make you think you’re getting local food and local service. I think there is no way to duplicate what Marcus and Charlene do at Harvest Moon, or the job Brad does at Skewers, not to mention the long hours Hannibal spends at Barking Dog taking care of every aspect of his business, yet you still see people waiting in line at chain restaurants to be fed boiled-in-the-bag pasta that might not even be made in this county, or country. When we get our message across, there’s no way a person would pick corporate over local — not to mention where the money goes. I don’t think everyone realizes how much non-profit help our local restaurants provide to this community, and that is why Tammy and I always quick to volunteer.

MV: There is a new generation of Maisetti coming in to the business, how does it feel to be able have the next generation step up and lead? MM: In the last couple of years my sons, Jordan and Jaxon, have become more of an integral part of our business. They are still very young, but they have the game in their blood! Our niece, Christina, has been with us for over ten years at Tresetti’s and is a very important part of our house. No matter how important the children are to our business, it has always been apparent to them that we want them to choose what they do, not that it chooses them. The three of them are not allowed to work at Tresetti’s unless they are in school. Their choices in life have to be ones they want and not what’s forced upon them.

MM: Downtown Modesto is in flux right now and needs a shot in the arm. What do we need to do to bring it back to life? MV: Downtown Modesto needs a shot in the arm right now. Most of our problems now seem to be economical; large corporation restaurants do not face the same scrutiny by the local law enforcement and governmental regulations as local businesses suffer. These corporate restaurants get a free pass from the city constantly. One example: I have to have a security member with a white shirt which must display “Security” clearly written in block letters on the back of their shirt in order to allow a acoustic performer — who usually plays for about ten people — to play a set. Meanwhile, Applebee’s has a ‘club night’ with more than a hundred people and no security and, more importantly, no police parked in the parking lot looking for an excuse to make a DUI arrest. Have you ever seen Highway Patrol circle the parking lot at BJ’s in the mall to ‘keep the peace’? Tell me how many times has that happened in downtown Modesto. Why is the focus on downtown? Maybe that’s the shot in the arm I’m looking for: equal enforcement.

MV: If you were king of downtown for a day, what would you do? MM King for a day? Well, I already feel like I’m the king of downtown! Don’t get me wrong; I’m not the only one. I believe any local business owner is a king — when we have the great customer base that downtown has and when our customers actively care about how our business is doing — how could we all not feel like kings?

MV. ModestoView is all about living local, why do you think supporting our locally owned business are so important? MM: Local is what it’s all about. I believe Modesto citizens would by more local if they completely understood all of the ramifications of their actions. When you buy local, all the money spent stays here! When you get brunch from Joey at the Fruit Yard or John at Surla’s, you’re getting a better product, and then they in turn donate to your kid’s football or water polo team. Keep the money in Modesto!

MV: What advice would you give to someone that wanted to open a new business downtown? MM: Opening a new business in downtown can be incredibly difficult, but we need new business! Look at some of the successful people in the field you’ve chosen and try to emulate what they do. Susan at Bonnie J has been very successful at retail in downtown. I know it has been an uphill battle for her, but with brains and hard work she’s triumphed. We need about ten more Susans in Modesto! Talk about a shot in the arm!

MV: What do you think about making it a priority to have live music in downtown? MM: Music in downtown Modesto is the magic that makes our community’s wheels go round. We already have the fantastic Gallo Center that provides us with talent no one could bring to smaller clubs (thanks, Lynn Dickerson!), and we should all continue to support and promote local talent for both the performers and the local venues. We could all do better! Check out what great shows Sue at the State Theatre is bringing in for the month, or who is playing at the Queen Bean this weekend. When we all work together, we are much stronger than any corporate house.

MV: If you could visit any place in the world, where would you go? MM. If I could visit only one place, I think I would go back to Zurich and stay in the small hotel Tammy and I stayed in about ten years ago. One night, we were in bed around midnight and decided to throw open the windows. It was very cold, but we had a huge down blanket on our bed. Lying there with church bells ringing with my wonderful wife is about as close to heaven as I can imagine.

MV: Describe your perfect Modesto day? MM: I live my perfect day on a regular basis. I get up late, make it to Tresetti’s about noon for lunch, meet up with the family, and take care of business for the rest of the day. My afternoon is usually spent trying to figure out where to have dinner — always local! Then it’s home, a little TV with the family, and off to bed. You really can’t beat that!

MV: Beatles or Stones? MM: Beatles all the way! How could four guys change this world anymore than they did, and continue, to do?

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