As we process applications for the 2011 Inc. 500 | 5000, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of the companies that are vying to appear on our ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States. One that caught our eye was Bogota Latin Bistro, in Brooklyn, New York.
Ten years ago, George Constantinou was managing a soul-food jazz restaurant called Night of the Cookers in Brooklyn, New York, when a friend dragged him to a speed-dating event. Also present was Farid Ali, an information technology expert at a Manhattan law firm. "I dragged a friend along like that too, just because I was so uncomfortable," Ali says. Constantinou says the awkwardness was palpable at the event, but sticking it out was worthwhile: "It led to us starting to date."
Fast-forward a decade. Today, Constantinou and Ali together run a thriving 120-seat restaurant, Bogota Latin Bistro, in Brooklyn's posh Park Slope neighborhood. They live a block away from the restaurant and this year are celebrating six years of business, and a past year of revenue topping $3 million. They're also celebrating starting a family: A surrogate is 12-weeks pregnant with the pair's twins.
"We are partners in life, and partners in business," Constantinou says.
Not that the business part came easy. Constantinou for years had been eyeing vacant commercial spaces and scheming up restaurant ideas. Ali, however, was perfectly content in his 9-to-5. "I'm sorry to say it, but it was one of those perfect jobs for one of those people who love getting a fat paycheck."
"Farid was a little frustrated because he wanted me to focus on him—he wanted nothing to do with me starting a restaurant," Constantinou says.
A trip to Colombia, where Ali was born, changed his mind. He introduced Constantinou to traditional Colombian dishes such as Bandeja Paisa and ajiaco soup, and, well, Constantinou fell in love.
"It was amazing, and I couldn't help writing in my notebook recipes, and menu items, and imagery I wanted to build into a restaurant," he says.
Ali, who had been opting out of working on anything restaurant-related with Constantinou, caved under the enthusiasm.
"I saw that he was very, very serious about opening up a restaurant, and I saw that if I didn't get in on this, someone else will," Ali says. "There would be no stopping him, that was apparent. So I opted in."
The pair now had the passion, but lacked a coherent plan, any funding, and basic business know-how. So when Ali saw an ad in the Brooklyn Courrier, for a 16-week business course for $90, both signed up. During the workshop they drafted a rough business plan. They went on to win the Brooklyn Business Library business plan competition, called Power Up, in November of 2003. The prize: $10,000 in cash and $10,000 in-kind services to jump-start their business.
Only they'd need more like $400,000 than $20,000 to open Bogota.
After being rejected by 12 banks for small-business loans ("It was a really devastating time," Ali says), a friend introduced them to a vice president of small business lending at HSBC. As Ali tells it, he took a brief glance at their application, and asked: "Are you going to install a frozen-margarita machine?" Constantinou continued: "People usually associate that with Mexican food—but we got a feeling he wanted us to say yes, so we both just said 'yes.' Twenty-five minutes later I got a call on my cell phone, and he says, 'I got you $100,000.'"
With additional funding from credit lines, friends and family investments, and student loans, Bogota opened July 5, 2005. It was profitable within the first month.
"We had about 250 customers the first night, and the word-of-mouth really helped us build a loyal customer base," they said.
It's been a challenge for Ali to adjust to the long hours and strain of entrepreneurship.
"It was very, very challenging at the beginning," he says. "For 15 years I'd been sitting behind a desk at a computer, then here I am one day hauling 50-pound bags of rice, and bags of chicken over my shoulder, with chicken juice dripping on my shoulder."
These days, the restaurant has 66 employees, including several managers who generally do the heavy lifting. Ali focuses on communications and marketing, and Constantinou is moving into a CEO role, hoping to expand the restaurant's growing product line of bottled sauces—and possibly open another restaurant. They're considering a second location of Bogota in New York—or perhaps building several other concept restaurants in and around Park Slope.
"It's an area we know well, and we know several things could work here," Constantinou says. "We could build an empire."