by Eric Barton | February 28, 2024

From Corporate Downtown to Island Time: How Florida Keys Restaurant Owners Found the Secret Ingredient to Success

Ever dream of quitting everything and opening a restaurant? Isis and Tony Wright did just that with the Italian Food Company in Key Largo.

Italian Food Company currently has three locations in the Florida Keys. Photography courtesy of Italian Food Company.

Isis and Tony Wright left their corporate careers behind during the pandemic to start the Italian Food Company restaurant in Key Largo. They had no restaurant industry experience, and that alone would seem to be a major strike against their chances of making it.

But now they’ve got three Keys restaurant outposts and a fourth coming in Islamorada, opening in April. No doubt their business backgrounds helped: Isis has an MBA from the University of Miami and is a former digital marketing executive, while Tony worked over 15 years in executive recruiting and was once the Head of Recruiting for PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global accounting firm.

But how’d they make it in a restaurant industry famous for chewing up newcomers?

I asked Isis Wright for their secrets. Here’s an excerpt. 

You and Tony opened the Italian Food Company in Key Largo in 2021 with no restaurant experience. How’d you learn the business?

Tony and I were business partners and married for well over a decade. The onset of COVID affected our business, and 98 percent of our revenue disappeared overnight. Coincidentally, we had obtained a commercial property as part of a portfolio of investments. We surrendered into a cocoon stage and met the right people at the right time to help us develop a “what if” concept. We learned the restaurant business on the job, and instinctively looked at the problem the way a consultant would, except that we were developing a framework and executing at the same time. The fact that we allowed ourselves to remain flexible and open is the reason Italian Food Company developed into a real brand with an identity and authentic feel. We hired a consulting chef at the very beginning. He was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. But it was our natural intuition and hands-on approach that guided our transformation. We’ve done just about every position in our restaurant group, and we are still tweaking, improving, adapting as we go along. 

You’re now about to open your fourth location in a very short amount of time. What’s the key to that success?

Serendipity, momentum and being able to maximize and cross-utilize resources are essential components. I also believe we are in a community that is supportive of our projects and, in kind, we are active members of that community. We are vested in creating an experience for visitors and vested in improving the quality of life for those that live and work in the area.

Isis and Tony Wright, the owners of Italian Food Company. Photography courtesy of Italian Food Company.
Seems like you’re headed toward a global expansion, no?

It is a compliment to our work that you are asking about global expansion. We would love to import the Italian Food Company concept to other areas outside of the Florida Keys. I believe there is a shift in what people are eating, and I see the appreciation and trend to simple, quality, savory meals that generational families can share together. This is what I love most about our restaurants. We have high school students that come and eat with their friends. Families share birthdays and celebrations. Couples make it a point to come to Italian Food Company on a date night. Italian Food Company has the potential to move in several directions: online, upstream and national locations.

Did your business degree and background in corporate America help?

Our business background and individual experiences undoubtedly gave us the tools to manage the various aspects of the restaurant business. Tony and I have complementary skill sets, and we divide our time in the things that we do best. I’ve been involved with multinational corporations, and Tony has led teams recruiting C-level executives. The restaurant and hospitality business requires just about every competency I can think of. Aside from having a business background to manage the day-to-day, we also incorporate real family recipes and authentic aspects of Italy that give the restaurant character and a life of its own. Our meatballs are special because we make them every Tuesday with Tony’s mom, Maria, at the helm. The tables our guests dine on come from the foothills of Mt. Etna and are hand-painted by local artisans from Sicily. Specials like the Pepper Pasta were dishes (his) family would make on birthdays. Our background and story work hand in hand. 

Italian Food Company imports their desserts weekly from Italy. Photography courtesy of Italian Food Company.
Was there one point in time where you really homed in on the concept?

I talk about feelings a lot when I describe the restaurant, and it speaks to using our intuition and the “blink” moments Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book about unconscious decision making. We knew what we wanted the restaurant to feel like, and it continued to evolve until we got to a place where we said, “This looks like the Italian Food Company.” The menu also evolved. We know good Southern Italian food. We wanted to keep those recipes intact, backed by a feeling, a memory or a story. The family unit is very important in Italy, and so our restaurant needed to resolve the question of: What will mom, dad, sister, baby and grandmother eat?

If somebody was going to leave a career behind to open a restaurant, any advice?

Leaving a career behind to develop a restaurant concept needs to be a purposeful choice. It is a difficult climate with people and resource management. Tony and I were in a position where our backgrounds gave us an advantage for instinctive decision making. Law enforcement talks about having instinctive ability and extra sense after a number of years on the job. I think it’s the same for business and dealing with people. There is a strong people component to this business, and it’s essential in managing a restaurant.