Carmen Anthony Vacalebre got into the restaurant business by accident.
Before he opened the popular restaurant group named after him – including and , which will have its last day on Saturday – Vacalebre thought he’d give fast food a try.
He has been in the food industry every since.
Vacalebre worked at McDonald’s from 1966 to 1969 where he became a general manager and traveled between the restaurants as a troubleshooter. A graduate of McDonald’s Hamburger University, according to a press release, he left the growing national chain after a few years to open a fast food joint of his own called Me-Ma’s in Wolcott. He established a second location in Waterbury, where he has been a longtime resident, in 1972. Ten years later, Vacalebre bought into the Arby’s franchise, overseeing 11 Connecticut locations and three Me-Ma’s.
But opening an upscale restaurant was the Brooklyn, N.Y., native's dream, so he did so in May 1996 — Carmen Anthony Steakhouse, located on Chase Avenue in Waterbury. A series of fishhouses came next, opening in Woodbury (1998), Avon (1999) and Wethersfield (2000), followed by another steakhouse in New Haven (2004).
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“I liked the area and I knew some folks that lived out there and they said they didn’t have a high-end restaurant,” Vacalebre said of opening in Avon.
Vacalebre said goodbye to fast food in 2000 when he sold his Arby’s franchises and focused on fine dining.
Saturday will be bittersweet as he says goodbye to another restaurant — his Avon location, the lowest-performing of his five Carmen Anthony restaurants.
“It was a disastrous year for most restaurant tourism and businesses in general,” Vacalebre said. “The Avon restaurant is the prettiest location we had, especially because of outdoor patio… If it wasn’t for the economic environment, I think we’d still be there.”
Between the tough economy and what Vacalebre dubbed the “year of the tsunami” — which entailed shoveling snow off of the restaurant’s roof last winter and braving Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm — he decided to downsize to focus on his other four restaurants, which will remain open.
“We’re selling the furniture and fixtures. We’re not selling the name and guest list,” Vacalebre said. “It was not an easy decision by any means.”
The Grist Mill, which has been in Farminton for about 20 years, plans to purchase Carmen Anthony Fishhouse of Avon’s assets.
Carmen Anthony Restaurant Group signed an “intent to sell” agreement on May 14 with Anthony and Kristine Giraulo, who have owned the historic Farmington restaurant for 11 years. No changes will be made to the restaurant layout and the hours will remain roughly the same.
“We are extremely excited. We have very loyal guests that come from Simsbury and Avon and all those surrounding areas up north and we’ve gotten a tremendous response,” Anthony Giraulo said.
The Giraulos, of ARG Restaurant Group, will lease the 51 East Main St. space from Brian Foley, owner of the Shops at Applewood, LLC and Fifth District Republican Congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley’s husband.
Vacalebre said that the plan is to close the sale on May 29. He has offered to place all Avon employees in jobs at his other locations. The Giraulos have also invited any Avon Carmen Anthony employees to apply to The Grist Mill if they want to continue working at that location.
Carmen Anthony Fishhouse of Avon will have its last hurrah on May 26, serving lunch from noon until 10 p.m.
“I want to thank our loyal Avon guests and friends personally for their patronage. Many of my guests visit all of my locations and I look forward to seeing you all in my other restaurants,” Vacalebre said in a press release on Tuesday. “My decision to downsize was an emotional struggle, however it was the most prudent business decision for the betterment of my overall company. I have been ‘closed-lipped’ about this because the deal has not been finalized as of yet. As we all know, anything can happen!”
All patrons who dine at Carmen Anthony Saturday will receive a $25 gift card as a token of the restaurant group’s gratitude, Vacalebre said. All gift cards, including ones previously issued, will be valid at the remaining Carmen Anthony restaurants.