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At roughly the same time last Friday night, there was an 84-person prom dinner, 82-person wedding rehearsal dinner and 34-person graduation party going on in the various private event rooms of the venerable Positano Ristorante Italiano on Fairmont Avenue.
The prom group (from Churchill High School) was a record size for the 37-year-old Bethesda restaurant. But it wasn’t altogether a new challenge for owner and “Chief Everything Officer” Jimmy Traettino. This Friday, there will be prom groups of 40 guests and 36 guests, then two weddings parties on Saturday.
For Positano — which Traettino’s parents opened on Norfolk Avenue when he was a sophomore at Whitman High School — the biggest challenge is outside its front doors.
For almost three years, construction on a Fairmont Avenue apartment building has meant disruptions and sidewalk closures. With a second apartment project underway directly across the street, Fairmont Avenue has effectively been shut down to all pedestrian traffic at Norfolk Avenue.
A look at a temporary and narrow “Pedestrian Walkway” set up with two orange barriers tells that story.
“If you have 500 restaurants in Bethesda and one of those restaurants has a road closed, you go to one of the other 499,” Traettino said. “So it’s been pretty tough the last few years.”
The private events make up a substantial part of the restaurant’s business. Casual diners are more difficult to come by, although many longtime Bethesda residents deal with the active construction zone almost out of habit.
The restaurant moved to its current location at 4948 Fairmont Ave. in 1980. It has since expanded to cover four different lots. The Churchill prom group was treated to Positano’s Italian classics on white linen table cloths in the restaurant’s original dining room.
Many of the employees have worked at the restaurant for close to 20 years, or longer. You won’t find reviews of Positano every few years from the usual restaurant critics. But there’s little doubt it’s a highly appreciated place.
Last year, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot stopped by to present Traettino and staff with a commendation. A few months ago, Councilmember Roger Berliner’s reelection campaign held its kickoff event in Positano’s private reception room.
“When you have a family business, it’s literally like your home. So you treat people when they come in like they’re entering your house,” Traettino said. “They’re happiness is most important to you. I think you’ll find that at any long-established family business. No bells, no whistles, no gimmicks, no smoke and mirrors. You get what you see.”
Traettino, 52, started working for his parents at the restaurant as a busboy at age 15. He remembered serving his Whitman High School teachers lasagna, spaghetti and clams in white sauce on the weekends.
“And on Monday morning, we would talk and I did pretty well in high school,” Traettino said, “not just because I studied pretty hard.”
Traettino has been at the restaurant full time — lunch and dinner and weekends — for the past 12 years.
“I remember, it sounds like a cliche, but it was like yesterday. I was 15 with a lot more energy of course. I worked every day, every lunch and dinner and I’d go home with $35 in my pocket, which was a lot back then,” Traettino said. “I do the same thing now. Of course I feel the aches and pains. But it hasn’t occurred to me to stop or get tired.
“I don’t think I have time for that,” Traettino said.
The redevelopment of Fairmont Avenue has meant Traettino and family have had to make time to write, email and call about the construction going on down the street. They were at the Planning Board’s hearing last year when the developer of a planned condo at Fairmont and Old Georgetown Road presented.
When that project starts, it will be the third to inconvenience the tiny two-lane street Positano has called home for 34 of its 37 years in business.
“The good thing is when they’re done, those would be our future guests. We just have to hang in there,” Traettino said. “It’s part of progress. It’s part of life. I just with there were not such a destructive way to experience that progress.”