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A Full Plate

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
August, 2014 Issue

Flip Hospitality’s Nino Rabbaa sees more growth ahead for his company.

When meeting Nino Rabbaa for the first time, you have no doubt he’s passionate about his growing restaurant empire, Flip Hospitality and Entertainment. He’s lived in the United States only nine years, yet Rabbaa already operates two successful eateries in Santa Rosa along with a catering division. His company is also planning to open a brewery with a multi-cuisine mix this fall in Rohnert Park.
Rabbaa has even more on his plate these days. Also this fall, he’ll unveil a new restaurant in the same space where, six years ago, his Rendez Vous Bistro transformed a dreary corner of Old Courthouse Square on Fourth Street into a Parisian-style sidewalk café. Known as Flip A Crepe, the vibe remains French, but the cuisine will be crepes-to-order, with prices and atmosphere more family-friendly than his original eatery. Across the square, the former Space XXV nightclub is also getting a Rabbaa reboot.
Ambitious plans such as these are nothing new for Rabbaa, a 37-year-old entrepreneur who holds degrees in software engineering and international business from St. Joseph’s College in Paris, where he was raised. Flip Hospitality’s founder and CEO began his first business at age 20 while still a student. After running an advertising and marketing firm, he formed a technology company called EPN, which later grew into Ultimagate, a producer of interactive games, online magazines and multimedia.
“I grew that company into what eventually became the biggest digital hub in Europe for video gaming,” explains Rabbaa. In 1999, video gaming was evolving from solo to multiple players, he adds, and becoming a hugely popular social interaction activity. “That industry was growing larger than the movie industry at the time. My company was one of the first to create a platform for people to be able to play with others online over servers, and my store in Paris had 500 computers for playing games.”
Rabbaa’s company then went on to qualify French gamers to play in the World Cyber Games, founded by Samsung in 2000. “That ‘World Cup’ of gaming started with just 13 participating countries and then it went global. It was my last business in Paris before I came to the United States.”

Moving on, starting over

Love brought Rabbaa to Sonoma County.
“In 2001, I was operating a few Internet cafés in Paris,” he recalls. “One night a young lady walked into one as I was getting ready to close for the evening.” She was an American named Megan, on a bicycling trip with family, and she wanted to send an email to friends back home in Sonoma County about her vacation. “Her mother and aunts had been in the store earlier in the day and told her there was an English-speaking guy who could help her, meaning me,” says Rabbaa. Their connection was instant. “We were engaged six months later and lived together for two years before getting married.”
After marrying in 2003 in Paris, the young couple made a life-changing decision. “There was an opportunity for me to exit my company in France and to move on,” says Rabbaa. “Megan and I had also talked about starting a family, and that’s why we came to Sonoma County.”
Rabbaa arrived in Santa Rosa during Cinco de Mayo in 2005. “So everything started new in my life on 5-5-05. Those are my lucky digits. Later, when people would ask why I moved here, I used to joke that I came for Charles Schulz and Snoopy.”

Fearless and adventurous

Rabbaa initially thought he’d return to the technology industry, possibly in nearby Silicon Valley. “At first, I wanted to jump back into that, but I had some hesitations and concerns. Other than my wife, I knew only three people in the United States––her mother, father and brother—and nobody knew who I was. I’d gone from being on the front page of newspapers in France, because I’d created the biggest video-gaming network in Europe, to suddenly being without an identity here in America.”
Born in Lebanon, Rabbaa comes from a humble home life in an Armenian-Lebanese family. “My great-grandmother was saved from the Armenian Genocide when she was only four years old and had watched all her family being killed. She ended up in Turkey, Syria and ultimately Lebanon, so we are survivors.”
Food and hospitality were a strong part of his family culture while Rabbaa was growing up, he adds. “I was born into that, celebrating with feasts. As a Mediterranean family, we always had a feast no matter what. So hospitality came naturally to me from a young age. It’s in my roots.”
How did Rabbaa make the transatlantic leap from video gaming to the restaurant and hospitality business? A strong conviction that he could improve the marketplace. “I told my wife that we have to be the change makers. If it takes ‘crazy’ to make changes, then call me crazy. I’m a fearless guy. I’m adventurous. My three main assets are hard work, dedication and passion. This is who I am. But anyone can be a change maker with those three assets.”
One night in 2006, a crazy idea for change was hatched when Rabbaa and his wife emerged from a movie theater downtown and he suggested a late-night dinner. “And Megan said to me, ‘Honey, we’re in Santa Rosa. There’s nothing open after 9 p.m.’ And I said, ‘What?!'”

Calculating success correctly

Opening a new restaurant during a recession, as Rabbaa did with Rendez Vous Bistro in 2009, isn’t for the faint of heart. “But I’m a gambler with a sense of minimizing risk. It’s all about how you strategize things in life. When I came to Santa Rosa, I learned to observe, be patient and measure what was needed. That’s what saved Rendez Vous from the big market crash.”
Rabbaa says he and his wife had to calculate if they could open a restaurant and then survive without business for a year. “We had to know ahead of time how we would make it if business was bad. You have to understand how money works and have the right business model. Luckily, when Rendez Vous opened, we did well, but that’s because we’d done our calculations.”
A great idea, he adds, can still fail if it’s been miscalculated. “When I first came to the United States, I didn’t necessarily do good deals. I made mistakes, absolutely. I’m not perfect. But mistakes make you stronger—as long as you don’t repeat them.”
Before Rendez Vous Bistro opened, the site had been a Wolf Coffee shop, and the pedestrian dynamic of that portion of Old Courthouse Square was less than desirable. “It was a dark corner and people had issues walking through there––they were a bit scared of it,” says Rabbaa. “The city had tried some things to change the synergy. But at Rendez Vous, we added the patio and put new life into that corner. We helped to create a more vibrant street.”
Rendez Vous brought to downtown Santa Rosa the only late-night happy hour dining at that time, says Rabbaa, laying to rest the perception that Santa Rosa’s sidewalks roll up at 9 p.m. “Rendez Vous was the first. We were the engine in changing that. Just along Fourth Street in the last few years, you see how much the impact of Rendez Vous changed it.”

Occupying a “cursed” space

With Rendez Vous well established, Rabbaa turned his attention to gourmet burgers. He opened Flipside Bar & Burger in 2011 on Third Street in what he says had been a “cursed” location. “A lot of restaurants had come and gone in that space. I had to go deep and look at the shape of the building, and I went with my intuition. I believed that if I spent $1 million to fix it up and do it right, it would pay off. If I’d listened to some people, I never would have opened Flipside. People said it was a dead street, but now you walk past Flipside and you can’t miss it.”
One of the first people Rabbaa got to know in Sonoma County, beyond his wife’s family, was Ray D’Argenzio of D’Argenzio Winery. “Nino has a lot of passion,” says the winemaker, who’s also Rabbaa’s landlord at Flipside Burger. “When he has an idea, he runs with it, he gives it his all. He had a great concept for the Third Street space, and it’s doing really well. Nino puts in a lot of hours to make his places successful.”
“Sometimes, I think I’m my own worst enemy,” Rabbaa laughs. “I always raise the bar very high for myself and challenge myself. My wife pushed me to reach higher, because I went through times when I doubted myself and didn’t know if I really wanted to live here.”
Santa Rosa City Council member Erin Carlstrom is a frequent diner at Rabbaa’s restaurants. “Opening a restaurant is one of the most risky and dangerous business models there is, but Nino has managed to make it work,” she says. “Flipside Burger has really enlivened that portion of Third Street and, let’s face it, he’s occupied a lot of vacant space while also encouraging Santa Rosans to come downtown to dine. He’s a unique entrepreneur who’s also community-minded.”
Rabbaa describes Flipside Burger as “an innovation of modern American cuisine built in a healthier way.” The restaurant’s manager, Melissa Beaudoin, says the menu is currently undergoing an update to keep it fresh and relevant. “We don’t want the menu to get stale because we want people to come back again and again,” she says. “We’re constantly looking to improve our offerings by adding new burger options based on what’s new, fresh and in-demand. Plus, we’ll be including more vegetarian options, and also expanding our selection of local beer, wine and distilled liquor.”

Fine-tuning the cuisine

Once Flipside Burger was running successfully, Rabbaa began looking at another empty space, this time on Calistoga Road in Santa Rosa, where a restaurant and bar had recently closed. It took several months of construction and a sizable investment to renovate his newest venture, Flipside Steakhouse and Sports Bar, which opened earlier this year.
“Good things and good ideas take time,” says Rabbaa. “I walked the steakhouse neighborhood for six months to look at the environment, to study the area. You have to feel and understand your market and respect the voice of the consumer.”
About the time the steakhouse was opening, Rabbaa shuttered Rendez Vous, believing it had run its course. “If you blindfold 10 people of different cultures in Sonoma County and offer them food, they’ll go toward American, Italian or Spanish cuisine,” he says. “Fine French food is an occasional, celebration cuisine to them.”
Perhaps Rabbaa’s most ambitious project to date, which was still being fine-tuned at press time, is Flipside Brew House in Rohnert Park. Scheduled for a late autumn debut in the space once occupied by Latitude Island Grill, he says Flip Hospitality “is in the last stages of what I call the ‘big carnival,’ deciding on the multiple concepts we have for the place. It’s huge, and it’s taken us a long time to analyze how we’ll fill it.” Huge, indeed––Rabbaa says the property currently has fire code approval for 1,006 seats.
Rabbaa envisions the Rohnert Park site will include a steakhouse, beer garden, sports bar, banquet area, community table, Latin and Spanish cuisine and even brewery tours. “Brewing beer is just one of the elements we’re focusing on. We’re thinking it could be four or five different restaurants and cuisines under one roof, but the concept is still being worked out.”
The concept for Flip A Crepe seems to be coming together more cohesively. Rabbaa says he’s creating a restaurant that’s a good value for families, with healthful food and quick service. “You’ll walk into the restaurant and choose your crepe, savory or sweet, and watch it being made. Most ingredients will be sourced from Sonoma County.”

Seeking high-level talent

Rabbaa plans to continue expanding the Flipside brand locally and beyond. “Our company went from 40 employees to more than 100 very quickly, and I expect it will grow four to five times in size within the next six months. Flip Hospitality is all about my employees. I owe them everything. This company wouldn’t be successful without them.”
Lately, Rabbaa’s focus has been to grow Flip Hospitality on a larger scale, though for this interview, there were plans he couldn’t yet divulge. To facilitate that growth, Rabbaa recently hired Matt Stuhl as Flip Hospitality’s director of operations. Stuhl is a certified sommelier with extensive restaurant management and hotel food-and-beverage experience in the Bay Area.
“We want to surround ourselves with high-level talent,” says Rabbaa. “If talent is power, we want to bring that to our team.”

On the Menu

By the end of 2014, Nino Rabbaa’s Flip Hospitality and Entertainment plans to have four restaurant properties fully operational in Sonoma County (below). In addition, he also runs Flip Cater, based in Rohnert Park, is renovating the former Space XXV lounge with a Mediterranean influence and operates the concession at Lakeside Grill at Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake, which is open seasonally.
Flipside Bar & Burger, 630 Third St., Santa Rosa (seats 120)
Flipside Steakhouse and Sports Bar, 138 Calistoga Rd., Santa Rosa (seats 148 in the restaurant and 127 in the sports bar)
Flip A Crepe, 614 Fourth St., Santa Rosa––slated to open this fall in the former Rendez Vous Bistro location (will seat approximately 110 to 130)
Flipside Brew House, 5000 Roberts Lake Rd., Rohnert Park––to open this fall in the former Latitude Island Grill location (approved for 1,006 seats)

Sharing Is Caring

Nino Rabbaa is the interior designer of all his restaurants (“I don’t hire out for that to be done, because I’ve always had an appreciation for art”). So it breaks his heart to revamp the interior of Rendez Vous Bistro, which was a labor of love that included, in part, an intricate mosaic tile floor. “But I’m also a realist. A customer called me recently and asked if he could have my only Rendez Vous Bistro sign. He’d met his future wife there, had proposed to her there and loved the food. Everyone told me I was crazy to give the sign away, but sharing is caring. I come from that kind of culture.”
Though Rabbaa has no formal culinary training, it hasn’t been a deficit in his hospitality career. “I’ve never been in a culinary school in my life,” he explains. “If culinary school means love and passion, then I’m there. But if you have to go to learn how to use a knife, well, I learned that growing up. I always knew that. I worked side-by-side in the kitchen with my mom.”
In addition to his knack for running restaurants, Rabbaa makes time to give back to the community. For several years, he fed the homeless and others in need on Christmas Eve at Rendez Vous. Locally, he serves on the board of the Sonoma County Probation Camp and is an active supporter of Social Advocates for Youth (SAY), Goodwill Industries and the Sonoma County YWCA.
“Our business model is to give back a certain amount of our profit, because we’re a big supporter of many nonprofits,” he states.
Flip Hospitality and Entertainment has received numerous awards for community service, including a Philanthropy Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals in 2011, the California State Legislature’s recognition for Generosity to Our Community in 2011, a Good Samaritan Award from the American Red Cross in 2012, and an Outstanding Community Service Award from the National Restaurant Association in 2013.


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