CLEARWATER — In 1980, Johnny Nadeau opened a small pizzeria on Drew Street with money he borrowed from his mother.
The dine in/takeout eatery had five booths, one part-time employee and sales of little more than $100 a day.
Now, 30 years later?
For the uninitiated, it's a thriving restaurant at 2907 State Road 590 (Coachman Road), offering everything Italian from clams to cannoli.
The establishment seats 175, employs 50, serves 20,000 meals a month and boasts sales of nearly $2 million a year.
"I have more sales in one week now than I had in my entire first year of business," Nadeau, 51, said.
The secret to his success, he says, is a friendly staff (some employees have been with him for decades), a clean, attractive establishment, fresh food prepared from scratch and good value.
Oh, yes, and "Johnny bread." Every entree comes with a crusty Italian loaf he has been putting on tables since the late '80s.
"It's made daily from scratch. We put garlic butter in it, baste it with egg whites and sprinkle it with sesame seeds before baking," he said. It's served with herb oil for dipping.
Nadeau is thinking of naming a dish after his wife of 13 years, Rosemary. Perhaps a steak.
Years ago, he reeled her in with the linguine and clam sauce.
She helps him with his business ideas, including the one for Thanksgiving Day 2008, when they stayed open and fed about 100 needy people.
The years 2008 and 2009 may have meant recession for the rest of the country, but they were banner years for Johnny's.
When the economy started its free-fall in 2008, he responded by featuring 10 specials on the lunch menu.
Items such as chicken Parmesan, lasagna and chicken fettuccine, along with a salad and a loaf of Johnny bread, could be purchased for $4.99.
"It was too successful," Nadeau said. "After a few months we couldn't handle the crowds. Retirement centers were coming in by the busloads. The working crowd couldn't get back to work in an hour."
So he raised the lunch specials to $5.55.
The place is still packed.
Marcy Wing of Oldsmar and Nancy Woodring of Clearwater are among Johnny's frequent clientele. "The place is outstanding. You can't beat it. I've never been disappointed," Wing said.
Nadeau grew up in Brooklyn. His mother, Mary, was Sicilian. His father, Arthur, was French.
His single mother struggled to raise four children on waitress tips.
She couldn't afford day care, so she took little Johnny to work with her.
At 10, he was washing dishes at the Ship's Inn in East Rockaway, N.Y.
By 11, he was making desserts.
At 13, he was the cook's helper.
The family moved to Florida when he was a teenager. He worked at Leo's, an Italian restaurant in New Port Richey.
After high school, he thought he wanted to become a chemical engineer, but the combination of challenging college courses and his need to work long hours proved to be too much.
When he was 20, he decided to forgo the college education and persuaded his mother to loan him $20,000 — most of her life savings — so he could open Johnny's Pizza Delite on Drew Street.
"She was tough in her own way, she never handed out compliments, but she saw my vision," he said.
He paid off the loan in four years.
Over the years he would grow slowly, conservatively and safely, expanding only as he was able.
"My mother always taught me that the main reasons businesses fail, from the Fortune 500s to the mom and pops, is that they take on too much debt," he said. "It's still true today."
In 1986, he moved to the small strip center, Mission Hills Plaza, on Coachman Road, and opened a storefront with six booths.
"As soon as I opened the place, it was full," he said.
He has gone through several growth spurts, renting more and more space.
Last year, he bought the entire plaza, more than 13,000 square feet. Johnny's occupies 6,000 square feet of it.
He'd like to open an outdoor eating deck if the city will permit him to do so.
Robert Bird, 37, of Dunedin discovered the restaurant about a month ago when he came in to upgrade the phone system.
"I've been eating lunch here every day since," he said. "Sometimes I come back for dinner."
He took a bite of cannoli and thought for a moment.
"It's kind of like going to grandmother's house. It's safe, quiet, comfortable and very, very good."
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]