And then his two sons taught him it was just the beginning. Vegas-style casino anyone?
By Jon Wells
This is unusual. Peter Mercanti is feeling a bit sleepy. A big meal at lunch does that to him, which is why the ultimate salesman avoids them.
He needs to be firing on all cylinders, having recently expanded his family business from Carmen’s Banquet Centre on the east Mountain, to a luxury boutique hotel next door, to running the Hamilton Convention Centre, and who covets a Vegas-style casino/hotel complex downtown.
Today is the day after another big night at Carmen’s; a breast cancer fundraiser headlined by an iconic celebrity guest. Peter and his two sons and business partners, P.J. and Joe, host the guest for lunch.
Peter breaks with his lunch routine and indulges in the lamb shank. P.J. and Joe partake in the penne carbonara and stuffed peppers.
The men agree the food is perfect, which is not surprising since they own the restaurant. It is called Baci (Italian for “kiss”) and located in their Best Western Premier C Hotel.
At the end of the meal, after the guest has been charmed and dined by the Mercanti trio – she has penne with a side of rapini and di rock salad – she powers up her smartphone.
Olivia Newton-John texts a friend back home in Florida. Guy named Travolta. She tells him he really should come to Hamilton.
“It was cool of her to do that, ” Joe says later.
“She was so warm, ” adds P.J.
In the hotel lobby they say goodbye to the 64-year old singer/actress as Grease, the movie that made her famous, projects on the wall. (Movies always play in the lobby, and in Baci, mostly classics such as The Godfather and Casablanca.)
Olivia does not break into You’re the One That I Want and dance with the guys but, given the roll the Mercantis are on, who would be surprised if that’s how their lunch hour concluded?
You can count on one thing: John Travolta will surely one day come to Carmen’s. Why wouldn’t he? Pacino did. So did Stallone. Sophia Loren. Michael Douglas. Bill Clinton. George H.W. Bush.
It’s been quite a ride for the Mercanti family and it seems to be just beginning. Life would be much quieter, however, if the sons had not inspired the father.
A few years back Peter Mercanti had been in an enviable place – life’s chaises lounge, cruising past mid-life with no more ladders to climb.
True, he is a competitive man. But here he was, debt-free, owner of Carmen’s, a hugely successful catering/banquet hall/dinner theatre enterprise that has also played host to a long line of A-listers at charity functions.
The thing is, the sales gene that had served him so well had been passed down to his boys.
As teenagers P.J. and Joe worked summers at Carmen’s. They grew up, continued their education, got married. Joe has an infant daughter.
Peter vowed never to force his sons into his business. But they wanted in. P.J. graduated from Notre Dame University and was on track for a career in broadcasting but decided he wanted to work with his dad and brother.
Joe attended McMaster for economics and says he also “studied at the school of Peter Mercanti.”
After joining the business, P.J. and Joe urged their father to take some calculated risks. Spend some money. Expand. Carry some debt.
You couldn’t blame their father if he told the boys to ease up. He had already come a long way, emigrating to Canada from Italy in 1956 and settling in Hamilton’s North End.
As boys, true to the family name – Mercante is Italian for merchant – Peter and his brothers, Morris and Sam, cultivated their deal-making skills selling newspapers in their neighbourhood.
They sold the papers at a profit, rolled the money into buying flowers at the market and in turn sold the flowers in pubs and taverns.
As an adult, Peter worked in a meat-processing plant.
Later, with a group of investors including his brothers, he opened Carmen’s Bakery on Concession Street. In 1987, they opened the 1,500-capacity Carmen’s off Stone Church Road.
Peter brought his sons on board as partners in Carmen’s as his brothers focused on their own businesses. (Sam is CEO of Carstar Canada, and Morris runs Edge Hospitality in Oakville.)
Peter was already a success financially and as a community leader, winning the Rotary Club of Hamilton Mountain Citizen of the Year Award; Tourism Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award; Hamilton Distinguished Citizen of the Year; induction into the Gallery of Distinction.
But his sons convinced him that as a team – the Carmen’s Group – they should step on the gas.
They spent $13 million to build their hotel. Then they made a pitch to the city to run the Hamilton Convention Centre.
“P.J. and Joey had such enthusiasm; they were energized, motivated and educated, ” says Peter. “They inspired me. They convinced me that we can go wherever we want to go. Let’s build a beautiful hotel. It’s OK to have debt.”
“Debt is a great motivator, ” says P.J.
P.J. – Peter Joseph – is 32, and president of Carmen’s. He seems the most like his father. Neither is ever at a loss for words, although P.J. is more polished and guarded in his language.
Joe, 29, president of the hotel, is more understated, but a smooth talker as well.
Each floor, and room, in their hotel pays tribute to Italian cities, artists, performers. They love a Sinatra quote that adorns one wall: “Cock your hat: angles are attitudes.”
The Mercantis have it – attitude, that is, in a good way. They dress nattily. The sons brush their hair back, are darkly handsome. It is a dynamic team. Peter and his boys could sell religion to the Pope – or, at least, sell Hamilton city councillors on their ability to run the convention centre.
That’s what they did two months ago, landing the deal after a bravura sales performance at City Hall. Early in the New Year, they will redecorate the place. With aggressive marketing and ongoing construction of hotels in the core, they expect to draw waves of new convention business from outside Hamilton.
Meanwhile, the flagship operation steams ahead. By P.J.’s reckoning, Carmen’s has handled more than 10,000 weddings. Peter meets clients who say they had their own wedding at Carmen’s, and now want to hold their daughter’s wedding there.
Their hotel is ranked by TripAdvisor as Hamilton’s best, and the Baci restaurant received a rave review from veteran Hamilton Spectator food critic Dan Kislenko.
They have been bold yet calculated in their expansion and say that strategy will continue. Peter has seen friends overreach into businesses where they had no experience. The Mercantis stick with what they know.
They’ve had some luck, too, or maybe it’s simply prescience: Where would Carmen’s be if the Linc and Red Hill Expressway had never been built to funnel traffic to their east Mountain location?
As for running a casino, while the Mercantis exude brassy confidence, they speak judiciously on the topic, pointing out they have no licence to run one and that the city still needs to approve a casino in principle, and then request proposals.
At their hotel, minutes after Newton-John has left, Peter, P.J. and Joe pose for a magazine photo shoot up on the roof.
The air is cold but the fog of the morning has lifted. Clouds seem to break on cue, the lighting soft and perfect, the sky ribbed with pink, blue and grey.
“For us, the casino would be just one of the many features of a downtown complex: a hotel, condos and restaurants – lots of reasons to come to Hamilton, ” says Peter.
Don’t be surprised to see father and sons at City Hall in the near future, along with other suitors, making a pitch to have a hand in such an operation.
Anyone care to bet against la famiglia Mercante?