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Running a Family-Owned Restaurant with Dina Mingrino Barbone

Podcast published: May 3, 2024

When folks think of Italian restaurants in Chester County, Pa, Limoncello pops to the top of the list for many locals. We caught up with Dina Mingrino Barbone to learn about running the two restaurants that she owns with her two brothers, Paul and Frank. Dina talks about growing up in the restaurant that her mother started, the community that has embraced the restaurant, and what it is like running two highly acclaimed and commercially successful restaurants.



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NOTE: The episode artwork is the Mingrino Family, from left to right: Frank, Giuseppe, Maria, Paul, and Dino Mingrino

Liam Dempsey: Welcome to Start Local, where we talk with business owners, leaders of nonprofits, and other members of our community focused on doing business in and around Chester County, Pennsylvania. Each episode will provide insight into the local business scene and tell you about opportunities to connect with and support businesses and nonprofits in your local area.

Joe Casabona: The Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce promotes the trade commerce industry and sustainable economic development while supporting a diverse and growing marketplace. The Chamber is proud to partner with the Start Local podcast to raise the profile of businesses and nonprofits throughout Chester County. Learn more about the chamber at scccc.com. That’s scccc.com.

Erik Gudmundson: Welcome to Start Local, where we connect with local leaders to support local businesses and non-profit organizations in and around Chester County, Pennsylvania. I am Erik Gudmundson, and I am here with my co-host, Liam Dempsey. Liam, how are you doing today?

Liam Dempsey: Fantastic. Thank you, sir. Fantastic.

Erik Gudmundson: Glad to hear it. Today, we’re joined by Dina Mingrino Barbone, co-owner of Limoncello. Limoncello is a highly-rated Italian restaurant here in the county, and it’s owned and operated by the Mingrino family. With locations in downtown Westchester and Chester Springs, Limoncello offers the traditions of old-country Italy and a menu filled with the Mangrino family’s Sicilian recipes.

 Dina, welcome to the show.

Dina Barbone: Thank you so much for having me and giving our business this opportunity. My role with Limoncello is part owner. We are a close-knit family who have been in the food and hospitality business for 18 years at Limoncello.

Liam Dempsey: That is awesome. Thank you so much for joining us here today.

Erik Gudmundson: Limoncello was founded in 2006 and certainly focuses on Italian food. With locations in Westchester and Chester Springs, Lemoncello is a woman-founded and woman-owned business. Maria Mengrino, who is Dina’s mother, started the restaurant 18 years ago. Dina, what was it like for your mother to get the business off the ground and over time to drive the restaurant to become the success that it is today?

Dina Barbone: I would say a lot of sacrifice. My mom, back in the day, she put everything into it. She was behind the line. We started out of our basement, so every weekend, me and my 2 brothers, my mom’s sister, my cousins all would go into my parent’s basement and start cooking in the basement. 

And we started out as a small business in Brookhaven cooking for small local catering jobs, and then it grew and it grew, and then we opened up Porta Rosa in Havertown, and we knew that. After Porta Rosa and Havertown, we opened up in Westchester. In Westchester, that’s when my mom was behind the line teaching my 2 brothers how to cook, And, at that point, they graduated from culinary school. And that was my life growing up, was in the restaurant, behind the line, in the front of the house, getting food out. It’s all I know.

Erik Gudmundson: And you’re still not sick of it today. What keeps you personally going in the Limoncello business

Dina Barbone: I get to meet new customers every day. I may not know your name, but I know you. The friends you meet, we’ve, the staff that we have, they’re family. You know, it’s extended family. They’re very close to us, and they’re closer to us not only because they work with us, but they’re the reason why we are who we are.

Liam Dempsey: You sound like you’d be a great employer. I’m gonna ask you about your two venues. I live up in the northern end account of the county in Chester Springs. And when I think Limoncello, I think Chester Springs. And so in advance of this conversation, on Sunday, I made a point, and I went to your Westchester location. And I had a fantastic meal. Your staff was absolutely amazing. There were a couple of big parties going on.

So it was chaos inside from an attendee standpoint, but the service was great and the food was fantastic. But looking at your website, the two locations really seem to be integrated. And it’s kind of run apparently, at least from a website standpoint, as one business. Tell us about that second location. Why did you open one? Why Chester Springs? And, if I can ask a follow-up question just as part of my opening question, are you thinking about a third location?

Dina Barbone: They’re 100% integrated. So whatever we sell in Westchester is on the same menu in Chester Springs. However, Cole, who is the main chef in Chester Springs, come up will come up with specific specials there, different drink specials. 

Frank in Westchester is the main chef there. He comes up with, you know, great new dishes, constantly posting something new. Why the two locations? It’s to expand our reach, you know, a broader customer base, a new community. We’re all about giving back to the community and more friends.

Erik Gudmundson: That’s a good answer. I wanna get us into some recent context, and the restaurant business is always challenging even before the pandemic lockdowns began. We’ve heard numbers as high as 60% of restaurants fail in the 1st year of operation and 80% fail within the first 5 years after they open. You’ve made it 18 years. How have you survived so long, and has your second location made it easier or harder to survive?

Dina Barbone: I would say just having strong relationships with the community. We have an awesome customer base that it’s the role of our success. Everybody just comes back. We have a lot of regulars. We love to know what our customers need, and we are constantly responding to their needs.

A third location, I would say, never say never because I don’t think my mom will rest until we have a third location. But yeah, I have, I always say family first. My two brothers are amazing chefs because they were trained under my mom’s supervision. I have great staff and great management. We use quality ingredients and listen, I always have the desire to do better.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. I can hear that in your voice. You’re speaking very passionately about your business. I’m loving this conversation. We’ve talked about how your family run, and you shared earlier just while we were chatting here that in your mom and dad’s basement, it was you and your brothers and aunts who were involved in that and, maybe some cousins too. What does it look like today? How far and wide is the family involved in the restaurant? We know it’s you and your two brothers who own it. I expect your mom and dad are still involved, but how about aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews?

Dina Barbone: Well, my mom, she was the one who started it. Then now it’s more me. My two brothers were running it, but everybody helped. My dad, he’s the one in there doing the tile on the floor, fixing up the kitchen. Everybody has a part of it. We have a manager who’s been with us since the day we opened. So I feel like we couldn’t do it without them. You know? If you don’t have your family that is all supporting you, you can’t succeed.

Erik Gudmundson: So, I’m gonna flip your answer around a little bit to ask it in a little bit more of a personal way. You, Frank, and Paul are all Giuseppe and Maria’s children, and you’re running this business on a daily basis. So I’m curious how your family’s dynamics have shaped the way that you work together, And specifically, how do you navigate the ins and outs of family life knowing that you have to all work together? So how do you interact outside the restaurant?

Liam Dempsey: And for folks who can’t see, there’s a very interesting smile on Dina’s face right now.

Dina Barbone: Well, in every business, you’re going to have your small local arguments. Okay? I would say that supporting one another and respecting each other’s roles in the business, that’s what keeps us happy with working with each other. I feel blessed to be able to work with my brothers every day. I don’t know. Not many people can say that, but I do. They’re both very talented in their own ways. Frank is constantly coming up with new ideas. Paul, he’s constantly looking for new recipes and trying new things out. They just are so incredible to work with every day, So I feel lucky.

Liam Dempsey: Can I ask what the, yeah. I can tell that you feel that way. Let me ask you. What’s the age range who’s the oldest?

Dina Barbone: Oldest’s Frank.

Erik Gudmundson: No hesitation, no hesitation on that answer.

Dina Barbone: Oldest is Frank, and then I’m the youngest.

Liam Dempsey: Do they ever get, well, I’m the oldest, so we’re gonna do what I want, you know, going back to being kids and stuff like that? 

Dina Barbone: No. I have to keep them in line.

Liam Dempsey: I love it. I love it. I love it. On a somewhat more serious note, with our current era of remote and hybrid work, right, some cities, some urban areas have frankly, struggled with a lack of office employees. Everybody’s working from home or a significant percentage of the population is working from home. They’re not going into the town centers. They’re not buying work lunches. They’re not having a few after-dinner drinks or even doing in-office lunches or catering and the like.

We’re really kind of wondering specifically given your location in Westchester, are you experiencing these kinds of challenges as that remote hybrid, work structure changes the way that you folks are doing business? Are you,  is it a challenge for you to cope with that?

Dina Barbone: Not really. It’s understanding what our customers need. Since the pandemic, we moved into more of an outdoor dining option. We created, The Gardens at Limoncello. And in addition, we have a large curbside patio right out front of Westchester. These outdoor spaces are providing al fresco dining for customers that still don’t feel comfortable going inside. It’s also, more open-air settings. People are loving that.

We can host more private events, parties, wine events, cigar nights, showers, and funerals. And then we’ve also enhanced our takeout and delivery services to accommodate the needs of customers who work remotely. Grubhub, and DoorDash, these are all things that are helping the workforce. You know, they’re going to work, but then by the time they get home, they have dinner at the door.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. That dining alfresco on the curbside was fantastic. I watched the Westchester 220th anniversary parade on Sunday from the friendly, comfortable, and warm clock, confines of your patio. So that’s fantastic.

Dina Barbone: And we work to do all the flowers ourselves. Me, my mom, we all go out, we go buy all the flowers, and we landscape everything ourselves.

Liam Dempsey: It was beautiful. I was really impressed with how the weather’s been interesting the last few weeks, but the flowers were fantastic.

Dina Barbone: Thank you. We enjoy it. Something me and mom love to do.

Erik Gudmundson: It definitely comes across. I mean, it stands out. On your block there in Westchester, one of your neighboring restaurants, the Split Ralph Tavern recently closed, and a beer hall opened in its place. There are so many restaurants customers can choose from these days, especially in the borough there. How does the opening and closing of other restaurants impact your business? And specifically, I’m curious if the local restaurant scene is more collaborative and cooperative, or is it really stiff competition?

Dina Barbone: Not at all. We always hope for the success of new restaurants in Westchester. The more restaurants that come to Westchester, it makes it more dynamic and a better destination to go to.

Liam Dempsey: There are and I’m gonna have to trust this number from Erik, but there are over 800 residents registered charities in Chester County. That says nothing of the surrounding counties or national organizations. And there are lots and lots of independent fundraisers on top of that, whether it’s the school sports team or the arts club or what have you. We expect that as a highly respected and most delicious restaurant that you are inundated with requests for donations for gift cards. Tell us about how you stay active and connected with the nonprofit community while at the same time, you gotta pay your staff, you gotta pay your bills, and, you know, you all have your own families to care for as well. How do you manage profitability with all the requests that comes in and with your commitment to giving back to community?

Dina Barbone: You know, Liam, we value the relationship of our community. So one example is, our longstanding support for Toys for Tots. It’s our largest fundraiser of the year, collecting 20,000 toys for children in Chester County. We also donate to schools, sponsorships, sports teams, people that are just in need and need a gift basket. Whatever the community needs, we’re always here to help as long as you know, within budget.

Erik Gudmundson: Well, thank you for all your help, but I know your efforts with Toys for Tots is impressive. You do an annual event for that. Right? Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Dina Barbone: Love it. So it’s always the 1st or second week in December. Like I said, we raise over 20,000 toys. We’re the biggest in this area. Once a customer comes to Limoncello and they donate 3-5 toys, they get a family meal with meatballs, baked CDs, pasta, salad, and a dessert, all for just donating toys, okay? In Chester Springs, we went through 450 vouchers, and in Westchester, we went through 450 vouchers this year. And we collected over 20,000 toys.

Erik Gudmundson: That’s an incredible amount of toys. And I’ve been to both of your locations. I thoroughly enjoy them. I didn’t notice a toy warehouse behind each one. So where do you store 20,000 toys when they’re dropped off by paying customers?

Dina Barbone: You’re gonna love this. We have, in Chester Springs, actually, my kids and all the nephews, and nieces all come over and they all bring their friends and, [Inaudible 16:36.0] has this hockey team come out. They collect the toys, and they load everything on the Toys for Tots buses that because now they need buses to load up all the toys. But it’s a great event, and, we want our kids to know that they have to give back.

Erik Gudmundson: Yeah. That’s a great way to keep the community spirit going, and I love the fact that you have to measure it in terms of busloads more so than actual quantities of toys. That’s impressive. Limoncello is also the name of a popular drink. Is that what inspired your restaurant’s name?

Dina Barbone: Actually, no. My mom came up with the name Limoncello because in our, her house in Sicily, Italy, in the back garden, she used to have all these lemon trees, and, she used to make, limoncello with her mom, and it was Nonna Paola. And that’s how she came up with the name of limoncello.

Liam Dempsey: That’s such a better story than just naming it after the liqueur. That’s fantastic. I love that. I love that. What’s the most popular food on your menu, and does it vary between Westchester and Chester Springs?

Dina Barbone: Well, I would say the chicken limoncello. Chicken limoncello is probably our biggest seller. My favorite, I love our arancini. I grew up making them with my mom. They’re delicious. The arancini is the rice ball, and it’s filled with peas, fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, ground beef, and then it’s the rice ball, and then it’s fried with bread crumbs. It’s delicious. And then we give you dipping marinara on the side. It’s so good.

Erik Gudmundson: You’re making me hungry. Very hungry. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. Eric, I had the same comment.

Erik Gudmundson: You’re definitely making us both hungry. And so, I, you know, again, having eaten in both of your restaurants, the menus are fantastic. I’m curious how you perfected your menu because I’m sure you have many recipes that don’t always stick around on the menu. So how do you decide when it needs something new and how do you side decide, you know, when something is officially a staple, and it’s not going through?

Dina Barbone: Everything is all through, Toast. So we have a program that we know exactly how many we’re selling off every single dish every night. So we run reports weekly, monthly, and yearly, so we’ll know every quarter what’s selling and what’s not selling.

Erik Gudmundson: So it’s partly a popularity contest, you’re saying. So if you want a particular dish, order it. 

Dina Barbone: Yes. Yes. And we have those staples that don’t

Liam Dempsey: I’m gonna ask, okay. Go ahead. 

Dina Barbone: We have those staples that don’t come off the menu.

Liam Dempsey: I have to ask that. Have your brothers, Frank and Paul, have they ever when the reports come in and the dish that they like to make the most, I’ll put it as an election, didn’t get enough votes, and so if the business case isn’t there, what happens then when their favorite dish has ever happened?

Dina Barbone: No. Because they always come up with something even better.

Liam Dempsey: How did you perfect your menu? You said that you know, you’ve got those reports that let you know how to amend it moving forward. But as your brothers are thinking about recipes and thinking about what to add, what to take away, and maybe relying more on their cooking skills and their culinary sensibilities rather than just the numbers, how do you, how are they perfecting it? How do they decide when they want something new? Maybe not just from a numbers game, but from a taste or a style or…

Dina Barbone: First it starts with mom’s fundamental recipe. Okay? Then Frank and Paul will try something. Mom will try it, and then if it gets the approval, it goes on the menu.

Liam Dempsey: So mom is the taste chester. If it’s mom-approved, I love that. That is awesome. 

Dina Barbone: Yeah. Mom is cool.

Erik Gudmundson: It truly is a family. Truly is a family business. And if mom is not happy, nobody’s happy is what it sounds like. So is there a particular ingredient or recipe you used to have on the menu but had to remove because of supply chain issues, labor requirements, market price increases, or something out of your control, and you wish you could bring that dish back?

Dina Barbone: We’ve been fortunate to maintain a steady supply of all the ingredients. We’ve been good.

Liam Dempsey: That makes it easier to run the business, I suppose. What you might have more challenges with, I wonder, is issues around the labor shortage. The numbers are that Chester County has an unemployment rate of just under 3%, and it’s been that way for a few years now. How are you navigating that? Are you struggling with employment issues? Is it tough to find the kind of people you talked about earlier in the conversation, the folks that you wanna welcome as your family and your team members?

Dina Barbone: Very little turnover with the key positions. One great thing is we are right by Westchester University, so we do have temporary staff that comes in, works, you know, couple months, and then they go home or it’s, you know, back and forth. But, yeah, we never really have staffing issues. We always seem to have a full full staff. We’re lucky.

Erik Gudmundson: I wanna ask you a potentially controversial question here, and that is that the local media popularly covers Chester County Health Department restaurant inspections. Are they a fair guide to where or where not a person should eat? And have you ever seen unfair or perhaps mischaracterized reports that really don’t tell the whole story? And I’m asking not so much with your experience with Limoncello because I’m sure you always pass every report with flying colors, but more because you’re clearly in touch with other restaurants here in the county. And, I just wanna know how realistic they are from a restaurant insider perspective. 

Dina Barbone: No. I don’t think that they’re unfair about anything. I know how we are. During our daily staff briefs, we emphasize the importance of maintaining a sanitary environment for our guests and then stressing that it’s a responsibility shared by all the team members. 

What we do at Limoncello, we conduct overnight cleaning. We hired a cleaning firm that meticulously sanitizes and provides our guests with a safe and hygienic dining experience. So once Limoncello doors are shut down, the cleaning service comes in, and they clean the restaurant. Because listen, I believe that the results of Chester County Health Department restaurant inspections are necessary. It’s a necessary part of maintaining the highest standards of sanitation in our industry.

Liam Dempsey: Dina, you’ve made it very clear that you’ve been in the restaurant business since a youngster. You love it. It’s where you spend your time. So I’m curious, though. When you’re not in the restaurant, when you’re not working on that, do you ever watch food shows or cooking shows? And if so, do you have a favorite one?

Dina Barbone: I actually have a book, and it’s called Cooking with Gina. It’s this grandmother who cooks with her granddaughter. My daughter watches it with me. We try recipes, and, we just enjoy watching her. So it’s cooking with Gina. Not Dina. Gina.

Liam Dempsey: Gina with a G.

Dina Barbone: Not Dina.

Erik Gudmundson: We’ll speak well, how about cooking with Dina? Is your daughter going to be involved in the restaurant?

Dina Barbone: My son. My son. I think he will become a cook one day. He’s the one, he’s always the one in the kitchen. I can see Liliana at the front.

Erik Gudmundson: It certainly takes a lot of different roles to run a successful restaurant, so I’m sure there’s room for both of them. If you’re not eating at Limoncello, what’s your favorite restaurant?

Dina Barbone: I love them all in Westchester. It’s hard to say just…

Liam Dempsey: Oh, come on. You gotta have something a little better than that.

Dina Barbone: So many great eateries in Westchester. I cannot pick one. I think we are very lucky, and, I think I actually love every place in Westchester.

Liam Dempsey: What’s the last place you ate that wasn’t Limoncello?

Dina Barbone: For an anniversary, we went to Jean Georges in the city. It was a special night, so me and my husband went to Jean Georges in the city.

Liam Dempsey: Anniversaries are special. That’s great.

Dina Barbone: It was very special. It’s more me wanting to see him go up in the elevator because he’s afraid of heights.

Liam Dempsey: I’m not sure that’s such a special anniversary for the both of you then. Dina, you’ve talked pretty passionately actually about working with your team members, working with your staff, working with your people, and that you don’t have a lot of turnover and that you’re a close knit community there. So it makes me wonder. Are you hiring? Are you looking to…

Dina Barbone: We’re always on the lookout for talented individuals, both front house, and back house. We’d love if you have prior experience, but if not, we have a great training program if you wanna come out and put your resume in

Liam Dempsey: So what’s the best way to follow up on that? Should they visit the website? Is there a careers page? Shoot an email?

Dina Barbone: Website.

Liam Dempsey: Right on the website. Perfect. Folks will be sharing to include links to the Limoncello website over on the show notes on [startlocal.co].

Erik Gudmundson: Dina, is there a local business or nonprofit organization you think more folks in Chester County should know about?

Dina Barbone: Well, you know, my favorite is Toys for Tots. It’s art.

Erik Gudmundson: I had a feeling you’re gonna say that.

Dina Barbone: Our main one.

Erik Gudmundson: Very good.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. That’s such a great cause. Such a great cause. We’ve been hearing a lot about lack of affordable housing in Chester County and how making it a challenge for the service industry to recruit. And you already shared with us that you don’t have that kind of immediate problem. But I wonder, is this something, as a restaurateur in Chester County, are your professional colleagues at the other venues in and around Chester? Is this lack of housing causing them challenges as well? Do you have any insight that you can share on that?

Dina Barbone: I mean, we’ve implemented several strategies to support our team members. Firstly, we offer competitive wages to meet their basic needs. We’re always giving opportunities for career advancement and by prioritizing the well-being of financial stability of the team members, we hope to build a stronger family and stronger community.

Erik Gudmundson: Here in the post-pandemic world, a lot of businesses have changed their processes and procedures and how they deliver service to serve their clients a little bit better. Everyone’s learned from the pandemic. So what’s different at Limoncello after the pandemic?

Dina Barbone: I mean, I would say we had to pivot our business model a little bit. One significant change is that we had to prioritize in takeout meals. We built a full-size commercial kitchen at the Westchester location. So, completely second kitchen to cater for catering jobs, and takeout, added-on an additional pizza oven. 

And then behind the property, we added on Limoncello Gardens, and that’s where we do the private events, funerals, luncheons, and it’s all year long we can do these events. But even in Chester Springs, we have an open garden area there with live music on the weekends, which is it’s great. For summer nights, it’s summer to go, and it’s beautiful out there. It has flowers and live music. There’s so much to do.

Liam Dempsey: You opened in 2006. It will not be long until it’s 2026. Can you share any ideas that you’re putting together for your family’s restaurant’s 20th anniversary?

Dina Barbone: It’s coming. We haven’t planned anything yet, but we do have some ideas. Yeah. Just stay tuned, and, you’ll see us on Facebook and Instagram.

Liam Dempsey: Let me ask one follow-up question to that. Given the role that your mother plays, is your mother gonna be actively putting together things for the 20th anniversary, or is she leaving that to the next generation because she’s the one that started that.

Dina Barbone: She will have her hands and everything.

Liam Dempsey: I kinda figured that, but thank you for clarifying. Dina Mingrino Barbone of Limoncello. Thank you so much for your time today. Really enjoyed chatting with you and hearing about your family restaurant business. Before we say goodbye, can you please share where folks can learn more about Limoncello online and maybe even how they can book their next reservation or order catering or takeout?

Dina Barbone: Yes. If you go to the Limoncello website, everything is there. You can just click on a button, and it brings you right to takeout. We have all of our private events and menus all listed on the website.

Erik Gudmundson: That sounds good, and I know where I’m heading next. Dina, thank you very much for being on the show today.

Dina Barbone: Thank you for having me.

Liam Dempsey: And thank you for listening to the show. We really value your time and attention to the conversation. We hope you learn from it. We certainly also hope that you book soon at Limoncello. It is a fantastic place to eat. 

As a reminder, show notes and links to everything we’ve talked about today will be over on our website at [startlocal.co]. We publish a new episode every fortnight, and you can catch our show wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Android stuff, we’re everywhere. Even tell your smart speaker to play the Start Local show.

Lastly, you can subscribe for updates to our show and to our mailing list over on [startlocal.co].

Thanks so much. Bye for now.

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