The city of Columbus has averted having to find another restaurant tenant in The Commons by amending a lease to allow a Bloomington-based businessman to take over Puccini’s Smiling Teeth with a slightly different name.
Columbus Redevelopment Commission members amended Puccini’s lease — which has two years left — Thursday to allow it be assigned to Paul Heilbrunn, who operates two Bucceto’s Smiling Teeth restaurants in Bloomington.
The commission also approved six months free rent for the new restaurant and decreased Bucceto’s rental payments from $16 per square foot that Puccini’s is paying to $11 per square foot. The difference is $42,880 per year at the $16 rate compared to $29,480 at the $11 rate, a resolution about the rental agreement states.
The $11 rate is the same as what was offered to Luciana’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina, which opened in the largest restaurant space in The Commons in September. Luciana’s became the fourth restaurant to operate in that space since 2011 when The Commons opened. Luciana’s replaced Jordy McTaggart’s Grill & Pub, which owed the city about $15,300 in back rent, property taxes and utilities when it closed Jan. 29.
The commission-assigned redevelopment director Heather Pope, commission President Sarah Cannon and the commission’s attorney, Stan Gamso, to continue negotiations with Heilbrunn on a couple of lingering issues, but approved the overall changeover to the new management at the meeting. No timeframe was set for the official takeover of the restaurant, pending finalizing the lease terms.
Two issues that still are being worked out are the length of time that should be allowed before Heilbrunn has the right to terminate the lease, and if this is not met, the requirement of the six months free rent being repaid. Also to be negotiated will be the amount of rent increase at renewal as determined by the Consumer Price Index, Gamso said.
When Gamso introduced Heilbrunn to the commission, he noted that Puccini’s had approached city officials seeking to reduce its rent and indicating the restaurant was having some financial issues. Puccini’s was not behind on any rent payments when this changeover was proposed, however.
In the meantime, Heilbrunn approached the city expressing interest in taking over the restaurant, and he explained to the commission that his role has been to step in at struggling facilities and turn them into profitable enterprises.
Operating the two Bloomington Bucceto’s for more than a decade, Heilbrunn said he already has some strategies in place to improve foot traffic into the restaurant and to promote the pizza restaurant’s unique menu and ambiance.
While he described the food at Puccini’s as pretty good when he made a recent visit, he immediately saw small things that need to be improved, such as having Parmesan cheese brought to the table with pasta, and having red pepper and Romano on the table with every order.
The Bucceto restaurants in Bloomington actively seek out sports teams for catering opportunities and uses the Smiling Teeth aspect of its name to connect with dental offices, offering coupons for free pizza for kids who successfully complete a dental exam.
Heilbrunn submitted a reference letter from Indiana University’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics that has used Bucceto’s for numerous catering opportunities, and recommended the restaurant to visiting athletic teams to use as well.
Bucceto’s in Bloomington received a recommendation from Stone Belt, which commended the restaurants for hiring employees with developmental disabilities who are served by United Way agency in Monroe County. The Bloomington restaurants also have participated in fundraising dining nights to raise money for Stone Belt and its clients, the recommendation letter said.
For Puccini fans, the menus for Puccini’s and Bucceto’s, which include offerings of pizzas called Bill (formerly known as Steve) and Zorba the Pizza, are virtually identical.
Heilbrunn explained that the Smiling Teeth franchise involves a loosely-knit connection of partners who started the restaurant brand, but have branched out into different-named restaurants that have similar menus and layouts.
The Bucceto’s restaurants won the Bloomington Herald Times Reader’s Choice awards for Best Pizza, Best Italian, Best Lunch, Best Catering and Best Vegetarian. The restaurant boasts that it offers more than 50 gluten-free items on its menu.
Heilbrunn said he is looking forward to getting to know more about Columbus and improving diners’ experiences at the downtown restaurant.
“The value here is that we don’t have a vacant space — and we’re filling it with a similar restaurant,” Gamso said of the switch.
“We’re getting a whole new operator with a proven track record,” commission member Al Roszczyk said.
Bucceto’s, with two locations in Bloomington, is a pizza and pasta restaurant which has a menu that is similar to Puccini’s Smiling Teeth.
For more information, visit: buccetos.com