As a co-owner of Noto’s Old World Italian Dining and the school-to-careers coordinator for Kentwood Public Schools, Noto is adept at practicing what he preaches, or in his case, teaches.
Yet even with two jobs, Noto says he has never worked a day in his life.
He likes what he does too much to call it work. And he buys into the philosophy that if a person does what he loves, the money will follow.
“When you’re building a business, especially when you’re doing it yourself, you don’t look at it as work — you do whatever has to be done. I look at it as an opportunity for me to grow,” he said.
Noto’s story is really the story of a family.
His father, John Noto, a tool and die maker with Steelcase, owned a small coffee shop on Division Avenue years ago and always dreamed of getting into the restaurant business.
He got that start in 1979 as a limited partner in the former Roaring Twenties restaurant, just as Tony was graduating from Ferris State University with duo degrees in community education and recreation and in marketing.
The Noto family struck out on its own in 1982 with both a vendor food cart on Monroe Mall and a video arcade in Standale, which they soon morphed into a pizza and sub shop.
“Originally, you didn’t have to order water; it just came through the roof,” Noto jokingly recalls of those early years.
He maintained a hand in the business, filling in wherever needed, whether it be cooking or waiting tables or mopping up.
At the same time he was building a full-time career with Kentwood Public Schools, teaching high school courses in business and entrepreneurship — “showing students that the American Dream can come true.”
At a family reunion on Jan. 6, 1985, the Notos decided to transform the Standale pizza and sub shop into a full service Italian restaurant, checkered tablecloths and all.
Ironically, Tony’s father passed away the following day, but Tony, his mother, Mary, brother, Tom, and sister, Joanne, were intent on seeing John Noto’s long-time dream come true.
Later that year, the dream materialized as Johnny Noto’s Italian Restaurante.
As Noto sees it, that’s what the entrepreneurial experience is all about: “You start with a lemonade stand and then you work to build a bigger lemonade stand. Having the vision and the plan of growth and being able to assemble a team is really important.
“You can always work for somebody, but if you work for yourself that energy is focused. If you work hard enough and believe in something, then it can happen.”
By 1997 the family’s vision for the restaurant had evolved further.
The Notos decided to sell the Standale restaurant and a pizzeria they owned at 68th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue and build a new, upscale restaurant, Noto’s Old World Italian Dining, on 28th Street in Cascade Township.
Noto and his brother, in fact, laid all the tile in the restaurant, including the decorative centerpiece floor design in the main foyer, about which he quips: “Who says art class doesn’t pay off?”
With its private dining room and bar, banquet rooms and open-air patio, the restaurant is like “a hotel without the rooms,” as Noto puts it. Future plans include adding a wine cellar on the lower level.
The catering end of the business now accounts for about half of the restaurant’s annual revenues.
Meanwhile, back at the chalkboard, Noto was racking up tenure with Kentwood Public. Though his family would have preferred he devote himself full time to the family enterprise, he said, they supported his career decision.
In addition to business-related courses, Noto taught physical education and served as a football and wrestling coach.
These days he considers himself a career coach.
For the past three years, as the high school’s school-to-careers coordinator, he’s been focused on getting businesses connected to schools and students connected to internships.
Working with the school’s Junior Achievement partners in Grand Rapids, he helps students find integrated learning opportunities and project-based experiences with local companies. Some 400 Kentwood students are currently interning.
In the present economic climate, it’s a struggle for some businesses to keep their doors open, he observed.
“When there was not a job shortage there was no problem,” Noto remarked. “Now everybody is cutting back and they can’t afford to hire some of the newer graduates. That’s why we established the internship initiative.”
The goal, he said, is to provide all students with exposure to career pathway opportunities and to encourage them to be lifelong learners.
“I like being able to turn on the switch for students and help them think out of the box. As kids get connected you can see the glow in their eyes.”
As if he doesn’t have enough to juggle, Noto also is involved with SCORE, an organization of retired executives that offer advice, guidance and resources to aspiring entrepreneurs.
He had looked to SCORE for assistance in developing a business plan for the restaurant and had attended SCORE workshops, sometimes bringing along his students for a little extracurricular exposure to the real world of business.
SCORE’s membership did not include any former restaurant owners, and so Noto eventually was asked to join in and lend his expertise as a restaurateur.
Noto now devotes Friday nights and Saturdays exclusively to the family business.
He believes the restaurants proximity to the airport and hotels is a big plus. When they relocated to Cascade five years ago there were 15 hotels within a two-mile radius. Now there are 27.
He expects the restaurant will continue to prosper when the new downtown convention center and the South Beltline are completed.
“We’re one of the best kept secrets,” he adds. “We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface in terms of the potential we have here. We’re very fortunate to be where we are and we’re only half way as good as we’re going to be.”
Noto recalls that when he did his student teaching stint at Ottawa Hills High School back in 1979, the host teacher advised him to get a couple of suits and some business experience if he planned to teach marketing and business.Today he has plenty of both — along with energy to spare.