more than a word.
Defining the life and times of Mario Camaj in just a few words is a tall order, but integrity, passion, heritage and, of course, hospitality, are all good places to start.
Indeed, those essential and inextricably linked ingredients are in his blood. He grew up in a warm household, surrounded by generations of family who share the northern Albanian heritage he still holds close to his heart. That home welcomed family, friends and new guests alike, to share in the simple pleasure of a homemade meal crafted by his mother, complimented by wine made by his father and grandfather.
“Back home, our family owned a farm, so we grew up surrounded by food culture.” He says. “We used to grow our vegetables and fruits, and even had a few animals… A few years ago, I actually invested in the family vineyard, so now we’re continuing that tradition with the ten thousand grape vines planted there.”
Of course, anyone who’s spent time on or even seen photos of the Adriatic Coast might wonder why anyone would leave such a slice of paradise to lay down roots in Detroit. But by his mid-twenties, Mario’s aspirations were outgrowing the simple life to which he had become accustomed. And, despite a deep love for the stunning scenery and family-driven culture that forged his upbringing, he was struggling to realize those dreams amid the rubble of the region’s war-torn past.
So, after completing his first year of university in Montenegro, he packed his bags and moved to Michigan to live with relatives who had been stateside for some time.
“We saw wars in Kosovo and Croatia, so we knew it could take ten or even twenty years for the country to get back on its feet. I was still young at the time, and like many young people, I wanted to explore what else was out there and felt I didn’t have time to waste. Transitioning from a beautiful coastal country wasn't easy, but I had my relatives, and I made friends quickly, so now I’m proud to call Michigan home.”
That bold move would prove to be the first step down a path leading toward his professional calling.
“When I arrived in the U.S., I took a job as a busboy and dishwasher at Andiamo in downtown Rochester, and soon realized that I really enjoyed and took pride in creating a great experience for our guests. It wasn’t long before I was working as a server at multiple Andiamo locations, as well as helping with staff training and even opening some of their new locations.”
In 2009, his burgeoning interest in the restaurant business and tireless work ethic caught the attention of local restaurateur Mindy Lopus, who offered him a significant stepping stone.
“Mindy approached me about opening a wine bar in Birmingham. She wanted to recruit me right away, but it took me about six months to accept. So finally, in May of 2010, I started working for her at Tallulah a couple of days each week. Then in 2012, she opened Bella Piatti and brought me on as the restaurant’s manager, so, from 2012 until 2013, I was managing both those restaurants.”
It was clear that a long-dormant talent was awakening inside him — one first galvanized by his Albanian heritage and those nights around the family table back home. He was not only excelling in the hospitality business but also discovering a deep passion for the work. And it was precisely that passion which led to the opportunity he had been waiting for.
“So, in April of 2013, Mindy told me she was selling Tallulah, and the conversation ended with me asking her, ‘how much are you selling it for?’ She was in a bit of shock and answered, ‘are you sure you’re ready for this?’ I felt that I was, and so after a few months of negotiations, my partner, Robert, and I took over to Tallulah in July of 2013. I feel very fortunate — we just celebrated our fifth anniversary, and in that time, we’ve increased the business by more than 50 percent. It’s been such a great run because we have an amazing staff and so much support from the community. We have a lot of regulars who really feel at home at Tallulah — and that’s what we want.”
There’s more than a modicum of modesty in that statement though because it is Mario’s leadership, commitment to building relationships with customers and ability to consistently deliver on a promise of exceptional service that keeps his staff engaged and those regulars coming back.
Now he is bringing that very same recipe for success to Detroit with the opening of his first restaurant in the city, BESA, this fall. It’s been a long time coming, because when he first moved to Michigan in 2001, Detroit was a very different place.
“When I moved here, I lived with my uncle in Rochester Hills, so I knew very little about Detroit. But after a few weeks, my cousins took me downtown, and I was shocked by how mismanaged the city was at that time. I just couldn't understand how that could happen in the middle of one of the richest and the most beautiful countries in the world. That situation continued until the financial crisis but finally started turning around when Illich and Gilbert began buying properties and reinventing the city. Today you see a lot of great companies wanting to be a part of the turnaround, and I too wanted to contribute to it — to be a part of that good change — from day one. Thankfully, a few years ago we had the opportunity to work with Bedrock to find a location to open BESA.”
The space they settled on was Albert Kahn’s 1917 neoclassical masterpiece, The Vinton: A 12-story, 42,000 square-foot building that, in addition to being BESA’s new home, is being revamped to include luxury apartments and retail.
“When I started looking at properties downtown a few years ago, there was just something special about this building. It's right at the crossroads of Woodward and Congress, which is a phenomenal location, so it really made sense for us.”
BESA will serve a unique and sophisticated modern fine dining menu, curated by the renowned Chef Kyle Schutte, a recent transplant from Los Angeles, who sought out the flourishing Detroit restaurant scene — much like Mario aimed to all those years ago.
And though the food and wine are sure to be exceptional, like all of Mario’s restaurants, BESA will truly be distinguished by service that creates an experience worthy of the sentiment inherent in its name.
“The name embodies my northern Albanian heritage and has a deep meaning in the region where I come from. It literally translates to ‘word of honor,’ but it’s about keeping a promise.”
For Mario, that promise means always putting hospitality beforebusiness, and making each and every guest feel as welcome as the countless family and friends his parents hosted in his childhood home — because that’s what he believes Detroiters deserve.
“Great service is about people and relationships. Those personal relationships create a report which, in turn, creates an unforgettable experience. We have a saying in the restaurant business: ‘With good service, you can almost fix a bad meal, but with a great meal you cannot fix bad service.’ So, bottom line, it's about taking care of people. At the end of the day, almost anyone can cook a decent meal at home; but great restaurants offer an experience you can’t find anywhere else.”