The Heart and Soul of Dining: Robert Giaimo [Georgetown Magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
ROBERT GIAIMO (B’73) WAS JUST A freshman at Georgetown when hunger got the best of him. His craving for hot food during 2 a.m. study sessions led him to open his first restaurant, a Blimpie’s sub shop franchise, at 19 years old.
More than 25 years later, the founder of the Silver Diner restaurant chain has 10 restaurants that create a 1950’s dining atmosphere, including jukeboxes and milkshakes.
Giaimo hopes to extend his chain to every main street in America. Thanks to a 1996 cash infusion from George Naddaff—the multimillionaire franchising whiz who helped turn Boston Chicken (now Boston Market) into a national chain—Giaimo may get his wish.
After one meal at the Silver Diner, Naddaff invested $16.2 million.
The Blimpie’s sub shop Giaimo opened in the heart of Georgetown, at M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, became the top grossing franchise in the 100-store Blimpie’s chain within two years. After graduating in 1974, though, Giaimo’s tastes matured. Out went the roast beef and mayo subs. In came roast beef with horseradish sauce on a croissant and The American Cafe.
“The American Cafe defined the yuppie experience in America,” he says. “We took the sense of respect that Europeans have for food, and recreated that with American ingredients.”
He opened the American Cafe at the same location as the Blimpie’s, and within 10 years had six more D.C. area locations. Though his company was grossing $18 million a year in 1985, Giaimo wanted a national chain. So he sold 80 percent of The American Cafe to W.R. Grace & Co., a large financial group. The agreement was that Giaimo would turn W.R. Grace’s stable of national restaurants into American Cafes.
But in 1986, W.R. Grace went through a leveraged buyout and Giaimo wanted out.
“A big company cannot run a restaurant,” Giaimo says. “It doesn’t have heart and soul.” In 1988, after several years of planning, Giaimo opened his first Silver Diner in Rockville, Md. Currently under construction are Silver Diners in the suburbs of D.C., New Jersey and Philadelphia.
As his business continues to thrive, Giaimo makes concerted efforts to spend quality time with his wife and two children. “Maintaining a balance in my life is very important to me,” he says. “it is very hard to be well-rounded as a person if you are a driving entrepreneur. It fills your life. But I try to be a good husband, a good dad. I don’t want my life to be just about business.