50 Years Avanti!

by Liz Scoville

After a half century in business, this Swiss immigrant has never lost his entrepreneurial spirit.

Albert Zeller had few cards to play when he first arrived in the United States. Emigrating from Switzerland, the longtime owner of Avanti’s Italian Restaurant landed in Illinois with one goal in mind: to be successful in business. More than five decades later, Avanti’s is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a regional staple of Italian cuisine—and a hallmark of Zeller’s entrepreneurial persistence.

Always Forward
He started his professional career in dairy production, crafting yogurt, butter and various cheeses in his homeland of Switzerland. Seeking to fulfill his ambitions as an entrepreneur, Albert Zeller arrived in Walnut, Illinois in June 1959, joining fellow Swiss dairy crafters as a professional cheesemaker. “There was a Swiss [man] there whose family I met in Switzerland,” Zeller recalls. “I knew he was here, looking for someone to work with him as a cheesemaker. I had a one-way ticket, 65 dollars in my pocket, and did not speak any English.”

After three years, Zeller was drafted into the military, where he served for two years. Following his discharge, he found an opportunity to invest in a frozen pizza company. It didn’t take long for the new venture to take off. “We started with two to three employees,” he explains. “After 15 months, we had a new building with 20 employees—making 5,000 pizzas a day. So we grew very quickly.”

Though successful as a partner in the frozen pizza business, Zeller soon found himself getting restless. In 1966, he broke from the company and went out on his own, purchasing Lardano’s, an Italian restaurant at the corner of Main and University in Peoria, with hopes of becoming a successful restaurateur. It wasn’t easy at first. “I had to work three or four weekends for free just to learn the restaurant business,” he notes. “Which was fine to me—no problem. I thought [it] was something I could learn.”

Zeller knew it was a risk, but his drive to succeed and passion for developing his knowledge kept him moving. “I knew some people in the pizza and cheese-making trade who had opened up restaurants,” he says. “Some were successful, some not. But I gave it a shot. I knew pizza by then, and it was really taking off in the 1960s.”

Having remade Lardano’s as his own, Zeller doubled his business in the first three months. With its location near Bradley University, four out of five customers were college students, and his overhaul of the restaurant brought them out in waves. He renamed the business Avanti’s, after the Italian word for “forward.”

“I just knew the opportunities… It was only to grow!” Zeller adds, recalling his youthful ambitions. “I couldn’t go backward—only forward.”

It Started With the Bread…
Drawing from his past experience, Zeller began experimenting with sauce and dough recipes. He soon realized it was the latter that would become a signature component of the Avanti’s experience. “It started with the bread,” he explains. “[But] a recipe isn’t just ingredients. It’s about how you mix the dough, make the dough, develop the dough to create baked bread—and that process took a while.”

Along with its “world-famous” gondola, Avanti’s bread keeps customers coming back for more. Zeller explains that every menu item—from pizza and pasta to sandwiches and salad—is carefully considered, always focused on a consistent vision: quality Italian cuisine. “We have to be careful not to get too broad,” he explains. “You have to be very careful not to get too big—and then lose control. We are going to do what we have, [and] do it right.”

Zeller remains involved in every aspect of his business, ensuring he strikes the right balance between a quality product and profitability. “We could maybe improve [our pizza], like adding more meat,” he cites as an example. “But you have to think of the price structure. And then… you have to ask, ‘Is this still marketable? Is it priced too high?’ Plus, the food costs and the labor costs go hand-in-hand, and having very minimum waste—that all plays a part.”

Each of these factors, Zeller says, is part of his successful recipe for business. “It’s having control of all those entities,” he explains, “the quality control, the quantity control, the labor control, the overhead—that’s the combination for success.”

And when he’s done with work for the day, Zeller unwinds with some cooking of his own. “I do the breaded chicken breast on the skillet,” he says. “I look in the mirror and say ‘Albert, you did a good job today.’”

The Entrepreneur’s Path
Over the years, Avanti’s regional presence has grown steadily, with seven restaurant locations in central Illinois. Zeller owns the five branches in Peoria, Pekin and East Peoria; his nephews, Marcus and Richard, operate the Bloomington and Normal locations. In 2010, Zeller purchased a 76,000-square-foot dome complex in Pekin, with banquet facilities, outdoor baseball diamonds, batting cages and other recreation amenities. Now known as the Avanti’s Dome, it remains a popular facility for sports and special events.

The path to owning a thriving restaurant business was not an easy one for Zeller, but somehow, he always knew he would be successful. “I grew up with a family of nine children on a small farm in Switzerland,” he recalls. “I had to sell my bicycle to buy my plane ticket to immigrate to America. I immigrated with very little, but I wasn’t going to go back. That was my motivation: I want to be somebody. I want to become somebody. I saw opportunities. I knew it was going to take a lot of energy, a lot of work, a lot of dedication and endurance—that I knew. And I went for it.”

He adds that Avanti’s wouldn’t have happened—let alone become the popular fixture that it is—without the passion and drive that helped him through difficult times. “I could have stopped,” Zeller says. “For all the effort and energy put in, I could have stopped at 80% [success] and been very comfortable. But I always wanted to do that little extra.”

Today, he says, the challenges of restaurant ownership make the need for perseverance even stronger. “There’s a lot more competition. There weren’t that many restaurants when we started, and if you performed well, there wasn’t much competition. You just have to keep up with it: improve every day, and stay focused on what the others do so you aren’t falling behind.”

A strong support system, Zeller adds, has been equally important to his success. “My late wife, Edith, worked with me in the restaurant. She was very supportive. She knew what goals I wanted to accomplish, and she fully understood what it takes to start from the ground up as an entrepreneur to reach a goal. It takes time, energy, sacrifice—but she allowed me to do this. And that beginning—that foundation—was very, very important to me. That was the beginning of Avanti’s: to build a good foundation.”

The hard work of running a restaurant isn’t for everyone, he says, but anyone with the skills and passion to stick with their ideas is primed for success. “It’s innovation and creation and improvement—it all needs to be there,” Zeller declares. “The most important thing is that someone finds that combination. You have to have that entrepreneurial spirit. And once you find it, you need to stay with it. Every day is a challenge for tomorrow.” iBi

For more information and a complete list of Peoria-area Avanti’s locations, visit avantispeoria.com.

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