Desire for new concept finds "warm and receptive" beginning

By Mary Ann Ford

While growing up in the Midwest, Todd Hovenden saw a gap in restaurant offerings.

I saw a need for a restaurant concept with different food, different service – a different niche than here,” he said. “We had Olive Garden and Bennigan’s, but I didn’t see a niche above like the Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s.

After trying a job with an accounting firm and another with a major soft drink company, Hovenden decided to enroll in Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management MBA program and began working on a business plan that would close that Midwestern restaurant gap.

He came up with the idea for Biaggi’s, a restaurant with a mission “to serve authentic, freshly prepared Italian cuisine in a warm and friendly environment with outstanding service and affordable prices.”

“I could have started in any market,” said Hovenden, who grew up in Indiana and Iowa and only spent about 1 ½ years in Bloomington while in high school.

But his parents lived in Bloomington and the community offered him the keys he needed for a successful project: a real estate deal, investors and a good working relationship with a bank (Busey Bank).

“It was very challenging.  Building financial models and building a plan took a year,” he said. “I was very fortunate.  I owe a lot to my folks and people who believed in us.”

Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano opened at 1501 N. Veterans Parkway, Bloomington, at 11 a.m. March 8, 1999. Two hours earlier, Hovenden broke ground for a second location in Champaign.

“I thought if I’m going down, I’m going down big,” he said. 

Instead of going down big, he succeeded big.

There are now 20 Biaggi’s restaurants in 10 states, meeting the objective of his first business plan.

“Bloomington has been very warm and receptive of the concept,” said Hovenden. “The market fits very well with the cuisine and the depth and breadth of the menu. Here, folks have embraced it for whatever the occasion.

Hovenden, who also serves as chief operating officer for Biaggi’s, not only chose Bloomington-Normal for his first restaurant but also his corporate offices and the home he shares with his wife and high school sweetheart, Claudia, and their two children, Max, 21, and Gabby, 20.

Max played a key role in Hovenden’s choice to name the restaurants Biaggi’s.

It came at 2 a.m. one morning when Hovenden was in graduate school.  He and Claudia had an apartment in Evanston. Max was just a baby.

Hovenden was trying to come up with a name for his restaurant concept. Max was sitting on his lap.

“I was looking at an English/Italian dictionary and a map of Italy,” Hovenden said. “For some reason, I had ESPN on. I was half asleep.”

ESPN was televising a Supermoto race. One of the top racers was a guy named Biaggi, a fairly common last name in Italy. But Biaggi’s first name struck a chord with Hovenden.  It was Max.

While Hovenden has reached his initial goal of 20 restaurants, he said, “I’m always looking for something that works for us. After 18 years of experience, we know what works.

If I could find 20 more communities just like Bloomington-Normal, we’d grow so fast, we’d open 20 more,” he said.