A taste trifecta
Good and Blumenthal celebrate 16 mouth-watering years in Jackson
Jeff Good comes up with his greatest ideas in the shower, at the precise moment the water hits the back of his neck, stimulating the cerebral cortex portion of his brain.
Whether it’s planning wine auctions or endorsing municipal ventures, there is always a project for Good. “I’m really good at momentum,” he said. “Listening and taking in people’s frustrations, creating an idea and casting it out there.”
The Salt Lake City, Utah, native moved to Jackson in his senior year of high school after his father took a job as the dean of students at Millsaps College. In between classes, he became fast friends with another Jackson transplant, Dan Blumenthal.
Blumenthal, the grandson of New Jersey immigrant bakers, is more of a numbers guy. “Jeff can do numbers, too, but the numbers don’t drive him,” Blumenthal said. “I’m very focused and pragmatic. Once I come up with an idea, he’s able to push us forward.”
The duo has since traded in ideas and numbers for menus and tablecloths, having won over the testy taste buds of Jackson as the head marketer and head chef of Mangia Bene Inc., a ragingly successful catering and restaurant fiefdom in the Capitol City. The company’s three restaurants, Bravo! Italian Restaurant & Bar, Broad Street Baking Company and Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza & Ice Cream Joint, stand out as delectable destinations as well as success stories in the city’s continued quest for people and places, two things that continue to trickle down the highway or across the river to adjacent communities.
“If you take look at the license plates, especially on the weekend, (you’ll see plates from) Copiah County, Lincoln County, Warren County,” Good said. “Each restaurant holds its own customer base and many customers trade between.”
While Good and Blumenthal graduated from the same high school and both waited tables while earning business degrees in college, these were the last things they had in common for several years, according to Good.
After graduating from Millsaps, Good got a job in technology sales with NCR Corporation, married and moved into the historic Belhaven neighborhood of downtown Jackson. Blumenthal headed west to the University of Southern California at Santa Cruz, then worked for a year as a paralegal in San Francisco.
“I got the whole Jewish bakery thing and had exposure to that at an early age,” Blumenthal said. “I liked to watch early cooking shows on public television — Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Jacques Pépin.” Figuring he would enjoy a kitchen over a courtroom, Blumenthal gave up on a notion to attend law school and enrolled at the California Culinary Academy. He then began his career as a chef working for several well-known Bay Area establishments.
A late night phone conversation with his old high school friend in the summer of 1992 opened up an opportunity for him to return to the South. “NCR was bought out by AT&T,” Good said. “They were going to shut down operations in Jackson and I was going to lose my job.” He said both he and Blumenthal were “frustrated” with their situations. “The phone got kinda quiet for a moment and then we both talked over each other saying we should go into business together.”
Two years and $450,000 later, Good and Blumenthal opened Bravo! Italian Restaurant and Bar in the South Plaza of Highland Village in Northeast Jackson. They were joined in the early stages by Blumenthal’s younger brother, David, who left the partnership in 2000.
Good said his relationships with petroleum “wildcatters” in Mississippi taught him a number of valuable business and management lessons. “We created this (limited partnership) where we could raise a little bit of money from a lot of people,” he said. “One out of 10 restaurants fail. We didn’t want to have to be at the Kroger in six months and run into somebody and we had taken all their money.”
Blumenthal, meanwhile, got into the kitchen and tapped into his interests in European and Asian food culture. “I love Southern fusion food — taking cuisine from local cultures in Mississippi and Louisiana and combining it with classical stuff I know,” he said. Bravo’s Italian menu carries everything from fried polenta to tiramisu.
Broad Street opened in Banner Hall, another Jackson retail hotspot, in 1998. It’s deli-style menu is driven by fresh ideas made in-house by a team of bakers. Sal & Mookie’s New York Style Pizzeria & Ice Cream Parlor in the Fondren arts district, opened in 2007, features hand-tossed pizza that is brought to the table atop steaming raised platters.
Life in the hospitality industry hasn’t always been hospitable for Good and Blumenthal. They started Bravo! at a time when most people thought the suburbs were the place to go. Good said Broad Street still feels like a new restaurant after going through several nightmarish evolutions in the early 2000s. “I have a herniated disk because of that damn bakery,” he said. “I ran the truck for three months making wholesale baking deliveries to restaurants. I was quite the laughing stock.”
Through it all, Blumenthal encouraged Good to stand tall and wait for the tide to turn. “You can’t look too far down the road,” said Blumenthal.
While Sal & Mookie’s is still the “newest child” of Mangia Bene, Good said it’s an extraordinary experience that he would love to take on the road, given the right circumstances. “I just may not have the ticker for it,” he said. “If we’ve learned anything it is that tenacity is key — that and talking people’s ears off.”