By that time, the hook was set. Discharged from the Army in 1968 and armed with the GI Bill, Ricca headed back to school — this time to the University of Denver, for a degree in hotel and restaurant management. That led to a restaurant manager position with the parent company of a small chain of steak and lobster restaurants. The company, which also operated premium freestanding and hotel-affiliated operations around the country, was expanding its steakhouse concept to California. It moved Ricca and his family to Long Beach, where he was to manage a new unit going up in a prime marina location.
He reported for duty only to discover that construction was behind schedule and the unit wouldn't open for another year. While initially disconcerting, the turn of events was one of what Ricca says has been a series of fortunate incidents that have shaped his career.
"Here I was in California with a year to wait before the restaurant I'd been sent out to manage would be ready. It turned out to be a good thing in many ways," he says. "Number one, I was able to watch this operation start from the ground up. I saw how it came together, what had to be done and really learned about the process of construction. While I waited I also filled in as a part-time/vacation-relief manager at other units the company owned around the country. I ended up getting a wonderful array of experiences at about a dozen different locations, some union, some nonunion, steakhouses, hotels, etc. It was a terrific education."
Shortly after the Long Beach restaurant, then called Seaport Village Steakhouse (now Boathouse on the Bay), finally opened, Ricca met the men who had designed its kitchen. Carl Hansen and Fred Schmid, of Fred Schmid & Associates in Los Angeles, were pioneering foodservice consultants and designers. They also were among the founders of the Food Facilities Engineering Society, a precursor to Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI).
"They came to the restaurant one day and wanted to see how things were working out from a design standpoint. We sat down, and I started sharing what was working well and what wasn't," Ricca says. "As I was talking I grabbed a cocktail napkin, pulled out a pen and started drawing, showing how things could have been set up a little differently to work more efficiently. Fred gave me an odd look and asked me where I learned to draw like that. When he found out I had a degree in architecture on top of restaurant management experience and knowledge of equipment, flow and function, he offered me a job."
Still enamored of restaurant operations, Ricca declined. But a year later the hours and stress synonymous with restaurant life had begun to wear on him. After a particularly grueling Mother's Day weekend, he called Schmid to see if the offer still stood. It did.
He started shortly thereafter as a basic draftsman, commuting 2 hours each way from Long Beach to Los Angeles at a salary of $9,000 a year, less than he'd been making in the restaurant business.
To this day, Ricca is still known to spontaneously put pen to paper napkin to sketch out design solutions on the fly. Heidi Kunsman, who this spring was promoted to principal from director of marketing at RND, recalls a recent conversation with the foodservice director of a new higher education facility. "He said they'd been having some design issues and met with Tom to discuss them. Tom pulled out a napkin and started sketching out how he thought the design should be," Kunsman says. "The client said they ended up taking that design and basically building from almost the exact same drawings that Tom had sketched out off the top of his head during the meeting."
Margaret "Peg" Rodger, RD, FCSI, is a former Ricca Newmark client who managed foodservice facilities at both the College of the Holy Cross and Cornell University. In 1999, she joined Ricca Planning Studio, which Tom Ricca and partners Kathleen Seelye and Claudia Scotty had created as a sister company three years earlier to provide pre-design/master planning services. That division was later spun off under Scotty and partner Rob White as Envision Strategies, where Rodger is now a principal.
As a client, Rodger had worked with Ricca on two major foodservice renovation projects. "Because of Tom's architectural background, he can see where he can just blow through walls and create great things," she says. "At College of the Holy Cross, for example, we wanted to do a late-night pub/retail operation in the basement of the student center, but were concerned that people would have to make a concerted effort to go downstairs to find it. Tom right away sketched out an idea for knocking out part of a wall on the lower level to create a new, separate entry. It worked beautifully and ended up looking like it had always been part of the original building. He's extremely creative and works out solutions so quickly that end up being right on target."
Now on the consulting side, and often teamed on projects with Ricca and others from RND as a strategic partner to Envision Strategies, Rodger witnesses regularly how that type of quick, creative thinking is in Ricca's DNA. "We can be in meetings with clients, working to try to determine their vision and expectations for a project, and I can look over at Tom and see that he's already designing in his mind based on what he's hearing. Others are still trying to absorb all of the information, and he's already designing. His clarity of vision is pretty amazing."
Partner Dave Chislett, who joined the firm a decade ago and has worked internationally with Ricca on luxury properties from hotels to casinos, has witnessed the same. He notes, "Tom is masterful at becoming the silent secret weapon on a project. While project players posture, pontificate and prognosticate, Tom is drawing, thinking and challenging off in a corner. He then comes to the fore with the solutions that ownership thought would take weeks — solutions that often include areas and scope way beyond what we were hired for, thus earning Ricca as a firm a prime place at the table as the client's trusted advisor."
That type of spatial and visual clarity stems in part back to Ricca's days working with Fred Schmid, who quickly became his mentor, and others in that first position at Fred Schmid & Associates. Schmid's mantra became the philosophy that has guided Ricca's career ever since: "Always find the simple solution."
"It took a while before Fred let me actually design anything," Ricca says. "But eventually I was drafting plans, doing details and plumbing plans, things like that. Fred would come by and ask what I was doing. I'd say, 'I'm trying to lay out this dishroom,' or whatever it was, and every time he'd tell me to always find the simple solution. Don't make it complicated. That's been my approach ever since. Sometimes it means moving walls, stairways or elevators, and it often makes the architects crazy, but in the end it turns out to be a better, cleaner, more efficient plan."
Though he gained a great mentor, learned from some of the best in the business and laid the foundation for a long and rewarding design career at Fred Schmid & Associates, Ricca's tenure there was relatively short. He'd left the stressful restaurant business behind, but was nonetheless pulling 14-hour days and spending significant time on the road. Three years in, he made the decision to move his family back to Colorado in search of a better quality of life.
Armed with his new experience, it didn't take him long to become involved in the local restaurant scene. A University of Denver classmate who was planning to build a restaurant looked him up with an offer of 50 percent equity in the business in exchange for Ricca's design services. "I said great," Ricca recalls. "I figured where else could I own half a restaurant for sweat equity at my age?"
The two joined forces in the restaurant and at the same time launched a culinary design services firm, TR Enterprises (for Tucker, his partner's last name, and Ricca). The year, however, was 1973, the cusp of a debilitating recession. Financing quickly dried up, and banks were failing. The restaurant project was off.
"Everything was falling apart, but I knew I had to earn a living. I had a family to support," Ricca says. "So I did two things. I went to the University of Denver and asked if they needed someone to teach the design course. I've been teaching classes there ever since."
The second thing he did was to hang out his own shingle as a culinary designer. Though the Tucker in TR Enterprises was no longer in the picture, by happy coincidence the name still worked for Thomas Ricca. His first "office" was a drafting table in the back of a bedroom in his 800-square-foot house.
"I started calling local manufacturer's reps to get catalogs. A guy named Skip Clyde had 8 or 10 equipment lines, and he brought those catalogs over to my house," Ricca says. "He'd heard that the Petroleum Club downtown was going to be remodeled and asked if I'd be interested in helping. I never really set out to run a design consulting firm, but it just gained momentum."