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Start Your Business Success Stories

Love, Marriage and Two Businesses: My Journey from Waitress to Entrepreneur

Love, Marriage and Two Businesses: My Journey from Waitress to Entrepreneur Credit: Robyn Santiago

My story begins at Villaggio Italiano Restaurant in Hartsdale, NY. I worked there as a bartender when I was 22 for about a year while struggling with self-purpose and questioning what exactly it was that I wanted to do for my future. During this time of bewilderment, I moved to Hawaii for four years. Throughout the four years, every time I flew home, I would always go to Villaggio's for dinner with my friends. When I moved back to New Jersey for good, I went to Villaggio to see if they needed a waitress or bartender. I was hired to work the night shifts five days per week by my (now) husband, Danny, and continued to work there for about five-and-a-half years while I built my public relations business from the ground up.

I started Illumination PR in Westchester County doing event planning, web design, and really anything that could get my foot in the door with local businesses. My first event was with a charity for breast cancer in White Plains at Ernesto's Ristorante— I planned the event, called the press to come cover it, and hired the photographer. It was a huge success; 200 people showed up, but it was still the beginning of my career. The photographer charged me $300 and I paid him $50 per week for six weeks because of how broke I was. After this event, I realized it wasn't the event planning that I loved, it was seeing the success of businesses through the eyes of media. Eventually, a client I worked with connected me to one of the real housewives of New Jersey, and that was my first step into the PR world. 

A little way down the line, the previous owners of Villaggio, who owned the restaurant for 38 years, were getting tired as far as running the business and me and my husband Danny knew that they were looking to retire. Danny had worked there for 27 of the 38 years that they owned the restaurant, and we both had very good relationships with the owners, so we spoke to them and said, "Before you decide to put it on the market, we'd love to be able to talk about it first." And that's exactly what happened. The husband came to us about selling the restaurant and, after a series of conversations, prices, and signatures, on September 15, 2015, we closed on the restaurant and I started juggling with business number two. 

When we first bought it, we kept everything under wraps, only informing the employees of the change. Every single one of the employees stayed with us, as well as our loyal customers. We were lucky enough to have already had relationships with practically all the customers that came into the restaurant they had already been coming into the restaurant since they were younger. Once people started to find out that the previous owners retired, everybody was so supportive, and it seemed as though they started to come in even more. I think people respected that we worked so hard to get to where we are. 

In my office hangs a poster of Biggie Smalls that says "it was all a dream" to remind myself how fortunate I am to sit atop two growing empires. Knowing that me and my husband met at Villaggio's, where we both started in the business (Danny as a busboy working his way up to become a chef), makes owning it that much more of a dream come reality. 

In the future, I see one more possible business on the horizon— I hope to open up a salon for my daughters to give them a chance at their dreams. As far as Illumination's future, I want to be selfish, keep it small, and service the clients that we have, but I also see myself taking over a whole building full of employees. I hope to find a happy medium for the two. 

Villaggio is exceeding my expectations by becoming more and more successful with each passing day. This past February, we successfully opened a second location in Dobbs Ferry, NY which is hopefully just the beginning of our expansion. My goals for the future are to build both businesses to the best potential that we possibly can. I can't do any of this without my husband, our team at Villaggio's and our team at Illumination PR.

About the author: Robyn Santiago is the founder and president of Illumination PR, as well as the co-owner of Villaggio Italiano Restaurant. The entrepreneur started her businesses from very humbling beginnings and has no plans to stop any time soon.

Edited for clarity and brevity by Nicole Fallon. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Email your pitch to Shannon Gausepohl at sgausepohl@purch.com