Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Bethany Reid
For the past 29 years Aldo Dean, owner and operator of Bardog Tavern, Slider Inn, Aldo’s Pizza Pies and Momma’s, of has been behind the bar, and setting it as well.
After bartending in Manhattan for over 15 years, Aldo moved to Memphis in 2004 to follow his future wife down south from New York City, where he had initially moved to pursue a degree in creative writing from New York University.
Since moving to Memphis 16 years ago, Aldo and his partners Clif Lee and Phil Lauck have opened six restaurants under the mantle of Packed House Productions.
The organization’s establishments include Bardog Tavern (2008), Slider Inn - Midtown (2011), Aldo’s Pizza Pies - Downtown (2012), Aldo’s Pizza Pies - Midtown (2015), Momma’s (2019) and Slider Inn - Downtown (2019).
Though the food varies between eateries, Aldo focuses his restaurants toward approachability, familiarity, consistency and most of all, hospitality.
As a first-generation American whose family hailed from the island Sardinia off the coast of Italy, Aldo’s heritage influences many of his restaurants' offerings.
As expected, Aldo has a very large personality. He’s fast-talking, straight to point and very matter-of-fact. The 47-year-old takes pride in his restaurants and maintains a presence in all six restaurants. It’s the little things – behind the scenes, he explains – that make it all work.
If you frequent any of his establishments, you’ve likely seen him talking with guests or pouring drinks behind the bar for friends and regulars. Jovial, but serious, Aldo is truly a bartender before businessman.
In his own words, here is Aldo’s story.
I was born in Trenton, New Jersey and I remember sitting at a bar with my father at a place called Mastoris Diner when I was five or six-years-old. It was a really huge diner right outside of Trenton. I remember watching a black-and-white Japanese Godzilla movie and I had this Shirley Temple with a sword pick with three cherries on it. I just thought it was kind of neat. It's just my first memory of sitting at a bar. I don't really know why I remember that. And I don't think that's the reason why I wanted to be a bartender. But it really stuck with me, sitting at that bar with my dad, feeling kind of like a grown up.
I also remember going to New York around that same time – I think I was in the first grade. You know when you sell candy at school and they give you a little order form? Well, my aunt would take my order form and photocopy it and give it to my other aunts, and each of them would sell candy to about 60 or 70 people in their offices. So, I would sell the most candy in the school, which got me the top prize personally, but the class that sold the most candy would get a special prize: to go to New York City and watch The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. I specifically remember putting my ear to the floor of the bus to see the top of the buildings and still couldn't see them.
I remember being in our winter jackets and getting off the bus at the corner and there being a hot dog vendor and smoke coming out from the manholes. The yellow taxi cabs were everywhere. I was in love.
My family ended up moving to Roswell, Georgia, which is right outside of Atlanta, when I was eight-years-old to pursue some business opportunities in the South, which was seeing this boom in industry. So we moved to Roswell, where we lived until I turned 17.
When I graduated high school I started visiting colleges in the Northeast and I applied to New York University. I visited colleges with my mother and just fell in love with the city—the energy of it. I also had a really great tour guide from the admissions office. But, I'm a hyper person naturally.
When my mom would take me to the mall in Atlanta growing up she'd always say, ‘These Southerners are so slow.’ In New York people move fast, and I liked that.
So in ‘90 I moved to New York to go to school where I majored in creative writing. It was the greatest thing I ever did. I got a degree, learned my business and ended up meeting my wife, who at the end of the day I'm going to spend the rest of my life with.
New York was a lot different in the early ‘90s. It was pre-Giuliani. It was rough and tumble, people were getting mugged walking home from school. You really had to watch yourself. It wasn’t ‘Disneyfied’ like it is today. There really wasn’t a big crackdown on crime until Giuliani came around. I remember, I had only been in town for four days, and me and two friends from college caught a guy who had broken into a car. We were coming back from a bar – they didn’t card you back then – and this other guy, a New Yorker, saw him breaking in too. So it was me, this kid from New Jersey, this kid from Yonkers and this New Yorker and we surrounded this car that he was in and we yelled, ‘We're calling the cops!’ That didn’t phase him, so the guy from New York was like, ‘I'm going to get my gun out of the car!’ The thief heard that and bolted. Me and my two friends chased him down Broadway, tackled him and held him down until the cops came. New York was kind of fun. It was a lot of fun actually. This is when clubs like Tunnel and The Limelight were going on.
I knew I needed a job and we were going to bars, so I thought bartending would be the best way for me to make a living and still be able to go to school.
There was this kid who was a commuter named Lee Hadjianis, a Greek kid, who was commuting from Queens. He ended up moving into our dorm pretty much and sleeping on the couch. He didn’t pay for any room or board, but he stayed with us and he worked at this place called Durango Roadhouse. This place had a pool table, a jukebox and a woman, a big woman. She was the manager and was like 6’ 2” and always wore high heels, dark sunglasses and an evening gown. If there was ever a fight she would take off her high heel and swing it in front of the aggressor's face. I wish I could remember her name, but we would drink there a lot. They needed another bartender because one of the guys left because he played a vampire in the Tom Petty “Free Fallin’” music video and was this minor actor who had a shot in L.A.
Anyway, Lee knew I was looking for a job so he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to teach Aldo how to bartend.’ So he taught me how to bartend. It was just the diviest bar you can imagine. There was spoken word, live music, fights regularly, and pool tables, which always caused the fights.
One night I was working with Lee and I went out to buy some cigarettes. We had already shut the bar down so it was around 4 in the morning. When I came back, Lee was sitting at a table making a bong out of a Coke bottle and these two girls, who I didn’t know, were behind the bar pouring drinks. I shut the whole party down. Even then, I was always about doing the right thing by my boss. I’ve always respected the person who gave me a job.
When you’re bartending you have autonomy, especially in New York where there weren't kitchens in a lot of bars. I think that’s what I like most about bartending. It’s just you, the other bartender and maybe a door man. You ran the show.
There were no managers or owners hanging around normally. The earlier you start bartending, the earlier you learn to be a boss and be responsible for yourself. I always thought that the energy of a bar should emanate from the bartender. I try to make sure that’s how our bars are. The bartender is the nucleus of the bar, the source of that nighttime vibing power.
I’ve always had a lot of respect for blue collar work, for the hospitality industry and the power of a dollar; to be able to make it yourself and put it towards bettering yourself. Bartending is a fantastic way to earn money. I got to have a nightlife where I wasn't spending money but I was making money and still having fun. That's what draws a lot of people in: the energy, the fun, the music, the nightlife.
I ended up moving back to Georgia for a short period, it’s kind of complicated, but when I came back to New York I got a job at the Racoon Lodge and took a break from school to save money. I started working there in September of ‘94. Even though I had been bartending for three years already, I really cut my teeth at the Racoon Lodge. I met my bar mentor Gary Marano, a New York City bartender who opened the Racoon Lodge in 1979. I think they had three locations by the time I started working for them.
It was a biker bar and didn't serve food. In fact, in the fifteen years that I bartended in New York, I never served food. Anyway, I was the youngest bartender the Raccoon Lodge had ever hired. After two weeks Gary told me that I needed to stop being such a college kid or I'd get fired. He told me, ‘Tuck your shirt in because you're fit – women want to see that! Don't lean against the back bar. Stand at the front of the bar. Pander to women.’ They really taught me how to make it in a New York bar.
It was a crazy bar, but I learned a whole lot from working there. If there’s a fight, I can jump over a bar in 2.4 seconds. You wouldn’t have even noticed I just jumped over you. I never had to hit anybody, just put them in headlocks. Well… that’s not true, but I don’t think I really had to hit many people. Anyway, I make sure that doesn’t happen in my bars.
Gary mentored a lot of people in the bar business. He just had this very powerful personality. It was equal parts nice guy and menacing boss. I don't know, sometimes I might channel him, but I probably do it in a more updated manner.
At Christmas, Gary would always decorate the bar with stockings with everybody's name on them. I carry that tradition from him. We would always exchange gifts, and Gary would always give everybody a gift himself. He’d buy all the guys a sweater, who knows what he got all the girls. He was sleeping with half of the staff. It was the ‘80s: cocaine, pool tables and bartending.
But one year at Christmas, we bought Gary a night vision monocular for this sailboat he just bought, which was actually the sister ship to Walter Croncheit’s sailboat. So, Gary went down to Florida and got this captain to teach him how to sail the boat. Well, Gary decided he knew enough and sent the captain on his way. Then he sailed to the Bahamas. For three days we didn’t hear from him. We thought he got lost, maybe he was dead. We had no idea. There was a rescue team even looking for him. It turns out Gary had crashed into a sand bar or reef. He was stranded for three days with nothing, drinking his own urine. The rescue team found him on the third day, right before they were about to give up looking for him.
When Gary came back he decided to write a will. He liked me pretty well at this point since I had been working for him for a while.
I ended up leaving the Racoon Lodge and in 1997 I began working at a place called the Spring Lounge at Spring & Mulberry, located in what is now called NoLita (North of Little Italy).
I had taken about six years off from school at this point, but I went back in spring of ‘99 to finish. I went through the summer and fall semester and walked in 2000 with a degree in creative writing, but right before I graduated Gary tragically died while driving his motorcycle.
The executor of his will was actually Wendy Makkena, the actress who played the mousy nun in “Sister Act.” Anyway, when I heard Gary had died, I went to his apartment because I knew I was in his will. Wendy handed me this manilla envelope. I thought it was a sweatshirt or something, but inside it was $10,000 cash. She said, ‘Gary left you $10,000.’ Fuck. I cried. I put the envelope in my backpack, jumped on the subway and went back to my apartment. My cousin Dominic was asleep on the couch, so I kicked him to wake him up and said, ‘Gary left me $10,000. How nice was that? Let’s grab a drink.’ In May I graduated, and by June I was in Europe backpacking. I went to Greece, Spain, and 12 other countries. It really changed my life.
I went to school to be a writer, I never planned on being in this industry forever. But, as things turn out, you get drawn in by the money. It's easy to get seduced by having all of that money in your pocket all of the time. One of my screenwriting teachers once told me writers don’t write, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, in 2002 I met my wife Caroline. We just passed each other on the street and both looked back at each other. It was just love at first sight.
I was still bartending in New York. Caroline took a job in Memphis. She had roots here and her dad had a business here. Eight months later I followed her to Memphis. We had been going out for two years at this point and I needed a change of scenery. I had been in New York for 15 years, and my sister had just passed from cancer. I was living in a very small apartment and paying for a very expensive garage for my car. It was just time.
I like Memphis. I love Memphis. I’ve always thought that the greatest resource Memphis has is its people. It was a big slow down, but I was ready for it.
When I moved here I started writing for this website, “Memphis Mojo.” I moved down to Memphis to be with Caroline and to become a writer. I didn't want to be a bartender, it was just too easy for me at that point. I was painting houses to make some money and thought that I would write at night. But, when I’d come home I’d be so exhausted from painting houses all day that I wouldn’t write, and I wasn't making any money either. So, I decided I would start bartending at lunch and then write at night. So I got a job at Stella, which was on South Main where Flight is now. I learned the food trade there.
Anyway, I'm bartending lunch there and the owners come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you're a good bartender. Do you want to be a bar manager?’ I said, ‘Alright.’ And they paid me really good money for that.
So me and Caroline bought a hundred-year-old Midtown house. I thought, ‘Man, I'm not going to be able to fix this house up on this salary, I'm going to have to open my own business.’
When I was working at Stella people would come banging on the door trying to find somewhere to drink after midnight. I realized people wanted to drink somewhere that wasn’t Beale, and I realized that area of South Main needed a bar.
Before 73 Monroe Ave. became Bardog, it was a place called Mike’s BBQ. When it shut down I started to peek in the window, and thought that it would make a nice neighborhood bar. It did, and it still does.
But to have a business, you have to have a business plan. So, over the next three months I would get high every night and I would write from midnight to 3 a.m., googling ‘What is a business plan? What is a restaurant business plan?’ I’d get a template and it would say I needed a personal history section, proof of concept, mission statements, competition studies, etc. You know, the works.
So I would take this business plan to someone, and they would say, ‘OK, good.’ Then I’d take it to some other person, and they’d say, ‘Well, you need an appendix and a cash flow statement.’ So, I’d go home and google ‘cash flow statement.’ The next day I’d take it to another guy and he’d say, ‘You need three years of projections.’ I’d come home and extrapolate and crunch numbers. At the end of it all, I ended up with a 52-page business plan.
Opening Bardog was heartbreaking. I always tell people there are three stages to opening a business. The first stage is financing, then constructing and the last is operating. The hardest and most emotional part is definitely the financing.
Probably 500 people got their hands on this plan and I ended up with eight investors ranging from $1,000 to $20,000. I think I raised about $90,000 from investors. I still needed more money, so I started asking around at banks and everyone in Memphis denied me.
There’s two red flags when asking for a loan to start your first bar. The first flag is that it’s a startup, the other is that it’s a bar. Neither are good separately, but together they are even worse.
I had eight or nine banks say no to me. One night at 3 a.m. I wrote a letter to these banks. I still have it today.
The gist of it is pretty much, ‘One day, you’ll be knocking on my door asking to finance my businesses. Because I’m going to open up a great bar.’
Anyway, a bank in New York called Seed Co. took a chance on me. It was a nonprofit that was putting money into the Memphis market. I got a $200,000 loan. With that, the money I raised, and money I borrowed from friends, I had a little under $400,000 to open Bardog. Once your business gets going it becomes a lot easier. People are like horses, you can judge them on their past track records. So once you and your business have history, it's easier to get money. But, I probably cried during that first stage.
Once you have financing, you move on to the construction stage. Then you’re at the mercy of contractors and the building. In those first two stages you have no control, but when you get to the operating stage it gets easier. You’re in control. You’re pulling the strings. You’re driving the car. At that point it’s all up to you.
Bardog Tavern opens on September 19th, 2008
Bars have always been where travelers would gather. They were in the center of town or the community. It's where the news would be read to people—a gathering place. It's still true today. Especially in neighborhood bars, which is what I think of Bardog. Opening at 8 a.m. really cements you as a neighborhood bar. It's important for early risers or people who are lonely to have a place they can go in the morning and have a cup of coffee, breakfast or watch TV. Maybe just to see a smiling face. If you're sitting in a cubicle all day, you may never see another face during the day. To have a welcoming face behind the bar or waiting on a table or standing at the door, it might be the only smiling face somebody sees all day.
In 2011 me and Caroline got married, and she became pregnant with our first daughter, Luca.
Around that time I started coming up with some new restaurant ideas. I never wanted to have just another burger because everyone did burgers. So, Bardog had sliders, which was kind of tricky back then. You really didn’t see them anywhere else in Memphis. They’re great cheese burgers. They taste like home cooked burgers, and now that the grill has been seasoned for over 10 years, they’re better than ever.
Anyway, one day I walked into the kitchen and said, ‘I have a great name for a bar.’ I told the chef, Demetrie Phillips, ‘Slider Inn!’ Everyone just laughed. I said, ‘No! We’ll have like 15 different sliders. It’s a great idea!’ So, I lived in Midtown and would drive by where Slider is now. But, it used to be called ‘One More,’ then it became ‘Bluff City Bayou.’ They shut down for ignominious reasons, so it went up for lease. But, I always loved that property. So, I took my Bardog business plan, condensed it down to 12 pages and presented it to the woman who owned the building. She liked the idea, so I got started. Phil and Clif, who had invested in Bardog, signed on. We got some money and started to renovate the place.
Slider Inn - Midtown was our second restaurant, we didn’t have a lot of money at the time, but it was a small space, so we were able to do it on a tight budget. It was divey. It’s still divey, but man it happens to be in a great location and does great business. It’s always felt like a beach bar to me, just one surrounded by asphalt and concrete. It really does have a good, laid-back, beachy kind of vibe. It’s a really special place to me, to the neighborhood and to Midtown as well.
For the pizza place, it was simpler. We just realized there wasn't a pizza place in the thick of downtown. We had started on Aldo’s before Slider, but when that building came for lease we put Aldo’s on hold and opened Slider Inn. But by the next year, we opened our third restaurant, Aldo’s Pizza Pies Downtown.
The concepts are definitely the products of the space that they’re in, but also the maturity of our organization at the time of their conception.
I devote so much energy to making sure that the floors and bathrooms are clean, the curb appeal of the restaurant is above standard and that tables are bussed. When a guest is walking up, I make sure they're greeted. I want to make sure uniforms are up to spec, that food is a certain quality and that the staff is on time. It’s the little details that make something special.
I like to keep our bars open late for people who are hungry with nowhere to eat. I like to make people happy.
I may consider myself a perfectionist, but you can never achieve perfection. Every restaurant owner always wants to put out a quality product, a quality experience and a quality good time. Sometimes achieving that is out of reach, but achieving that nine out of ten times is awesome. But, most of all, I always want our restaurants and products to be approachable to people.
I probably come off as ‘Mr. Negativity’ to my managers sometimes, but it's very important that you learn as you go not to make the same mistakes as asshole bosses of the past. Honestly, I haven’t had that many asshole bosses. I've been very lucky in my career to have learned so much from my former bar and restaurant bosses.
In 2015 Packed House Productions and Aldo opened Aldo’s Pizza Pies Midtown and Caroline gave birth to the couple's second daughter, Viva. In 2019 the growing restaurant group opened Momma’s in September and Slider Inn - Downtown in November.
Luca is eight-years-old and Viva is five-years-old now. My wife is a saint – she should be canonized for being the wife of an erratic bar owner. At this point I’m more a general idea person. The managers and the support staff in the offices are really the tacticians, they make things happen. But it goes down to the bussers and the dishwashers. Teamwork is such a huge part of the restaurant business. If somebody calls in sick, somebody has to pick up that shift. My managers are bartenders, servers, dishwashers and mechanics. You know how much they know about HVAC systems? Plumbing? It's a really interesting business. As a restaurant operator it's our job to present the guest with a front of house experience that never pierces the veil of what's behind the curtain. There is so much that goes into restaurants that people never think about: the equipment, the air conditioning, the licences, the product, the inventory, the staffing. Most of all you depend on the whims of an evermore picky audience.
There is always a new restaurant. There's always the next greatest thing. There's always a better burger, a better cocktail. But, that’s why I try to aim for our food to be approachable. Is it wrong to say that 90 percent of the world likes pizza? 95 percent maybe? So a pizza restaurant should be pretty safe. And so should burger bars. There's always someone coming out with a new burger franchise. How is that? How is it that nine years ago Five Guys Burgers came on the scene and was the fastest growing franchise in the country? Like, hasn’t that already been done? Burgers and fries? Oh, Shake Shack! Burgers, fries, and shakes? ‘Yeah we’ll put one in Abu Dhabi,’ fuck. Union Square, New York. Glasgow. I mean, who knows where Shake Shacks are, they’re everywhere. It’s burgers, fries and milkshakes.
Anyway, I put myself through college bartending. I started bartending when I was 18, I’m 47 now, so I’ve really been bartending for 29 years. Even though I don’t have a shift anymore I still think of myself as a bartender. It’s been a lot of fun and we plan on continuing to open quality, approachable bars and restaurants.
When asked about which restaurant is his favorite, Aldo responded,
Picking your favorite restaurant is like picking your favorite child. And as a father of two little girls, you know you can’t really pick. But, Bardog is always going to be my first and I don’t know what will be last.