Whiskey business

by joey  |   

Management grad Ylli Ferati '12 runs the bar at his family's Fiori D'Italia restaurant in Spenard, recently tabbed Alaska's best whiskey bar by Thrillist. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

"People call me the Italian Cheers. You come here some days at 5 o'clock and I have literally half the neighborhood here," said Ylli Ferati '10, bar manager at Fiori d'Italia.

In a city of strip malls, Fiori d'Italia sits squarely in the middle of Spenard. Hidden away off McRae Road and surrounded by residential homes, it's a destination you could easily drive right past. But the neighbors know it's here. They've kept this family-run restaurant in business since 1995.

A 2012 management alumnus, Ylli combines the book smarts he learned at UAA with the street smarts he gained growing up in the restaurant industry to run the bar at Fiori. He's a craft cocktail mixologist with several beers on tap, but his passion, quite evidently, is whiskey. The glass shelves behind him are burdened by bourbon and stacked with scotch. It's likely the largest selection in the entire state. Food-and-drink website Thrillist recently took notice, naming Fiori d'Italia to its "Best whiskey bar in every state list" in February.

The bar is Ylli's main focus, but he's invested in every aspect of the restaurant. As a kid, he and his brothers watched movies on the projector in the upstairs banquet room. In high school, he started washing dishes and helping his dad in the kitchen.

His responsibilities grew in college. He'd squeeze homework in between delivery runs. During group projects, his classmates might meet him at the restaurant, plotting their presentations while splitting shrimp scampi and hand-rolled mozzarella loaves so Ylli could keep an eye on the bar.

He especially appreciated his professors, many of whom knew his unique situation and accommodated his schedule if needed. "That's what college should be. Not all students are the same," Ylli noted.

Even though he already managed a business, Ylli still wanted that management degree. "Believe it not, college for me was huge," he said.

Though he knew enough about the industry through personal experience, UAA prepared him in the nitty-gritty finer points of business ownership. He studied tax laws and property management. He learned how to handle suppliers and track invoices.

"I don't think people understand how hard it is running a business," he said of the behind-the-scenes work.

Not everything can be taught at a university. For example: whiskey appreciation. Ylli says he didn't care much for the drink until he was thrown behind the bar. Now, through talking with regulars and attending trade shows in Las Vegas, he's a master of the craft.

"A couple of the older guys who come in and say, you're so young, you know more than we do," he laughed.

No, he hasn't been to Scotland. He's simply learned the tastes of his customers and the history of the trade to curate a staggering collection. He renovated parts of the bar this March by hand, and there's still not enough room for every bottle.

Ylli also recently redesigned the restaurant's logo, adding it to glassware and menus and purchasing a new sign on the corner. But even with the signage, Fiori is easy to miss if you don't go searching for it.

"I have defined that location, location, location doesn't really matter," he said, refuting the ground rules of business school. "It's having the hospitality. People come here not just for good drinks and good food, they like being part of the family."

That family now includes everyone from his high school football coaches to his elementary school teachers and, yes, a few of the UAA professors and classmates who helped him along the way.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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