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Magic beans: Banzo blossoms into award-winning eatery seemingly overnight

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The following is the third in a series of stories on the 2014 Dane County Small Business Award winners. To read our feature on Tweedee Productions, click here. For our feature on Berntsen International, click here.

To hear Aaron Collins tell it, Madison’s Banzo, the restaurant he runs with his wife, Netalee Sheinman, went from amusing notion to mobile food station to local favorite in the time it takes some businesses to get their furniture delivered.

Not that Collins is inclined to brag — he seems truly humbled by the meteoric rise of the area’s most celebrated new Mediterranean eatery — but considering that the couple’s business idea took flight on the flimsiest of gossamer wings, he has plenty to be proud of.

“To be honest, it kind of started as a joke,” said Collins. “[Netalee and I] would always kind of joke, [saying] wouldn’t it be funny if we opened something here? And we brought it up at one point to her dad, and he had some Israeli friends of his who were in New York running restaurants very similar to Banzo, and we started training with them. The rest just kind of fell into place.”

As it turns out, the couple’s intentions were nothing to laugh at. With its menu of Mideast staples like the garbanzo bean-based falafel and hummus, as well as babaganush and majadra rice (along with meatier offerings like brisket and chicken tenderloin), Banzo has drawn on the same mix of flavors Sheinman enjoyed while growing up in Israel.

Falafel and hummus are staples of Banzo's Mediterranean-inspired menu.

In the meantime, it’s attracted a lot of attention. The company recently won a 2014 Dane County Small Business Award, and the accolades have continued to pour in. FlipKey.com, a site affiliated with TravelAdvisor.com, listed Banzo as the sole Badger State representative in an article on the top 50 restaurants worth traveling for. At Movoto.com, the restaurant topped the list of eateries that “will blow the taste buds out of your mouth.” Perhaps most importantly, however, Yelp.com users have given the restaurant a gaudy 4.5-star rating, which consistently keeps it at or near the top of the site’s list of Madison’s best eateries.

Not that Banzo’s rise to local stardom has been easy — nor has it been a straight line.

Collins and Sheinman met while traveling abroad in Australia when they were both in their senior year of college. They started a long-distance romantic relationship, eventually moved to New York City, and settled into the work world, with Sheinman managing an Israeli-style restaurant on Second Avenue. Collins, a Madison native, introduced Sheinman to the isthmus, while Sheinman introduced Collins to her native country’s cuisine.

“I loved it and was always craving it,” said Collins. “So when we came back to Madison, we were kind of at a loss of where to go. State Street had a few places and there were a couple of places around the city, but not really in the style we were looking for.”

Garbanzo dreams

The two eventually began looking for a brick-and-mortar location around State Street but had no luck, so they decided to open a food cart, which they thought might be a nice steppingstone to a traditional restaurant. They launched the business in August 2011, with Collins and Sheinman as the sole employees, convinced that managing a food cart would be a breeze compared to running a full-service restaurant.

“We were a little naïve at first in the thought that operating a food cart would be easier than a restaurant, which proved itself not the case,” said Collins. “We’ve got a lot of additional work that comes along with the food cart, and definitely a lot of the other food cart operators in Madison will tell you it’s not anywhere as easy as it seems.

“Madison has a great food cart scene, and a lot of the existing carts were extremely helpful to us to share their knowledge and help out. If things break down, people lend each other equipment or offer to help in various ways. But as far as the progression of things, I don’t think [starting with a food cart] would necessarily be a whole lot easier.”

Three years after launching the business — and a mere two years after marrying — Sheinman and Collins now have two food carts (on the Library Mall and the Capitol Square) as well as a brick-and-mortar restaurant (on Sherman Avenue). The business has gone from employing its two founders to supporting as many as 22 workers during the busy summer months.

What’s its secret? Aside from crafting an authentic ethnic menu that’s both unique and at least somewhat familiar to local diners, Banzo has established a rapport among its employees that helps create a vibrancy and sense of belonging in the workplace.

“From day one, we tell people that their input is just as valuable as anyone else’s there, and they’re encouraged to talk face to face with Netalee or I or anyone there and bring their ideas to us,” said Collins. “Really, our business wouldn’t be what it is today without the staff we have, just because of those things they all bring to the table. …

“We get pretty busy and things can be stressful, but we always try to have a lot of fun. It’s one of the only places I’ve ever worked where, after the shift, everybody voluntarily stays after, helps each other, and then we all kind of hang out and make a staff meal or have a few beers. So people aren’t in a hurry to get out of there right away after their shift is over. That’s kind of special.”

(Continued)

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