Angelo Lutz, a convicted "mobster" who has built a restaurant business in the five years he has been out of prison, says life would have been remarkably different if, 20 years ago, he had chosen food as a career instead of being a bookie.
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"The same effort I put into illegal activity I now put into legal activity at an extra 20 percent, and there's no more wasted talent," said Lutz, 49. "All my resources are channeled into a legitimate business. If I had done that 20 years ago I would be a millionaire today."
Lutz recently opened the Kitchen Consigliere Café in Collingswood, N.J., a suburb of Philadelphia. His new restaurant seats 96 people, a step up from the 11-table restaurant around the corner that he opened just out of prison. His new eatery was funded in part by the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
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Lutz, a native of Philadelphia, said his passion has always been cooking, but it didn't come from his family.
"It comes naturally," he said. "My mother and I had two culinary points of view. She cooked one way and I cooked another. My mother was 'old school' and did it the way she learned. I cook with the ability to adapt to what the customer wants."
The restaurant business didn't come into play in his life until five years ago. Instead, he became a businessman, but the government considered him a bookie and debt collector.
He was charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and surrendered in 2001. He pled not guilty but was sentenced to 108 months in prison and ordered to pay a $15,000 fine. The sentence was later reduced to 97 months on appeal.
When asked what his prison experience was like, Lutz said, "Some of the nicest people I met were the people I met in prison. And those who can still stay in touch with me without violating parole, I still say hello. Everyone is entitled to a second chance."
When he was released in 2008, he said he was in "very poor health" with no resources other than a home that his mother had willed to him. By that time, he had managed to pay only $600 of his fine.
Finding a job as a convicted felon was difficult, he said.
"You're marked for life. You have an indelible scar and are always looked upon in a different way," he said.
Eventually, Lutz became determined to start a business and focus on his cooking passion to open a restaurant. But around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, it was even harder to get a loan to start a business, especially with his record and not having the proper tax records.
To buy the location of a former hot dog restaurant, he was able to get $91,000 from what he calls the "legal equivalent of a loan shark." The interest rate was 15.9 percent with a strict repayment plan. He was even hard pressed financially because he was ordered by the government to use $14,400 of that loan to pay off the rest of his $15,000 fine levied by the judge.
In three years, he built his restaurant with a staff of five and serving 200 people in a week.
"I had a vision, a brand, and knew exactly what I wanted to do. My past is my past. I don't make it dictate who I become, but I make it a part of what I become. It's an elephant in the room," he said.
Not long ago, the location around the corner became available, with three times the capacity as his former location and more than double the kitchen space.
"I tried to seize the moment," he said.
Besides two investors he knew, he turned to Indiegogo to see if strangers on the Web would give him a chance to raise $25,000 for the bigger property. He started his online fundraising in August and raised $37,000 in about a month through 275 people.
Now with a staff of more than 12 people in what he calls the premier location in Collingswood, he opened his New York style café for dinner at capacity last week.
In the first two days, he made 500 dinners.
"Kitchen Consigliere Café is home of the sausage meatball," he said, when asked what his favorite dish is. He explained that he uses an exclusive sausage maker. "We make a meatball out of it and we make it in the café. It's probably the biggest seller."
Starting Nov. 18, he will expand his menu and serve lunch.
Lutz said his friends and family are "very proud."
"They say, 'Angelo used to be a gangster and now he's a businessman,' which is fine with me. As Cuba Gooding, Jr. said, 'Show me the money.'"