Author: Ryan Graff
“Because I’m better looking,” Jeff Thiel said as he comes out of the kitchen, tying his stained and faded black apron securely around his barrel-like midsection. Thiel references how the staff and patrons of The Capri Italian Restaurant tell him and his identical twin, Jim, apart.
As Jim — younger than Jeff by five minutes — makes his way from the outside alley and into the front of the restaurant and begins to pour himself a soda, Jeff again pokes fun at his not so “little” brother.
“Well, look who finally got here, that troublemaker over there,” he said staring Jim down and pursing his lips in a small grin. Though they are quick to tease each other, the Thiels, 49, have been inseparable since birth, doing everything together from going to school and playing sports to entering the acting industry at age 22.
“We actually prefer to be together,” Jim said. “We definitely know how to best push each others’ buttons and when one of us wants to, we easily can. But in the end, we’re cohesive together and closer than anything else.”
Born in New York City, the twins moved to Orange County as teenagers after living in Massachusetts for their more formative years. There, a talent scout spotted them and set them on their path into the spotlight.
The twins’ first acting job was set for a Cabbage Patch astronaut commercial in 1986 where they were cast as two aliens. However, the spot was canceled weeks later after the Challenger space shuttle’s infamous crash. Despite the anti-climatic debut, the Thiels stayed in the acting business for nearly two decades, appearing in various commercials, shows for the small screen and minor parts in movies.
But it was the desire to move beyond acting and obtain a more formal education that would eventually lead the twins to what they consider their true calling: owning and operating their own restaurant.
After Jim’s decision to transfer from Ripon College in Wisconsin back to Southern California to attend the University of Southern California and later pursue a marketing major at California State University, Los Angeles, the twins and their parents began frequenting The Capri, founded in 1963 and originally owned by Joe and Helen Sams. The pizza and pasta quickly became Thiel family favorites.
Since the elder Thiels had already dabbled in the restaurant business while the brothers were in college, they made an offer the very day that the Sams decided to put The Capri up for sale. The Thiels took over the restaurant as a family business 17 years ago. After a decade as proprietors, the twins’ parents retired and bequeathed the location to Jeff and Jim seven years ago. The brothers jumped at the opportunity to once again join forces and run the business that held so many family memories.
“At the time, I just saw it as ‘yay, free pizza,’” Jim said while smiling and throwing his hands over his head. “But when we took this place over, our dad told us that just like acting, the restaurant business is not an easy one to get into.”
In fact, it wasn’t long before the twins began to experience adversity in their endeavor as business was dwindling, and they were at risk of having to close the doors of The Capri after just three years as the official owners. According to both Jeff and Jim, the menu had become too large to support, and they turned to frozen ingredients of questionable quality.
“We had simply misplaced all of our good ideas,” Jim said.
As a possible solution, the brothers ripped a proverbial page out of their acting handbooks after receiving an email from a friend who works for the casting department of the television series Kitchen Nightmares with Chef Gordon Ramsay. After watching previous episodes of the show and carefully considering the best trajectory for the future of the restaurant, the brothers decided that they had to sign up for the show.
“It definitely wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Jim said. “And if you ask me if I recommend doing a show like Kitchen Nightmares: no I don’t recommend it. Sure, you have a vision of what things will be like afterwards, and you get excited about being able to use the show for advertising and recognition. But you know that first, you have to admit that you have a problem and are in need of the help.”
The difficult choice was further complicated when the then-chef refused to do the show and walked off the job. Head-chef-less and all, the twins opened their doors for Ramsay and his camera crew in hopes that they could revitalize the business and keep it afloat.
According to the Thiels, Ramsay entered The Capri with a “less is more” mentality as he dished out various changes that included cutting the menu from 40 pasta dishes to 12 and three red sauces to one, offering only a la carte items instead of large-portioned meals, using all fresh ingredients, removing old acting pictures from the walls and reformatting the dining room to tables and chairs instead of dilapidated wooden booths. The brothers also established that Ramsay, known for his antics of yelling and throwing things around the kitchen on television, is actually supportive and helpful behind the scenes.
After the show aired on May 6, 2011, Jeff and Jim noticed a “big jump” to The Capri that included repeat customers and the presence of families.
“Kids run the family,” Jeff said. “They are often the ones who dictate where the family goes out to eat. If we can spike an interest in kids, we are more likely to get more and more families through the door.”
One such family includes a little girl named Claire, who often tells her mother that she wants to go see “The Chef Twins” at The Capri.
“The change that has occurred here from before and after Kitchen Nightmares is incredible,” Claire’s mother said as Claire attempts to eat a forkful of pasta. “Claire is always so happy to come here and see Jim and Jeff and, as a family, we love it, too.”
While both twins understand the importance of running the business end of The Capri — the “back of the house” as they call it — they are oftentimes found in the “front of the house,” socializing with and serving customers. For Jeff, the main goal is to keep the “mom and pop” feel of a small, Eagle Rock business while offering an enhanced experience for guests.
“When you come into The Capri, you don’t just buy our food, you buy the entire package,” Jeff said, “And that includes buying into the brand that is me and my brother. We want to have a certain energy and atmosphere in here and the change has been amazing. We still have great service. That has never dimmed. But now, we have a fresher, simpler approach.”
According to the twins, Ramsay was incredibly satisfied on his follow up visit to The Capri last January to see that Jeff and Jim were running an improved operation. They gave much of the credit to current head chef and kitchen manager James Dunn, who was hired between the original show and the revisit. Over the last two years, Dunn has become a staple of The Capri’s staff, with his creative mindset, labeling system and ability to run the entire kitchen and cook simultaneously.
Though new business and an expanded network are always ambitions of The Capri, the brothers have never forgotten about their local flavor, making appearances at nearby sporting events and offering discounts to students and members of various organizations. “I’ll pay the tax on this one, so your total is 28 dollars,” Jeff said to a customer who works at a local burger joint called The Bucket.
They are also in the process of luring in old customers lost to the consolidated menu. The improvements include the addition of more specials that will resurrect dishes such as ravioli while allowing them to keep Ramsay’s mantra of simplification and a fresh, reasonable stock.
The main tune sung by the Thiel twins is still one of always moving onto bigger and better things and leaving the past behind them. The brothers just returned from a pizza expo in Las Vegas, where they learned everything from recipe ideas and newfangled ways of personnel management.
“In this business, you can’t let things go flat or stagnant,” Jim said. “You have to keep forward, consistent and in better running order. Someday, we hope to open another [restaurant]. But for now, that’s a long way away.”
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