Jeff enrolled at Murrah High School, and a boy named Dan Blumenthal befriended the new student. “We became fast friends and good friends. Best friends,” says Jeff. Dan remembers their first meeting. “He was chewing on his pen one day in class and all of the ink leaked into his mouth and he started gagging in the middle of class. The teacher asked him to show her what was in his mouth, and he stuck out his tongue. It was blue. We all started cracking up and at that point I knew that Jeff was special!” laughs Dan.
Dan attended college in California, and Jeff earned a degree in Business Administration from Millsaps College. “Moving to Jackson was hard, and I continued acting out my freshman year of college. So, I ended up taking five years to get through school,” admits Jeff. His college sweetheart, Debbie McGregor, had already graduated from Millsaps and was working as a high school Latin teacher. He laughs, “She was just waiting for her husband-to-be to please graduate!”
Jeff finally donned his cap and gown, began working as a computer salesman for the NCR Corporation, and married his love. He reflects, “We set roots in Jackson at that point and created our lives here. This became our home and we built a nice group of friends.”
Jeff and Debbie became very involved with Ballet Mississippi, volunteering and hosting magnificent parties following performances. Jeff smiles, “We did professional level catering out of my house. We prepared a lot of food and had gorgeous table decorations. We raised a lot of money and support for the ballet. I made some amazing Jackson connections.”
Meanwhile, Jeff unexpectedly lost his job when his division closed nation-wide. “I looked for sales positions, but was unable to find anything. I was frustrated for months,” he says. A call to San Francisco changed everything.
Dan answered his phone and Jeff said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t do my own thing here. It’s too expensive and I don’t have the connections. We should go into business together.” Dan was in culinary school and the two began talking about opening a restaurant. Dan reflects, “I was sad to be leaving California, but I knew it was time to turn over a new leaf in my life. To have my own restaurant was a blessing that was only going to happen in Mississippi.”
They developed the idea of an innovative restaurant with dishes inspired by traditional Italian food. With a business plan written for BRAVO! Italian Restaurant & Bar, Jeff got to work. “I took a commercial loan officer to lunch on the top of The University Club. As we gazed out over the city of Jackson, I told him our idea for Bravo! and asked for half a million dollars. He looked at me and said, ‘That’s not going to happen. You have no money, so you cannot borrow money.’”
“I knew I had to make this work,” says Jeff. He approached the board members at Ballet Mississippi and they served as valuable resources. Jeff formed a partnership and decided to sell shares of stock. “That’s where my skills as a sales person came in. I prospected 750 people face-to-face.”
Jeff and Debbie opened their tiny, two-bedroom bungalow for extravagant dinner parties every Tuesday and Thursday night. Guests were fed delectable choices from the Bravo! menu, and people were shocked and delighted to taste delicacies they had never seen in an Italian restaurant. Over time, Jeff fed 250 people. Forty-four of these dinner guests invested $10,000 each. Bravo! was born.
“We opened Bravo! on April 7, 1994 and we have not looked back since,” smiles Jeff. “Six years later, we opened Broad Street Baking Company, and an additional nine years later, Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza and Ice Cream Joint.” Dan and Jeff opened all three businesses together. Jeff laughs, “We are like an old married couple. We are way too familiar with each other now.”
Jeff serves as President of Mangia Bene Restaurant Management Group, the owner and operator of BRAVO!, Broad Street and Sal & Mookie’s. The restaurants operate a full-service catering business, Mangia Bene Catering, with partnerships in fabulous venues throughout the Jackson area.
BRAVO!, Broad Street and Sal & Mookie’s are located in the city of Jackson. “We are Jackson boys. There was never a discussion of building our restaurants outside of the city,” says Jeff. “Banner Hall was an extraordinary opportunity for Broad Street Baking Company. It was half-empty and we had the chance to work with Johnny Evans at Lemuria and envision a revitalized Banner Hall that was owned by tenants. Sal & Mookie’s was opened in 2006. It was a tough time, post Hurricane Katrina, and Jackson was struggling for an identity. So we decided to place a family concept on a deserted street in a burned-out restaurant and see what happened. Through Sal & Mookie’s, we have introduced the city to Fondren.”
Jackson’s future is looking even brighter. Jeff is engaged in creating the first-ever Food Hub for central Mississippi, to be located at the Old Farmer’s Market in Jackson. Set to launch this spring, this support organization for local farmers will be a wholesale distribution center. “A food hub is an effective way to build an economy,” says Jeff. “We want to act as a catalyst for positive change by creating a vibrant local food system. I have been in the restaurant business for twenty-three years, and I will continue that, but I also want to focus on creating a better Mississippi.”
It is extraordinary what a boy from Utah has accomplished in Jackson, Mississippi. He is a devoted husband and father, and recently sent his twin daughters, Alex and Carly, off to college. Jeff has won countless awards, served on numerous boards and is Chair of Vision 2022, a bold 10-year strategic plan for Jackson. Refreshingly, Jeff remains genuine, humble, and kind. Dan says, “Jeff is honest and hardworking as the day is long. What you see is really what you get with Jeff.”
“Jackson has been so good to us and we are here to serve the community. We are serving hospitality to our guests and teaching hospitality and grace to our employees,” smiles Jeff. “I absolutely love this community.”