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Wings of Gold: Leadership and Management

Jimmy Love's owner applies TopGun skills to running a restaurant -- and vice versa

Editor's note: In honor of the centennial celebration of naval aviation, The Daily Transcript will be running a series of articles focusing on naval aviators and their leadership and management skills. The following is another article in the series.

"I have always run Jimmy Love's for long-term benefit, which is probably something I gleaned from naval aviation -- you never make a decision for short-term gain. You want to win the war and don't make all your decisions about winning every battle."

Jimmy DiMatteo, Capt., became a naval aviator in 1988 and since then has held positions including F-14 Tomcat pilot and commanding officer for TopGun's Adversary Squadrons VFC-13 and VFC-111. He's also logged nearly 5,000 flight hours in fighter aircraft and has received awards like U.S. Navy's Strike Fighter Pilot of the Year and Adversary Pilot of the Year. And for the past 17 years, he's been doubling as a restaurateur.

"If you asked me if the military made me a better restaurateur or being a restaurateur made me a better military aviator, they played equally big roles," said DiMatteo, owner of Jimmy Love's restaurant and bar in the Gaslamp district. "But I would say restaurant ownership and the leadership roles I had to play there to see what worked and what didn't have made it more about human interest in core values for me in the military. I would say that I learned how to be a better commanding officer from owning a restaurant. I was very fortunate to have a couple very, very good commanding officer tours of duty, and I would say a lot of that was because of things I learned as a restaurant operator."

In the military there is what DiMatteo dubs a "uniform code of justice," which he said makes it easy to simply order or command respect because you're a senior officer. But in the restaurant world, you have to earn it.

"In the military, it's so easy to fall back on rank; you do something because you're ordered to do it. There's a place for that -- if I tell you to charge a mountain, I don't want you arguing with me," he said. "But I would say (the restaurant) taught me to respect the person more than just the position."

DiMatteo, now in the Reserves, has found himself doing the reverse as well: employing the leadership tactics he saw to be effective in the Navy to running Jimmy Love's.

"I think leadership you can't really teach; you're either born with it or you're not. But in the Navy I've seen good leaders, and when you see them you to try to emulate or copy certain qualities, and some of those have translated very, very well to the restaurant world," DiMatteo said. "Some of these are respect for the individual, public acknowledgement of jobs well done, and employees of the month and year. In the restaurant side these were somewhat new -- lots of cocktailers, bartenders, servers and hostesses had never been complimented, praised or applauded for their efforts in a way that is normal in the Navy."

Jimmy DiMatteo at the Red Bull Air Races. Courtesy photo

Another military skill that DiMatteo has found helpful in running Jimmy Love's is discipline, from attention to detail to looking at things long term.

"The military has a little bit more at risk -- a lot more I should say -- when it comes to mission objectives in terms of lives and safety. But if you take that same approach to a business, which is just a methodical, serious approach to running an organization -- crossing the t's and dotting the i's -- then I think it's especially useful in the restaurant world," said DiMatteo. "I also have always run Jimmy Love's for long-term benefit, which is probably something I gleaned from naval aviation -- you never make a decision for short-term gain. You want to win the war and don't make all your decisions about winning every battle."

Perhaps the most valuable byproduct of DiMatteo going between, as his fellow aviators like to say, TopGun and top shelf, is the perspective on success that flying fighter jets gives to running his business.

"I think I never took anything too serious in the restaurant because at the end of the day, I had the philosophy that the worst thing that can happen is you lose money. The worst thing in the military is I die, or other people die. The differences are staggering between the two when it comes to the risk side of things, so it's made me take things other restaurateurs might have been schooled up about less seriously," said DiMatteo.

"If you look at the tsunami, you see maybe you don't need to be so schooled up about a lady complaining about that taco. I think I was fortunate because I was wearing two hats all the time and trying to use the lessons of one to help me deal with the other."

Upon his completion of heading up the celebration of the Centennial of Naval Aviation this year, DiMatteo plans to retire from the Navy to focus on both Jimmy Love's, which he's proud to report just finished its best year ever last year, and the business side of the Air Races. DiMatteo is international race director for the races, which were started by Red Bull and are in the process of changing into a racing event in the vein of NASCAR. DiMatteo calls it his destiny that he and the Air Races found each other because it combines his two worlds -- edge-of-the-envelope-flying with a huge party. Yet DiMatteo calls himself a devout Navy aviator and said he'll spend the rest of his life supporting it -- he'll just be going from a uniform role to a civilian one.

"Of all the things I've done, if you were sitting in the seat next to me in an airplane and asked me what I do, my answer would be: I'm a Navy pilot, I'm a Navy aviator," he said. "Meaning that, unequivocally, that's what I'm most proud of."

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