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StarBulletin.com

'Ad guy' finds success with restaurant on Maui


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POSTED: Friday, June 19, 2009

Max, a new restaurant in Haiku Town Center on Maui, is proof that one can reinvent oneself. However, its owner also will prove soon that one can never truly leave a career calling.

“;If I were to give myself a title or position, it would be 'advertising guy' first and foremost,”; said John Graziano of Haiku.

He is a co-owner of Max the restaurant, builder of Max to Go, and founder of California-based Max Media Inc.

He is not, however, related to former middleweight boxing champ and Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Rocky Graziano.

“;No, I am not, but I get that all the time,”; he said.

As an aside, Graziano was not the prizefighter's real last name. He was born Thomas Rocco Barbella and took the name Rocky Graziano from his sister's boyfriend, according to his New York Times obituary.

John Graziano and his wife, Cristina, moved to Maui in 2003 because they wanted a better place to raise their young sons, Aron and Daniel, then 2 and 5.

Graziano continued to operate his advertising agency from Maui “;because you can buy media time from anywhere in the world,”; he said.

His production crew would stay in the San Diego area, since all the company's clients were on the mainland.

He got into the restaurant business to keep a promise to his Argentine landscaping foreman.

Claudio Gallea would grumble about the backbreaking, dirty labor and told Graziano he was only doing the work to make a living — that cooking was his passion. He had worked alongside his grandmother and mother at eateries in Argentina but could not get hired in a Maui kitchen.

“;I opened my big mouth,”; Graziano said, telling Gallea that if he finished the landscaping work and proved loyal, he would see about setting him up running a kitchen and cooking. Four years, completed landscaping and many Gallea-catered family parties later, he went to Graziano to collect.

“;Let's open a restaurant,”; Graziano said.

Max opened April 3 with 30 employees.

Gallea is head chef, his girlfriend, Lizya Espinoza, is the head hostess and his former fellow landscapers now work with him in the kitchen creating pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, salads, a variety of entrees and desserts.

Gallea also had reinvented himself, doing work he found distasteful in order to fulfill his career calling.

The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and will soon open Mondays as well. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and business has been brisk enough that “;Max to Go,”; a take-out service annex, will be open within a month. Maxhaiku.com is under construction.

With the restaurant up and running, Graziano is looking to rebuild his advertising business.

Max Media at its peak served about 250 car dealers around the nation with customized, half-hour infomercials.

Bad credit? No credit? No problem — a common thread in his advertising until the credit market shriveled and U.S. auto sales crashed.

He won't specialize in automotive work this time and also will return to producing short-form commercials — and for the first time, will look at serving clients on Maui.

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Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin. Reach her by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)