Di Prato’s Powers Through a Partnership

 

Food industry entrepreneurs

No Woman is an Island

By Carolyn Culbertson

Dianne Light was setting down roots for her business in Columbia when she met Bill Prato, who was on his way to anywhere else. She hired him as a salad prepper at her restaurant, Dianne’s on Assembly, but soon noticed his skills in the kitchen went beyond.

“One day I just called him into the office and I said ‘Who are you really? Because you’re not a $5 an hour salad prep guy,'” Light says. “No,” he responded, “I’m a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. I’m an executive chef, and I’m just picking up chump change.”

So Light offered Prato the executive chef position, and he took it on the grounds that he would have control over the menu. That was the beginning of an almost 30-year business partnership so evenly matched that together they opened and ran Dianne’s on Devine and Di Prato’s Delicatessen, two of Columbia’s most distinguished restaurants.

Opposites Attract

Their partnership relies on mutual respect, trust and staying out of each other’s way. 

“We’ve got two strong personalities, and that’s good. But we’ve got different jobs, basically,” Light says. “I think you have to have separate interests in what you’re doing in a business.” Light, a natural leader and people person, has always run the dining room, maintaining customer relationships and managing the daily rush. Prato finds his passion in food. When she elevated him to executive chef and let him flip the menu all those years ago, Light remembers how business took off. “Within six months you could not get in that place,” she says. “The place was so packed, people were actually eating on top of the cigarette machine,” Prato adds. He remembers that people were always coming in because they knew Light, who had previously co-owned three businesses and grew up in Shandon, which gave him a platform to serve food that would make people want to come back.

“Respect each other. Work hard. Make sure one person doesn’t do more than the other person.”

People came back in droves. Dianne’s on Assembly was so popular that they were able to move into a space quadruple the size on Devine Street. Then in a truly balanced effort in 2003, eight years after the move, they also opened Di Prato’s as co-owners. The lunch (and brunch on the weekends) restaurant bears a piece of them both in its name and style. Someone could go into Di Prato’s without ever meeting Light or Prato and still know them by the rich New York Italian menu that doesn’t take itself too seriously, the graceful yet assertive Southern charm of the servers and environment, and the way they warmly complement each other.

Sticking together through the ups and downs

Light and Prato understand that good relationships bind great businesses. By no means has their journey been a perfect one, however. Feeling jerked around by the daily rigor of running two busy restaurants, they made the tough decision to close Dianne’s on Devine in 2013. “Not everything is hunky-dory and fairies and unicorns, you know what I mean? But we’ve conquered through it,” Prato says. “Respect each other. Work hard. Make sure one person doesn’t do more than the other person.” 

Light is a force in her own right. Before Dianne’s on Assembly, she had immersed herself in the fashion, interior design and restaurant industries on her own with success. But meeting Prato was sort of like finding a business soulmate — luck already written in the stars.