The Lion’s Share: Dale Venturini Fights for RI’s Small Businesses

Inside the life and work of the president of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, who is rallying for local hotels, shops and restaurants amid the pandemic.

Dale Venturini at the Capital Grille in Providence. Photography by Alex Gagne.

Dale Venturini perches at her desk, fully masked, in front of double monitors on an early-August morning. She’s wearing fire engine red glasses that match her crimson sweater with white stars and white pants cinched by a seven-inch gold metal tiger-shaped belt buckle. The phone is glued to her ear while she’s checking the 263 emails in her inbox while trying to get details about an important meeting for which she has a conflict; she is supposed to be on vacation that day for the first time since the pandemic began. With her sleek honey-blond mane (a change from her trademark deep red), the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association (RIHA) is like a middleweight champion going into the ring to do battle for Rhode Island’s restaurants and hotels during the state’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Venturini is a Leo (she owns more belt buckles featuring big cats, including a lion and panther, and a pegasus). In her office, a shelf is filled with fleece blankets from the RIHA #BYOBlanket campaign and pieces of framed press hang on her walls. There’s a cover from the Providence Journal’s former HER section from 1997, on which a stylish brunette sporting a million-dollar smile is declared “Ms. Hospitality.” Venturini hangs up the phone, takes a breath, pulls down her mask to savor a sip of hot tea, then prepares to answer questions. She pauses, then opens a window to let fresh air into her moderately-sized office.

“I have a husband who is a survivor of esophageal cancer,” she says, explaining her cautiousness in addition to being vaccinated.

Venturini exercised the same caution on behalf of both restaurant and hotel guests and hospitality employees when COVID-19 first hit the area. She and her team worked with the former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and current Governor Dan McKee, the Rhode Island Department of Health and Rhode Island Commerce to come up with adaptable ways to keep people safe while trying to preserve the economy.

This is the most difficult time in the history of hospitality, says Sarah Bratko, RIHA’s senior vice president of advocacy and general counsel, who has worked with Venturini for seven years on the legislative front.

“I don’t know anything that even comes close to comparing it,” Bratko says. The day after restaurants were shut down in March 2020, the RIHA staff went to work from home and had a staff call the next morning. “Our phones were ringing. Our emails were bombarded. Our entire plan just got thrown out the window and we had to remake the plan. The thing Dale says is ‘Build the plane while you are flying it,’ ” says Bratko. “No one knew what to do, but we had a really strong team and we had someone who was leading the charge who had as much experience as anyone could have of figuring out how to get us through it.”

Not everyone agreed with the precautions that were enforced by the state during the pandemic, from mask-wearing to capacity limitations, Venturini says. Oftentimes, she was the one fielding feedback and complaints — some might say the proverbial “punching bag” for the industry. Venturini gets up from her desk and takes a blue dry erase marker. “People think in a triangle,” she says, drawing a triangle on her whiteboard next to her desk. Then she traces a circle around it. “People are taking sides and I need to round out the triangle.”

Rhode Island Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi works with Venturini, the governor’s office and the general assembly, where Venturini continues to advocate for relief for the industry. “She’s making sure that they are adequately funded and advocating to pass temporary laws to allow waivers for zoning, so they can continue to have outdoor dining and alcohol to-go,” Shekarchi says. “Those were all Dale Venturini initiatives that she convinced the governor to do by executive order, or the general assembly to do by legislation.” Shekarchi says. Venturini was able to get bills passed because she has been a constant presence at the state house and she made local business owners’ issues relatable. “She was able to show the effects that COVID has had on small businesses and ask for reasonable, temporary accommodations to help keep them in business,” he says.

Adds Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who has worked with Venturini for more than twenty-five years, “She not only wanted the customers to be safe but those people in the service industry to be safe, too. I know it’s been really difficult on a lot of these restaurants, but if she didn’t do what she did, a lot more of them would have folded.”

Fighting for restaurants and hotels is nothing new to her. Venturini has advocated for the success and survival of Rhode Island’s hospitality industry for more than three decades. Previously, she’s worked on the effects of labor issues on the hospitality industry and their employees, modernizing Rhode Island’s liquor laws and preventing third-party delivery services from exploiting restaurants without their consent. She is well known locally and in Washington, D.C., where she travels to represent Rhode Island hospitality and lobby to resolve various issues.

Venturini’s husband, Anthony DeFusco, says anytime they go out to dinner, and especially at the Capital Grille, she hops from the bar to table to table, saying hello to fellow diners, management, bartenders and staff.

“Some young chef will walk up and say, ‘Do you remember me, you helped me through this….’ It’s nice. That happened quite a few times,” he says. “It’s a half-hour before she’s even sitting at the table. We go out with this other couple, and they have an over-under bet going on how many people are going to come up and say hi to Dale.”

DeFusco and Venturini have been married for eighteen years. They met through mutual friends at Triggs Golf Course in Providence, but didn’t start dating until years later after battling a different type of bug. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association encountered a computer virus at the office, and as the chief information officer for the National Guard at the time, DeFusco, who is now retired, was one of the guys who got their computers back up and running.

He says he was impressed by Dale’s involvement in so many organizations, from fostering education and raising money for scholarships for culinary students to leading various women’s networking organizations all while running the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and managing its now 800 members. “She’s on so many committees, boards of directors and national boards,” DeFusco says. “I think it’s amazing that she can do a great job with all of those roles. She networks for life.”

During COVID-19, the Rhode Island Hospitality Association transitioned from a membership organization to servicing the entire industry for free, including 4,000 hospitality-focused businesses in Rhode Island, to make sure they were updated on the ever-evolving rules and regulations and receiving the help they desperately needed.

Venturini and the Rhode Island Hospitality Association team started several awareness campaigns, including providing access to free mental health resources for hospitality employees, the #BYOBlanket project to encourage outdoor dining in cooler weather and the Please Be Kind campaign. When they heard restaurant workers were being treated poorly by guests, they designed and distributed posters that read, “We are experiencing a staff shortage. We ask that you please be kind and patient with the staff that are working.” The campaign gained exposure in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and word spread across the nation through the Associated Press.

For every project, the team is credited. “She never ever says so and so works for me. She’s always said that people work with her,” says Heather Singleton, RIHA’s chief operating officer and Venturini’s longest-running employee since 1997, when she was still a graduate student at Johnson and Wales University.

Their Hospitality Employee Relief Fund raised more than $200,000 in grants for hospitality employees who lost their jobs at the height of the pandemic shutdown. Once the state reopened and business owners had trouble finding staff to fill vacant roles, they created a jobs database and recruited workers through social media and community outreach. And now that the hospitality industry has rebounded and restrictions are lifted, the fund has been redirected to help workers who have suffered unexpected financial hardship as a result of an injury, illness, death of an immediate family member, disaster or other form of crisis, including someone who recently suffered a brain tumor.

Venturini is lobbying for more hospitality relief, especially for businesses that missed out on funding the first time around. A recent Salve Regina University study commissioned by the RIHA revealed a loss of $2.2 billion last year from the state’s hospitality and tourism industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representing a 30 percent drop from the previous year. RIHA worked with the National Restaurant Association and fifty other state restaurant associations to send a letter to Congress sharing the results of another national study and urging replenishment of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Rhode Island has more than 1,523 pending applications that total more than $208,933,000 in funding. Separately, they lobbied with the American Hotel and Lodging Association for direct federal stimulus for the state’s 230 hotels still suffering from 2020 profit losses, especially Providence, which is down 52 percent in revenue per available hotel room from July 2021 as compared to July 2019.

Venturini opts for a modest office space in the ’burbs rather than downtown Providence, which has allowed the association to hire more staff. In 2006, the headquarters moved to a converted house in Cranston that once hid the 1930s speakeasy that became the iconic Twin Oaks Italian-American restaurant. During Prohibition, William DeAngelus Sr. cooked Italian for his speakeasy guests, and it grew into the restaurant now sited across the parking lot.

“My office used to be in grandmama’s bedroom,” Venturini says with a laugh. “There’s a little button that she used to call down when the cops would come for everyone to put stuff away.” It was their May Day alert so the bootleggers wouldn’t get busted, but there’s no button Venturini can push to rescue restaurants and hotels. She has to step up with the staff and get the job done.

The proximity of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association office to Twin Oaks is no coincidence. The son of the original owner, William DeAngelus Jr., was one of three restaurant owners who revamped the organization from a fledgling restaurant association that started in 1963. The more official association began with the other founding partners, Ned Grace, who owned the Old Grist Mill in Seekonk, Massachusetts, started the Capital Grille, opened Hemenway’s and created the chain of Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse restaurants, and Ted Fuller, who owned the local chain of Gregg’s restaurants. Venturini was hired to lead lobbying and legislation for Rhode Island’s hospitality industry in 1988, but no one could predict what she’d be dealing with in 2020 and 2021.

“She thrives in chaos,” says RIHA’s Singleton, who recalls her response to a previous crisis when the Station Nightclub fire devastated the community. Venturini and RIHA staff called on restaurant partners to feed first responders and families. “There are a number of different examples like this, but when coronavirus happened, her reaction was that people need us, our members need us, the industry needs us,” Singleton says.

When work needs to be done, Venturini is like a first responder for restaurants. “Anyone who is in a leadership position in the hospitality industry went through gut-wrenching stuff. You have people you’ve known and cared about for years, and they built these small businesses and were in danger of losing them,” says Kristen Adamo, president of GoProvidence, the Providence and Warwick Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “She was instrumental in working with the leaders and developing legislation that saved businesses and probably saved lives.”

Venturini acknowledges RI Commerce for kicking in funding so businesses could quickly adapt to new restrictions and outdoor dining. She made herself available around the clock for consultation about issues. During the most critical time, her husband says she had nightly calls at 10 p.m., and was awoken by a call at three in the morning.

“Rhode Island Commerce was working twenty-four-seven in shifts,” Venturini says. “They would check in to make sure whatever they were going to do would work because they didn’t know the industry. It used to be a standing joke that I had my date night with all the regulators.”

Venturini grew up in Pawtucket as one of nine children. “I am in the middle of six boys with two older sisters,” Venturini says. “Doesn’t that tell you a lot?”

Her father died of a sudden heart attack at work at age thirty-six, leaving his wife and her mother to care for the nine children, including the youngest who was born six weeks after he died. Her mother did most of the child-rearing alone, but was surrounded by a church community that offered support.