2010 August: Independent Pizzeria of the Year

2010 August: Independent Pizzeria of the YearJoe Fugere effortlessly strides through the open kitchen at the Westlake location of his four-store independent operation, Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria. We’ve been with him for an entire day in Seattle, driving around the city and visiting each of Fugere’s stores, which will collectively top $10 million in sales this year. The highlight reel has been seemingly endless: Tutta Bella’s employees have impressed us with their knowledge and passion; the lengths Fugere goes to in an effort to ensure authenticity and quality dazzles us; the beauty and efficiency of the stores are indisputable. No wonder we named Tutta Bella the 2010 Independent of the Year!

 

 

Fugere watches as Executive Chef Brian Gojdics plates a Margherita pie for our cameras. It looks perfect, and Fugere proudly points out the crust’s defi ning characteristics: flame-blackened blisters on the cornicione, a credit card-thin center, a patina of crunch when you bite into it, which yields to a light, fluffy interior. It all starts with the pillowy crust — the cornicione — explains Fugere. That’s where most imposters go wrong.

 

 

 

“We’re storytellers here at Tutta Bella,” asserts Fugere. “Pizza is about sharing, about coming together over something simple, yet wonderful. There are so many stories to tell our customers: about the crust, about the traditions of Naples or Italian culture in general, about the ingredients that go into our pizzas.

“We want and encourage our people — our servers, our baristas, our bartenders — to understand and share with customers these great stories. They provide context and enrich the experience. They give our customers a better understanding of what they’re eating and what it is that’s so great about it.”

Gojdics is quick to chime in with a story about the essential elements of Tutta Bella’s Regina Margherita: “It’s a classic,” he says. “The ingredients are fresh, honest, simple. We’re using fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, tomatoes that are grown in the richest soils in the world.” A truly authentic Neapolitan pizza is a thing of unmistakable beauty, and Fugere instantly recognized that the first time he had one. It was a defining moment in the affable entrepreneur’s life — at the time he was an executive at Seattle-based Starbucks, a high-profile and rewarding job from which one does not easily walk away.

 

 

While the intense flavors of Neapolitan pizza made Fugere’s taste buds giddy, there was more to it than that. Above all, he was inspired by the passion and historical importance of the pizza scene in Naples, Italy. Touched by that passion, Fugere set out to fully replicate it, in earnest, with his own pizza concept in the Jet City.

For help along the way, the Tutta Bella founder turned to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN), a group that certifies Neapolitan pizzerias throughout the world and verifies the authenticity of their products. In 2004, Tutta Bella opened its first location and became the first VPN-certified pizzeria in the Pacific Northwest. “It’s an art and a science at the same time,” Gojdics says of cooking Neapolitan pizza. At Tutta Bella, the pies are baked in a wood-burning oven at 800 F for roughly 90 seconds. “You don’t have much of a margin of error. You can turn your head, then turn back and see that you have burned three pizzas.”

Gojdics says one of his most important functions is “to stay focused on authentic Neapolitan pizza.” At Tutta Bella, “authenticity” isn’t a buzzword — it’s a mandate.

“But there’s more to Brian and his position than that,” says Fugere. “He also has the responsibility to develop people. He’s a leader, and it shows. He’s responsible for cultivating people and instilling in them our culture.”

 

 

 

Therein lies the mastery that epitomizes Fugere. An effective leader and deft at delegation, he is an unrivaled talent developer. He sets lofty goals for his employees, but then supports them by arming them with the tools they need to succeed. Case in point are the coveted Italian tours he sends staff members on annually. Sure, Fugere expects his baristas to be authorities on the art of the Italian espresso … so he sends them to Italy to tour coffee plants and meet with the manufacturer of the espresso machine used at Tutta Bella. He sends Gojdics and other members of the kitchen staff to see the fl our mill and the tomato harvest and taste pizza in Naples; he sends his wine program manager to the Italian vineyards where the grapes that will end up in the wines served at Tutta Bella are cultivated. These tours are immersive and educational — and they create plenty of employee loyalty.

Speaking of employees, Training Program Manager Kelli Phelan has been with Tutta Bella for nearly fi ve years. She recently led a “server summit” with the intent of “bringing all our servers together to get on the same page and make sure we have consistent service across all levels. We talked about what our expectations are and what we want each of our guests to get out of their experience here. We focused on teaching them how their service multiplies out and how they impact the business with their service in either a good or bad way. We talked about what it takes to be a great server at Tutta Bella.”

 

 

Phelan says Tutta Bella has approximately 70 servers. These individuals are the front line ambassadors for the brand, and their accessibility makes them the company’s primary storytellers. They are the people most likely to interact at length with customers, the employees best suited to take a minute to tell the story about the fi or di latte Tutta Bella uses, or the Grana Padano, or the reason all employees wear a San Marzano tomato pin on the lapels of their uniform.

Cultivating successful servers starts during the interview process, says Phelan.

“The screening is very important,” she says. “That’s where we try to find out if they are genuinely nice people. One of the questions I like to ask them is who they look up to, who they would like to emulate.” Says Fugere: “We use the interview as an opportunity to educate. We give all our applicants a free pizza card when they leave the store so that they can come in and see what the pizza is like and get a little bit of a feel for what we’re about through the product.”

Phelan says the goal is to have longevity with new hires, “so it’s more about their personality than their experience. We want it to be a good fi t, because we will train them to meet our standards.”

New hires go through an orientation in which they shadow various positions, starting with the host or a bus station. Then they put on a chef’s coat and stand alongside the pizza cutter before talking with the chef to learn more about the products used to make Tutta Bella’s menu items.

“They taste a raw tomato, taste the fresh mozzarella,” says Phelan. “Then, the next day is when they start their service training by shadowing a server. They’ll start taking tables with help on the second day, then they’ll be on their own and get four tables on the third day.”

 

 

In all, the entire orientation process lasts fi ve days. At the end of each day, the new hire sits down with a manager or trainer for a meal.

Director of Operations Joyce Morinaka is a prime example of Tutta Bella’s dedication to providing employees with growth opportunities. After living in Italy briefly, Morinaka started as a server at Tutta Bella. A little less than a year into the position, Morinaka was moved into management. Now, she oversees operations at all four Tutta Bella stores.

 

 

“I’m an example of our guiding principles,” she states. “It’s exciting that we can provide people with these types of opportunities. We’re creating something really great here, and that’s exciting.”

Fugere, in fact, has taken many of the business principles he learned at Starbucks and modified them to help mold the culture at Tutta Bella. “What we’re trying to do here,” he says, “is build a world-class company on a local level. We know we have a great product — we have Naples to thank for that. But above and beyond that, we have the opportunity to build a great company.

 

 

“We’ve adopted a lasting mentality,” Fugere continues. “We have a 100-year mentality. We haven’t built this company to sell in 10 years. We’re building a lasting business.”

Those aren’t hollow words, either, says Morinaka. Fugere is dedicated to the long-term success of his business through investing in the long-term success of his employees — and customers in the community. Since Morinaka shares Fugere’s passion for community involvement and charitable events, it has fallen on her plate to help oversee the company’s donations.

 

 

“One of the unique things about this company is that we are often given additional roles that match our interests,” Morinaka says. “So even though I’m the director of operations, I’m also the program manager for donations.”

Fugere says Tutta Bella never says no to a request from the Seattle community. It’s all part of the aforementioned 100-year mentality. And that, says Morinaka, is part of what makes the company remarkable.

“Joe’s feeling of generosity is really touching,” she says. “We don’t have an advertising budget. We get involved in the community instead. Our Columbia City store is in a true inner-city neighborhood. You don’t see many of those any more. It’s fun to get involved with the neighbors, to bring the kids in and do tours with them or to donate pizzas or $40 gift cards to schools. Every time we build a Tutta Bella, the donation program is a big part of it from the very beginning.”

As you may have noticed, the phrase “program manager” is used a lot at Tutta Bella. It goes back to Fugere’s employee development and delegation prowess. Though hands on, Fugere fully capitalizes on the strength of his key people by rewarding them with a chance to showcase their own entrepreneurial talents. Tutta Bella doesn’t simply serve espresso, for example — it has a dedicated “coffee program” with its own manager. Ditto for other areas of the operation.

 

 

 

Meet Jeff Perini. He’s responsible for the coffee program, which accounts for a surprisingly significant percentage of Tutta Bella’s sales. Since each Tutta Bella already has a coffee bar where professional baristas hand-pull fresh espressos, it makes sense that this portion of the business could be used to attract revenue during a day part that doesn’t traditionally find a pizzeria’s doors open to the public.

“We’ve got employees here in the morning anyway, and we have this great coffee bar, and we’re located right in the middle of neighborhoods and commuter zones, so it really seemed like a good fit to open in the morning during the breakfast shift,” says Perini. “It has worked out really well. We have quite a few people stop in for their morning coffee and maybe a biscotti before work. We’ve managed to transform what would be a dead period into another source of revenue.”

Since the coffee bar at the Columbia City store is housed in a separate room adjacent to the main dining area and has its own external entrance, Fugere hung an Attibassi espresso sign to give the appearance that a standalone coffee shop exists next to Tutta Bella.

“I think it gives it a nice feel, almost like a separate business,” he explains. “Having its own door really helps, because we can keep people from walking through a dark dining room on their way in to get an espresso in the morning.”

On the morning we visited, barista Giovanni Rogano was manning the coffee counter. Our cameras caught him pulling espresso after espresso adroitly. He explained to us that Tutta Bella takes great pains to be authentic to the experience one would find in Naples.

“In Italy, the drink matches the mug. So we put our espressos in a three ounce mug, our cappuccinos in a six-ounce mug and our lattes in a nine ounce mug,” he says.

Later that night, we’d find ourselves at a different Tutta Bella bar. There, we sipped refreshing and inventive libations and talked about their origins with Beer, Wine and Spirits Program Manager R.C. Jennings.

Jennings has been with Tutta Bella since nearly the beginning. He entered the equation as a store general manager and wrote the company’s training manual. Among other things, Jennings is in charge of putting together Tutta Bella’s wine list, which changes twice a year.

“We also have a new wine special every time we have a pizza special,” Jennings says. “In Italy, wine is food, and it’s enjoyed with every meal. We want the experience here to be as authentically Italian as possible, so the one thing Joe requires is that all of our wines be Italian. What I try to do is get a good mix from every region.” When we visited Tutta Bella in May for this story, Jennings had 14 wines on the menu — 10 reds and four whites. All were priced below $40 for the bottle.

“My focus the last year or so has been ‘Italy Accessible,’ ” Jennings explains. “All the wines are $40 and under, and they’re available by the glass. And I want to make it as simple as possible [to sell the wines], so I actively promote to customers that they can taste the wines and try them if they’re interested.”

Jennings says he evaluates the lineup and makes changes every six months. Right now, he says, he’s “really focused on building value. Since wine accounts for 20 percent of our overall sales, we’re able to really have a lot of fun with it.” For wine to be such a large part of the sales mix, Jennings says it takes a knowledgeable and proactive service staff. It all goes back to Phelan’s earlier assertion that the servers have a ripple effect on the entire business.

“I encourage our servers every night to pick something about our wines to focus on that night,” says Jennings. “If the servers aren’t behind the wine, the wine won’t sell.”

That’s where Fugere’s storytelling culture comes in. It’s a simple, effective way for servers to subtly educate customers about Tutta Bella’s wine offerings. And considering that Italian wines are on the upswing in terms of current popularity, there are lots of stories about them to be told.

“I don’t like to get bored, and I don’t like the servers to get bored,” says Jennings. “One of the positives is that I’ve definitely seen a surge in the last few years. Italian wines are hot again.”

Aside from the wine, Tutta Bella is also known for its innovative spirits menu. While Fugere originally required that Italian grappa be used as the base, he has since softened his stance and allowed the use of vodka or gin as well. That’s because he realized “we were missing out on a lot of options when we weren’t offering vodka or gin,” says Jennings. Still, despite the program’s expansion, Jennings says the spirits menu that is typically engineered by co-worker Brandon Hamlett (who could not be present for our interview) remains rooted in the Italian basics.

“When we build a menu, we like to start slow and simple and let things expand from there,” he says. “Like the wines, we want our menu to be accessible and have people taste the drinks.”

While creativity runs rampant throughout the organization, the fact of the matter is that the spirits menu allows for more experimentation than any other avenue — its ingredients and combinations aren’t dictated by a third party such as the VPN. On our visit, which prefaced summer, the focus was on cool, refreshing cocktails that cleanse the palate, such as lemon and cucumber. Jennings says the inventiveness of the wine and spirits program is a result of the freedom Fugere allows Hamlett and him to have.

“Whenever we launch a new program, cost is never the first consideration,” he says. “First, it’s creativity, authenticity and simplicity.” Those were the guiding principles, as well, when Gojdics teamed with a local brewery to formulate a Tutta Bella-branded beer, which was blended specifically to match the flavors found in a traditional Neapolitan pizza.

“Tutta Bella Amber Ale is made specifically for us,” Gojdics says. “Over the course of the last couple of years, I was always on Joe about adding another beer. And then we started having all kinds of problems with the beer in terms of delivery. So we wanted to tailor a beer specifically for us.”

Gojdics found a Seattle microbrewery by accident. He explains it this way: “I picked up a (local) magazine with Kurt Cobain on the cover, and in the back I found an article about a new microbrewery. I saw many parallels between us and them. Their mission statement could have been written by us.”

So the chef approached the brewers and arranged for some pairings. What they discovered, says Gojdics, is that ambers pair well with Neapolitan pies “because they’re less hoppy and more malty. And we discovered that one thing that’s in this particular amber that may not be in others is a black malt, and that matches the roasted characteristics of the cornicione.”

Tutta Bella Amber Ale went on the menu 15 months ago, and Gojdics says, “we sell a ton of it. We’re very, very happy with it.”

Truth be told, there’s very little — if anything — going on at Tutta Bella that its founder and employees shouldn’t be happy with. Tables turn four times on a busy Friday night (average guest experience is 90 minutes), and sales will climb to an average of $2.5 million per store by the end of this year. When the dust settles, that’s really what it’s all about — building a successful business in a responsible, encouraging way.

Once again, enter Fugere. Responsibility, accountability and sustainability are as important to him as authenticity. And just like he found a donations advocate in Morinaka, he has found an environmental steward in Sustainability Program Manager Erik Cain.

“We like to lead by example and let people discover what we’re doing,” says Fugere. “Erik is a perfect example of living the message we send — he lives on a boat and rides a bike to work.”

Cain’s responsibilities include finding effective ways to lessen Tutta Bella’s waste and negative impact on the environment. Since restaurants are some of the largest consumers of energy and generators of waste, Cain says it’s relatively easy for a pizzeria to take small steps that add up to make a big difference.

“We recycle and compost all the glass, cardboard and paper we use,” he says. “We’re getting very close to having zero garbage. Another thing we noticed is that kids were going through around 100 plastic cups and lids every few days. So we got a reusable kids cup with recyclable lids.”

Those are just a couple of Cain’s initiatives, but they’re already paying dividends for Tutta Bella, says Fugere.

“The unexpected consequence and the reward to some of what we’re doing in terms of composting,” he says, “is that composting is less expensive to have picked up than garbage. But you’d be surprised the number of people who recognize and appreciate what we’re doing.”

That’s a far cry from Jamie Sprott’s ancillary appointment at Tutta Bella. While his work as a chef in one of Tutta Bella’s locations surely attracts attention, his secondary task of serving as the Facilities Program Manager is one of the more thankless gigs in the system. Let’s not confuse low profile with unimportant, however. Sprott’s skill set saves Tutta Bella thousands of dollars annually.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” Fugere jokes of Sprott’s responsibilities. “In reality, though, it’s extremely important to running a world class company.”

Think about it. What’s more damaging to a pizzeria than a major equipment failure in the middle of a dinner rush? What does it cost to get a repair company in to fix the problem after hours, on immediate notice? If there’s a Jamie Sprott in the building, life gets much easier.

“Every day I set aside a certain amount of time where I can do things around the building,” says Sprott. “Since I’m in one store, I have a contact person set up in each of the other three locations that feed me information.”

Sprott maintains a list of all the equipment Tutta Bella uses — everything from large items down to light bulbs. His database allows him to immediately see whether an item is under warranty and which repair company is best suited to quickly fi x it. And, in many cases, he can fi x it himself.

“We maintain 40 to 45 different service providers,” says Sprott, “because we have a lot of specialty equipment. But I’m a tinkerer and a do-it-yourself type of person — it’s just my nature. So I will fi x something myself if I can. If I can’t, then I make sure I’m here when the service guy comes and I stand over his shoulder and watch how he fixes it so that I can do it myself the next time.” Sprott and Fugere say that a proper maintenance schedule goes a long way as well.

“Anything on the line needs to be blown out with an air compressor regularly,” advises Sprott. “Also, we do a bimonthly cleaning of the grease traps and exhaust systems. For our woodburning ovens, they need to be cleaned every two months.

“Coming up with a maintenance schedule is important. It’s really a money-saving issue to have equipment serviced frequently. It’s much cheaper than repairing it.”

In fact, says Fugere, the Facilities Management Program has reduced maintenance costs by nearly $2,000 per month. And as is nearly always the case with Tutta Bella, there’s an additional fringe benefit to the program.

“It affects morale,” says Fugere. “You don’t want to work in a place that’s in disrepair, where the equipment looks bad and doesn’t work. Our kitchens are open, and we’re proud of what we serve and how we serve it.” ?

Jeremy White is editor-in-chief of Pizza Today.

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