July 1, 2011 |

2011 July: My Turn

By John Gutekanst

I’m a pizza guy. Like many of you, I spend a good amount of my time with my hands and arms in a
485 F oven or bent over sticky globular masses of dough. After 11 years making pizza, I know my place in the strata of celebrity chefs, culinary pundits and artisan bakers. It’s a place well hidden in mid-America far away from the prying eyes of the New York Times’ “Best Pizza” list. Some knuckleheads may think pizza is the bottom of the culinary ladder, but I look at it as the most important rung.

There are thousands of pizza places like mine, all making different types of food depending on locale. My customers are neighbors who gladly frequent my business once or even three times a week. They are my cheerleaders and I see them at the store, gas station and my kid’s school. I know I’m a lucky guy, but sometimes I still run into that one attitudinal perspective that a large majority of Americans have toward the work of their pizza guy; the “It’s only pizza” syndrome.

It hit me hard one nice spring day when a very well dressed young lady with an impeccable resumé had come in for a management interview. She hit a home run on every question I threw at her, and I was ready to hire her on the spot. But I still had reservations (because she had never worked in a restaurant).

“So, do you think you will be able to pick up the way we manage our business here?” was my last question before offering her the job.

Without missing a beat, she said with a chuckle; “Well, it’s only pizza, how hard can it be?”

Needless to say, I didn’t hire her. This was my first foray into that sinking feeling that my life was worth less than nothing; all those 14-hour days kissing butts, listening to lame excuses from employees, coddling every pizza to make sure it was perfect. I recoiled at the lack of empathy and respect for all the hours I worked. But as I progressed through another year of business and we got busier and busier, something happened to me. My attitude changed.

The night was beautiful; we had $2,500 in the till and were headed for $2,000 more. The call came at 7:30 — a man wanted to forgo two toppings on a specialty pizza and add banana peppers without paying extra. The phone went from the order taker, then to the manager, then to me.

“Let me get this straight, your dumb employees won’t let me get banana peppers because of your policy?”

“Yes sir.”

“I can’t believe you’re willing to lose me as a customer because of banana peppers.”

“And I can’t believe you won’t pay a measly one-fifty for banana peppers,” I said.

“Okay, you’ve lost my business @#$%^&, how do you feel about that?”

“Listen man, you need to lighten up. It’s only pizza,” I said … and almost choked on my words.

That night, I sat quietly in my pizzeria feeling foolish. I knew I had to turn my attitude around.

It was then that I started slowly to become the biggest, baddest, most psycho pizza guy around. I pull myself out of my business frequently to gain new perspective. I visit other, better pizza places. I read about pizza and baking. I enter contests with my best creations. I listen to others and suck up their enthusiasm. I steal great ideas with abandon — and I now treat my community like family.

Why? Because, it’s not only pizza … it’s my life.My Turn is a monthly guest column. This installment is written by
John Gutekanst, owner of Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.

If you are interested in submitting your own column, e-mail Jeremy White [jwhite@pizzatoday.com] and let him know what you want to say and what qualifies you to say it.