I sat in an empty conference room at International Pizza Expo in March and spoke for 30 minutes with two business partners who were about to pull their hair out from the day-to-day stress that comes along with running a pizzeria. They had served tables in a restaurant briefly during their college days and thought running a pizzeria would be somewhat easy. They would not have to worry about the many nuances that came with serving diners in the upscale restaurant inside an affluent Arizona resort in which they once worked more than a decade ago. No, pizza would be simple … or so they thought.
They wanted to do artisan pizza in a small town. You know, educate the masses. They soon found that perhaps the small town they selected was just a little too small to be ready for their style of food. The residents had been raised on pizza by the big-box chains. They weren’t ready for spicy soppressata and guanciale. Just give them pepperoni, sausage and mushrooms, dang it.
The pair worked hard initially to educate their staff. Crew members had to know what they were talking about if they were going to bring customers up to speed. But there were other issues, as well. That distinctive char that is a point of pride for many who cook with wood-burning ovens? Well, customers here thought the pizza was burnt and didn’t want to try it.
“It seems like it’s just one big uphill battle after another,” said one of the partners. He was the one who wanted to cut his losses and close the shop. The other still believed and knew his moment was yet to come because he had passion about his product.
They wanted my advice. I didn’t have their financial information at my fingertips and knew nothing about their specific market, so I’m afraid my help was probably not enough at that exact point in time. As we finished up and I began to return to the busy Expo show floor, I was stopped by a “kid” of about 24 years old who could not wait to tell me all about the fast-casual pizzeria he was going to open with investment money from his father. The more questions I asked, the more apparent it was that he was nowhere near ready to run a foodservice business. Remembering the anguish of the duo I had just spoken to, I strongly suggested that this enterprising young man not only soak up all of the knowledge International Pizza Expo and Pizza Today have to offer, but to also go out and work in an actual pizzeria for the next six months as he and his father were getting their business plan together.
I’ve wondered and worried about this “kid” a lot since I met him. I admire his ambition but fear he is going to find himself out of business and in a lot of debt if he opens a pizzeria by the end of this year, which was his goal. While foodservice entrepreneurship can be lucrative under the right circumstances, it can also chew you up and spit you out. I spend the majority of my time speaking with super successful pizzeria operators who are willing to share the tips and tricks they utilized to build a profitable business. But that 40-minute stretch in Las Vegas a couple of months ago was a sobering reminder to me that not everyone who goes into the pizza business is fortunate enough to reach profitability quickly. Some never make it there at all.
So for those of you who are doing it the right way and getting the results you desire, take a moment to pat yourself on the back and be thankful that your hard work and diligence has paid off. But don’t gloat for long, because a new competitor who wants to encroach on your market share is lurking in the shadows and developing an aggressive marketing plan now. You need to prepare yourself to move forward at all times. If you are treading water you are already drowning. What’s your next step? If you don’t know, figure it out fast before your competition does!
Jeremy White, Editor-in-chief