Jonathan Goldsmith opened Spacca Napoli Pizzeria in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood 10 years ago. A familiar face to International Pizza Expo attendees ever since, Goldsmith now reflects on his decade in business in this special Q&A with Pizza Today. Here is an extended section that did not make it into the magazine.
I am happy to say that we had few obstacles to overcome at the beginning. We did have one interesting demand from the building department when going through permit review that we were able to fend off. Handicapped accessibility initially insisted that we have an elevator for employees between our lower level production area and the main floor. This came out of left field. Fortunately, an arbitrary construction sum figure helped us side-pass the demand. That could have cost us a significant amount of money, let alone trying to figure out where to put it. Our local electric utility, Com Ed, did cause us some problems. The layout of the pizzeria called for the introduction of a new stairwell to the lower level. There was an existing utility pole in the location of the to-be-built stairs that needed to be removed. Though we introduced a new pole in a different spot almost immediately, it took several months to get the original pole out. We were subject to the schedule of Com Ed (or should I say their mercy). It took months of begging to get them to come out and move wires from the old pole to the new. The poles were only twenty feet apart! All that time, our new mixer sat in our garage at home lovingly swathed in blankets. Those stairs were the only way we were going to get that baby in. I do know of others in our community that lost a good deal of time over venting, where the owners really struggled with the building department. With so many more wood burning ovens coming into play, the city is taking a closer and harder look to ensure health and safety standards.
I am more comfortable thinking of past, present and future. I trust I/we will always have learning curves to work through and benefit from. I must preface all by saying none of this would have happened without Ginny Sykes, my partner in life and Spacca Napoli. It is her art that brought us to Italy in the first place and she is the one to champion all the significant changes that we have made. I am just a pizza guy. Without Ginny there would be no structure, no Web site or other social media, nor a push to bring us to another level. Because Ginny is not in the restaurant every day, she comes in with a keen outside perspective that keeps us on our toes and striving to improve. She is a key component when it comes to staff, and her ability to mediate objectively has helped solve many a dispute. She is truly my saving grace. Without her, Spacca Napoli would not be complete; nor I.
First thing that comes to mind: taking it slow when making important decisions. For me, it concerned bringing someone into our business that I did not know well; actually, not at all. The role was too significant not to do proper due diligence. With my excitement, I acted too fast. I really thought this person was right for us, that we would make beautiful pizza together forever and ever. Unfortunately, that was not so. We had years of litigation and great emotional hardship. If only I had attended John Arena’s and Sam Facchini’s Pizza Expo presentation on partnerships before that decision was made. What stood out from that workshop and that I now carry close to heart: if you do not know the person well, you better get a feel for those around them: “The apple does not fall far from the tree.”
Get your systems into place at the beginning, bring someone in to help with accounting, food and labor costs. Making good pizza itself is not enough to sustain a business. Know your strengths; let others help where needed. I trust we threw out thousands of dollars in the beginning by not keeping a tighter rein on labor. My father-in-law, a major player in the supermarket industry, would always shake his head when he asked if I was making money and I would respond, “I think so”. By not having proper markers across the board, we did not have the capacity to see where changes were needed to improve the financial health of the pizzeria. You can only go so long before the tank runs empty and you close the doors.
Stay close to the kitchen, make sure that agreed upon recipes are followed and that foods are plated in the manner you and your team think best. Taste every day, watch every day. With my focus for so many years on the dough alone, I think we had too many cowboys in the kitchen putting out product that lacked consistency.
Though it may seem strange, one of our biggest problems in the early years (and still today) was having too many people come in the door. Our wait area is small and often beyond capacity. On these occasions, I found it necessary to approach a table and ask for it back when it was obvious they were finished with their meal, had had ample time to chat a touch more and others were waiting for a table for an amount of time that I thought uncomfortably long. Most of our customers were ok with this; some not.
There are good ways to do this, but there are bad ways as well. Engaging the table before you kick them out helps. When the weather is nice, it is not such a problem. People don’t mind as much if the weather is good and they can still have some time together with a limoncello or a moscato on the house. When the weather is not in our favor, which is a good part of the year for us in Chicago, I will offer a card indicating prosecco on the house when they return; whether it be for one person or for 20.
Expanding into another part of the building was a great help; we added another 60 seats. We also expanded the outdoor patio. But with 180 seats, we now have another problem — the impact on the kitchen. My wish is for each pie to have the attention it deserves and needs, that we do not work as a production line processing pork as was done in the stockyards and Ford later put in motion in Detroit. Unfortunately, the wait time for the pie at the table or the wait to be seated can now be longer. We are now back to square one. Offering treats for those waiting goes only so far. We have improved communication between front of the house and back of the house and are making greater effort to protect the pizzaiuoli and fornaio from the wait staff, so they do not feel rushed and crank out pies that are of poor quality. We are now taking into consideration a second oven. Starita did this a couple of years back, and more recently Ciro Salvo of Kalo 50.
Reading reviews are important, but so only in the morning. Nothing worse than losing sleep at night. Even though you may not like what it is being written, there is usually something from the critique that is of merit and can be incorporated into positive change.
Probably most important, finding a proper balance between home and work and taking time to rest, exercise and eat well. This continues to be a challenge, but it is getting better. Not only do our established systems help, but I have proper management support and am able to delegate more. A few years back Ginny and our manager spent a few days with John and Sam at Metro Pizza in Las Vegas. Their wisdom and guidance were invaluable. Everything that someone else can do, let them. I now have time to see the bigger picture, to be the visionary.