As an owner in 13 pizzerias currently and with three more in the works, Tony Gemignani still says he’s in the learning phase of his career in pizza, which enters its 25th year in 2016. He’ll be giving Pizza Expo’s first-ever Thursday keynote at this year’s show and plans to relate his views on the state of the industry and the lessons he’s learned along the way. “I’m really going to try to touch every area of our business,” he says. We chatted with Tony recently about his career, including a short stop at McDonald’s.
Pizza Expo: Your stores are in casinos, ballparks, fast casual and full-service settings. Why haven’t you focused on one concept to fast-track growth?
Tony Gemignani: There’s been a lot of opportunity to go different directions, and I’m kind of still seeing what works and what doesn’t work. The Chipotle model was approached to me several times at the beginning stages by a lot of big boys. I never did want to go that route. I’ve always been conservative. It took 17 years for me to go from my brother’s restaurant to Store One, and it’s taken seven years to go from Store One to Store 13. So I was conservative at the beginning and I’m still conservative. I’ve been testing the market to see what really works. I’ve been testing and testing.
PE: You grew up on your grandfather’s farm, helping bring apricots and cherries to market in the summer and fava beans in the winter. What was your first job off the farm?
TG: My first job was when I was 15 years old at McDonald’s. I lasted probably three and a half hours. They put me on the hamburger line at a crazy busy place. I get trained once.
You’re on this line and you see this sea of people coming in. I’m a half-hour in, and then the guy next to me who’s on the Quarter Pounder line, says to me, “Hey man, I’m going to take off. I gotta go. This is how you make them.”
I had 80 burgers in front of me and I had to dress the buns. And I’m just gone. My manager comes in to me and he says, “Tony! You see these 12 burgers! They’re overdone!” And he throws them all in the garbage right in front of me.
It was basically like getting a guy who’s never been in the pizza business and taking him to
Lombardi’s and saying, “All right, you work the coal oven. Catch you later.”
PE: You’re giving away a free trip to Italy at your keynote. What will the lucky winner see there?
TG: They’re going to be able to come with me to Parma for the World Pizza Championship. There are competitors from over 30 countries — very much like the Pizza Expo competition. You get to see how pizza is made in Italy. If you’re a pizza operator it’s the trip of a lifetime.
You’re right in Parma. There’s prosciutto di Parma, you’re right in the area for Parmigiano-Reggiano, the wine in that region, like Lambrusco, is great to have with pizza. You’re literally in the mecca of some of the best food in the world.
PE: What are the traits of a great pizzaiolo?
TG: I think it’s a breed that we’re either born into or we realize sometime in life that it’s where we’re going. You see it at Expo. You find the independent guys who want to learn. There’s a camaraderie there, and I feel it’s very much of an independent camaraderie.
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