Year 2: Innovation & Growth

 

The two Amigos who run this show. Coincidentally, they have the same first name, are both from New York, both are uncompromising men of integrity.
Tony on the left, Antonio on the right. Coincidentally, they have the same given first name, are both from New York, both are uncompromising men of integrity and both speak fluent pizza. Standing by these men are women of even better caliber. Yes, it’s true.


“What a great problem to have!”
This was said to me many times in the face of lines out the door, lines before we opened complete with a full parking lot and 30 orders on the board at dinner. On this side of the counter, the surge is daunting – often overwhelming but we innovated our way to handling volume we didn’t believe possible. We had several aces in the hole: an absolutely committed, resourceful, intelligent team, innovation and international workers. Without any of these three components, our second summer could have been a disaster. But it wasn’t. It was glorious! 

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Innovation is the difference between work and discernible, quantifiable progress.

brick oven

There are many restaurant owners who come in, do the work every day, go home happy without changing much. Then there are guys like me who continually challenge convention. While it can drive your staff nuts, positive change with an eye toward customer satisfaction, increasing efficiency, output or throughput is the answer to the problems in the first paragraph. Space has always been the challenge in our little corner of Estes Park. In Pizza making, there are many traditions that the elders will not break with. When I asked a guy from Brooklyn who had been making pizza for over 40 years whether dough would suffer any adverse effects if we used sheet pans instead of the tried and true plastic dough trays synonymous that most use, he said “it’s always been done this way. Why would you change?”. I had my answer and knew it was time for a change. In the same refrigerator space we can fit 14 trays of dough in the big plastic ones, we can fit 21 sheet pans with more surface area which means more pizza!

pizza dough on sheet pans
Dough on sheet pans instead of plastic bins.
One day, I thought about how some people would crowd the counter and tap their feet waiting impatiently for a pie during the 6pm dinner rush regardless of how fast we make the pies and chatter about how long it had been. It wasn’t fair to those who waited for a table and were now enjoying their food to have grumbling people staring at them. At that moment, I knew we had to control the flow from outside of the building, so we added a host kiosk complete with a register and receipt printer. Boy did that make a huge difference. Everyone looked at me with disbelief when this kiosk arrived but we cannot imagine being without it.

Alliyah at the Kiosk
Alliyah at the Kiosk

The host kiosk was added just in time! Shortly after its arrival, we received a call from Food Network Magazine asking for photos of our food for an upcoming feature on the best restaurants in Rocky Mountain National Park. We were already in the top 3 Estes Park restaurants on Yelp and Trip Advisor so this cemented the notion that our popularity was no fluke. What an honor. Antonio’s was only a year and a half old!

Antonio’s Real New York Pizza is featured in Food Network Magazine’s July/Aug 2016 issue!

Food Network Magazine! Antonio's Real NY Pizza in Food Network Magazine Antonio's Real NY Pizza in Food Network Magazine!

 

4 pizza Margherita headed for the wood fire.
Tony with 4 beautiful Neapolitan pies headed for the wood fire.

And in the people came – in droves. This exposed other flaws in our workflows that needed immediate attention to handle the influx of people. Stronger ovens, better prep tables, a better mixer, new processes, smarter, more timely prep before rushes and on and on. Plus we needed more help! This town is notorious for it’s shallow workforce pool and I hadn’t previously seen international students for the ray of light they are. Sure there were communication, cultural and language barriers, but we overcame it with genuine care for our people and customers. They rose to the occasion and we formed some of the strongest bonds I’ve ever seen. When men and women cry because they are going home and their bosses do too, the bonds are very strong. One of the best things we ever did was have dinner as a group every night. As an Italian, I really missed the camaraderie of friends and family at meals and with this new group we restored that. On each of the weekend nights, we had a different ethnic food. Fridays were the foods of Uzbekistan, Saturday was Czech Republic, Sunday was Jamaican or any mix thereof. The pride in these young, capable men and women when making foods that represented their countries was intense. We came to love all these variations and cherished weekend nights as much as the students loved sharing their foods.

The impact these International students left on me is so profound that I really have to share more with you. Imagine flying to America from 6-8000 miles away, finding a room, being homesick and in the hands of your American bosses. This must have been so stressful and I did see a few breakdowns where they wanted to go home. I really felt for them and so did Tony and Kate. Tony, being the great adventurers they are, took people all over the place to see what Colorado and this place called America was all about. Of course this was done on days they were off and I was on so the stories and photos had to suffice for me. I loved the idea of it and this year will be even better. There will be some days we are all off together so I can enjoy this group too. Speaking of group, most every one of them are already handing in paperwork to return and some are bringing reinforcements. That’s confirmation enough for me that we have a wonderful work environment and team.
The crew! img_2043 img_2266

American workers remain elusive despite great pay, health insurance and a caring, nurturing environment. Estes Park is expensive for workers and housing is difficult to find. It’s like New York but not as expensive. In NY, there are so many people available for the same job, you are able to find those with work ethic easily. I’ve discussed this at length previously and nothing has changed.   Some of the International workers are or will become US citizens and are moving here to work for they have seen the opportunity that the USA offers. Not just money, but opportunity to create their own businesses and fulfill their drive to succeed. Most of them were 3rd year university students, a few were Masters degree students and two were PhD in biomedical engineering. Speaking of education, our full-time staff of only 5 Americans has about 700 college credits… In a pizzeria adjoining Rocky Mountain National Park. In Colorado. AND ALL ARE FROM NEW YORK!  That is really something when you think about it and the same reasons underly our moves from New York: the beauty of nature, opportunity and a love for wildlife. Lastly, I cannot express the depth to which we miss our friends Sheneil, Alliyah, Krystal, Rustambek, Martina, Katie, Komiljon, Petr, Tomas, Adam, Madina and Sardor. Their smiles, their drive, their desire to learn and master any task. These are attributes I respect immensely. It will not be too soon that they return. When someone works up until their last minute just to not leave you short, you know they have your back. Blessed are we.

Back to the innovation: how do you cook 30 pizzas in a 16 pizza oven? Good question. It took a while, but I saw the parallel between the wood-fired brick oven and the newer deck ovens that have bricks above the pizza as well as below. These deck ovens act similar to a wood fired oven in the way the pizza cooks just at a lower temperature. After much due-diligence, we bought one and it outperformed our original beautiful stainless oven by a large margin. Ah-ha! A deck oven is only second to a wood-fired in heat. Higher heat changes taste profiles but it also can destroy any wet vegetables by forcing them to release all of their water. Can you say swamp? Let’s just say the answer to my question at the beginning of this paragraph is to combine the cooking between the two ovens which is also unheard of. Two years later and we are still filled with the wonder that leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of excellence. In addition to the wonder, there are people who actually know the answers and I would like to thank them individually: Tony Gemignani for taking my calls and texts at all hours and imparting knowledge on me that is cherished, and Tom Lehman, the dough doctor for answering my questions regarding mixers, sheet pans and dough itself in great detail. Tony asked me to pay it forward by helping others and I already have. Thank you both.

Brick lined top and bottom, the Bakers Pride ovens in the foreground are formidable. 4 minute bake time? Yup. The smaller 4 deck Peerless is what we started with and it never faltered, we simply outgrew it's capacity. Again, a great problem to have. The brick oven behind Antonio is a work of art.
Brick lined top and bottom, the Bakers Pride ovens in the foreground are formidable. 4 minute bake time? Yup. The smaller 4 deck Peerless Ovens unit is what we started with and it never faltered, we simply outgrew its capacity. Again, a great problem to have. The brick oven behind Antonio is a work of art.

You cannot get here without great people who value whatever you make or sell and we have them in droves. There were nights where we screwed up their pie trying something new that failed but they never left. They didn’t beat the shit out of us in a review like some of our competitors and their people did. They came back the next week and we bettered the prior result. That’s what perseverance is. Don’t stop until you get it right. Everyone on our team qualifies as a pizza zealot. It has to be right, period. Thank you all for the opportunity.

A big thanks to some very special people: Kerri, Barb, Chris and Maggie, Rik, Dave C,  Scott McD and family, Crossroads Ministry, Victims advocates, Aaron from the Barrel, Aaron from Fire Mountain, Carissa and Josh, Ben, Joe, Dave, Ladies from the Elkhorn, Chris, Dave and Chris, Stephen and his boys; all those who bring their families in, people we’ve never met who are always chiming in on Facebook, Vicki, Sondra, Ron G and all the rest for the support; folks who drive up from Loveland, Parker, Denver, Nunn, Brush, Laramie, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, and a big hug to Laurie D. for the love, goodies and energy you bring when visiting. To all those who refer us in the lodges, buses, trolleys, downtown, we love you and appreciate it. Seeing the same faces every week or so means we are meeting their needs with a quality product and I revel in saying hello to our regulars.

We are grateful for everyone who has given us a shot. To the restaurant owners who have lent a hand or an employee or toppings, we are here for you as well and will not forget.

A funny story regarding the Estes Trolley: one day, mid-summer, the power went out downtown and we were one of the only restaurants with power. We heard about it right away, then the Trolley began dumping 30-50 people at a time at our doorstep. At one point, there were well over 120 people outside waiting for pizza. What an opportunity! We got to an hour and a half wait and used every piece of dough in the entire store and we have two days worth on hand. There came a point where we would see the trolley again and panic. What a day!

Growth has brought success, failure, envy and sharks. The success is apparent by the crowds and the fact that we are only need to be open a few hours a day; it comes in the reviews and words spoken directly to us on a regular basis. Words like: “this is the best pizza I’ve ever had and I’m 82 years old”; “we own an Italian restaurant in NYC and have for decades and can say this is as good as anything in NYC”. The failure comes from missed opportunities due to our building being too small, our production being limited to X, our own strikeouts. The envy is from competitors and the digs that pervade reviews fostered by their envy; nasty comments from “locals” who are loyal to other restaurants in town; people who quietly follow us on FB yet click “hide this post” or “hide all posts” on positive posts, etc. We see you… The sharks are those who ask questions that are not innocent. Some are competitors, others potential investors, one even offered to buy our sauce recipe and not use it in the United States and called many times. Just last week, I witnessed a guy who was clearly not just a customer rip apart the crust the same way I would when being critical, smell it, then called me over to point out something a layman never could. So, I took his picture with the pizza. No further questions except “can we get a box to go?”. We’ve had three potential investors show genuine interest and here’s the best shark question: “I read all your stuff about the best ingredients, but if I wanted to reproduce this pizza where would I start?”. AYFKM? That question will get you shown the door. I’m a real NY’er born and raised on the streets with rather tough parents. Who asks a question like that? Did he think it would be answered? The good karma we have been shown for our efforts and discretion is indescribable. Flattery came in the form of  the mother of a competitor coming in with the Food Network article saying “don’t tell my son I was here; I just had to taste it”.

So far in this life, I’ve experienced devastating failure, incredible success and everything on the way up, then down, then up again. The perseverance that drives me to put shoes on in the morning comes with a serious set of standards. Don’t bother putting those shoes on unless you are going to swing for the fence every day, remain true to your self and as consistent as humanly possible. Our food is hand made, fresh, with love and a passion that you simply don’t find very often. We look forward to many years making people smile and providing many memorable meals with friends and loved ones.

To our employees, wives, husbands and families of our people, thank you for putting up with, and supporting our sacrifice to be excellent at what we do. #RaiseTheBar

Integrity is innate. You cannot learn it, buy it, find it or steal it. If you know anyone of integrity looking for a great place to work, send them to Antonio’s.

~Antonio

 

 

 

Our 1st anniversary!

365 DAYS UNDER OUR BELTS! Well, it was back in November, 2015 actually, but time has flown. Yes, we made it one full year and are standing proud given the atmosphere, workplace environment, growth and success that our diligence, perseverance and hard work has fostered! How does one go from nothing to something in one year? As I’ve stated in the past there are many pieces to the puzzle. They include:

  • A solid plan
  • Repeat, a solid plan.
  • A team of like-minded individuals who share your values, diligence and perseverance
  • Checking your ego at the door
  • A great product
  • A loyal customer base that appreciates what you bring to the area
  • Atmosphere
  • Adaptability
  • VISION
  • The ability to measure your goals and adjust should you fail to reach one or more
  • LISTENING SKILLS
  • Mastering your craft
  • a whole lot more, but these are the first pieces that come to mind when I think about the puzzle of success

First and foremost, thank you to all of the pizza loving people who have given us a shot. To anyone for whom we have blown it, we are sorry and appreciated the opportunity. We’ve improved markedly and continually since we first opened. To all those who make statements like “this is the best pizza I’ve ever tasted”, thank you for driving us. You see, we don’t rest on our laurels. Never. Instead, our continual improvement and attention to detail, coupled with our unwillingness to accept anything but the best, has led to noticeable improvements in every part of the business.

What has changed? Our approach to nearly everything we do. One thing that hasn’t changed is the respect we have for our customers and the sense of family that exists within Antonio’s. Our dough has improved; the sauce has changed quite a bit from when we started; our pizza making skills are light years better than a year ago across the board. Our oven skills are outrageous. Now, we can work with any dough you throw at us and make a nice looking pie. Some of the “artisan” pies we made early on are laughable shapes compared to those we make today. Progress is visible, measurable and memorable. The layout has improved, we put in new heating, did upgrades wherever they were necessary, added two ovens, made her pretty and on and on. The investment in improvement is continual and there are many who can attest to our sometimes heated discussions over how to improve a given process. We are blessed to have four seriously driven leaders who are the backbone of our store. We don’t miss days, we don’t no-show, we don’t leave each other stranded, we never leave unless the others can handle the tasks at hand. In short, we have one another’s back. That’s what a team is. We set each other up for success!

One thing you’ll notice about our staff, they are all adults but one. The idea of trusting the hard earned respect we have earned to people who simply “need a job” is unacceptable. Our success has allowed our workers to earn real wages and the idea is that our family of workers will grow with the store and earn wages that can support a family. It takes a tremendous investment in people, processes and equipment to reach the levels of proficiency necessary to afford higher wages, healthcare and pensions, but that’s the goal. It’s in sight and we are attaining it, a little at a time. We’re not just creating jobs, we’re creating opportunities for a genuine career. Not all restaurant jobs suck. This I can say with absolute certainty.

Please allow me to expound on some of the aforementioned puzzle pieces above. Let’s start with “A Solid Plan”. A solid plan isn’t “we’re gonna make pizza”. It’s “we’ll start with this list of products and allow the customer base to show us which they want and value”. You need capital, credit for the down times and upgrades, machinery, equipment, techniques, ingredient testings, soft openings, etc. Then, you need to measure the success of what you initial projections were against actual sales and experience. Did it work? If not, why? Have you asked your customers what they genuinely think with questions like “is there anything you would change in the sauce”? We’ve done this countless times and more often than not, people have very constructive and supportive ideas. Sometimes they fit your plan, other times they render your initial projection incorrect and aren’t what you were looking to hear, but have a duty to consider. The ability to forget about your ego and listen to people who don’t have an axe to grind is often the difference between success and failure. The people you listen to are genuinely appreciative and you get to improve your product or process. Our plan initially involved a much larger menu than we currently have. Customers would come in and say “that lasagna looks and smells outrageous, I’ll have a large pepperoni pizza”. You only need to throw out $100 trays of something so many times to learn the lesson. But, that same product is ordered on nearly every catering order. Lasagna is a specialty that you don’t take lightly when serving to guests. It damn well better be outrageous. We had to modify the plan continually to meet the ACTUAL wants of our customer base. Just because I love pasta fagioli doesn’t mean everyone does. That said, we have many recipes up our sleeves just waiting for the opportunity. Again, the moral of the story is to measure your results against your plan and adjust accordingly.

A great product! Just because your neighbors think you make the best chili doesn’t mean you should run out and start a restaurant around chili. Whatever you choose as the product, it has to be a PASSION. You cannot survive on neighbors alone. The product needs to continually be honed to the point of excellence and then it needs to be consistent as the atomic clock. Once you have it down, perfect the next piece. A friend we made here from back east named Collan helped keep me on track when competitors and their friends were bashing us online. He said “pay attention to mastering your product and ignore the haters. The people will come.” He was right. Thank you Collan.

In addition to your product, you have to really understand the demographic you are looking to attract and whether it actually exists in your immediate geographic area. You can’t sell boxed wine to folks who have a wine cellar. Conversely, if your food is too expensive for the demographic, it won’t work either. Expensive is a very relative term. To those who understand the relationship between price and quality, it”s a simple decision. You can’t have prime rib every night or lobster tartare, nor do you want it. Pizza is a passion for most who truly love it. To others, its just lunch or dinner. Our customers are largely in the passionate camp. They are looking for a superior product and some are surprised to actually find it. Those make our day. I cannot tell you how many times “this is unbelievable” has been blurted out in a full dining room of people. Conversely, there are those who compare our pizza to dominos or little caesars. This is not an apples to apples comparison. If you want $5 pies, we are not the place. You cannot get your tomatoes, flour and olive oil from Italy and sell $5 pies. You cannot pay your employees living wages and sell $5 pies unless you work them to death to do the volume necessary. Our product is rather high level in quality, yet has a realistic price point. That said, I recently heard “I don’t care how much your prosciutto costs, I’m going to Dominos next time”. While only one customer out of many, it speaks to knowing your demographic and serving what they are looking for. We are not looking to fill the lower end niche where specials and cheap pizza are the norm. To all those who would start a business, you have to know your demographic. I’ve been part of a retail business that failed miserably and while it’s a diversion, the lesson will hold value to someone who reads this. The business was in a part of town that had much lower income residents than the client base who made it a destination. Problem was, the clients who made it a destination didn’t grow at a large enough pace to offset the competition which sprung up around it. When we took over, there was a lot of backlash from the clients who were only in the place because prices hadn’t been raised in 10 years and they essentially were taking advantage of that and the free wifi. That should have been the first sign and a glaring red flag. Don’t take over a business unless you know the customer base will support the changes in your plan.

Your plan had better include quantifiable and measured marketing. Not everyone understands how to market and in those cases, it pays to hire someone who is a verifiable expert in the field. Lots of people hold themselves out as such – just check the spam folder in your email – but few are actually. Always ask a prospective advertising person to show you the success they’ve had with their own company’s marketing. If they can’t, move on. We have grown our Facebook presence slowly and steadily since the first day and have regular contributors who we enjoy immensely. Our base now includes over 3000 people. That’s a major achievement! A realistic budget must be earmarked and the results of it cannot be ignored. If you offer a coupon, keep every one, add them up and divide the number of coupons into the dollar amount of revenue they generated, that’s the average value of each order. Subtract the price of the ad from the sum of all sales. How’d you do? Do some of the people only appear when there is a coupon? Of course. Some only buy when there is a deal and are not your core clients. Your core clients are those whose orders you know without asking- your regulars. Remember, every interaction is an opportunity. It’s up to you to recognize and seize them. Marketing alone will only drive people to your business. It’s the product and service they receive that turns them into a loyal customer and keeps them coming back. The minute you stop innovating and improving, competition who haven’t let off the gas will pass you by. It’s a fact, Jack.

Vision: It’s where you intend to take the business, how you see it progressing. Let’s face it, people – especially employees – don’t like change. Positive change is what differentiates you from those who are satisfied with things as they are. If used properly to bring incremental improvements, change is very valuable. If you just change your mind frequently, on a whim, it will frustrate the hell out of your employees. Think hard before making changes that you are uncomfortable with because they don’t fit your vision. Staying true to your vision allows you to stand behind every product with the knowledge that it’s up to your standards. There are times where there is a disconnect between what people want and what you know. That’s when you have to step back, drop your ego for a moment and consider whether being uncomfortable for a bit in unfamiliar territory will allow you to meet their needs and progress as a business owner. Other times, you have to resist change that doesn’t match your core values or menu. If you aren’t constantly looking to the horizon and taking the steps to get there, prepared to be passed by your competitors. This is the adaptability I listed above.

Delivery is a sore spot. All we hear is how much business there is in pizza delivery, but drivers are transient and deliveries in this town are difficult at night and during the summer. “Turn by the red mailbox, then make a left at the big tree” only works if you can find the mailbox. In this town, some of the homes are so remote that you cannot find them without a guide. Frankly, we don’t need to deliver to be successful yet we understand there are times you just don’t want to leave or are sick. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but delivery’s not our sweet spot. People love to come into Antonio’s, even if just for a moment to pick up the pie and chat. Personally, the smells emanating from this building would keep me coming back, but we’d all like to think its the personalities and the food.  You’d really be surprised at the conversations that occur in our store, never mind the density of former east coasters. It’s very common to have tables full of people talking to one another for upwards of their entire dinner. Our focus continues to be on dine-in and pick up. This brings me to the next puzzle piece: atmosphere.

Atmosphere! Atmosphere cannot be forced, it has to be naturally occurring. Great service, attentiveness, genuine caring and taking pleasure in seeing folks enjoy your product is what creates atmosphere. People who share a common denominator such as the same origins, a love for pizza, nature, etc., will strike up conversation if you put them in the same room. Antonio’s is a destination for people who love pizza, love quality and appreciate atmosphere. We’ve had phone calls from Denver just to confirm when we close and to say “we’re on our way”. Having people drive 100 miles EACH WAY just to have your food is an honor. We treat our customers like family and you will often see hugs exchanged, handshakes and genuine delight in seeing one another. If you build it, they will come. Just last night, one of our favorite families, the McDonald’s came in for a birthday party. A few moments later. they were followed by sisters from Erie who originally come from NJ and a man we know as Hays from the Bronx. The delight in seeing them and they us is what make this place special. The sisters haven’t had anything like the food from back in their hometown and have been craving it. They drove up here just to eat and were overjoyed at the meatball parm hero they had that reminded them of home. The sisters and the McDonalds were talking for quite some time with the surrounding tables joining in. Tony and I stood in the kitchen smiling at the laughter being shared. I was proud that the one thing I really missed about New York – the atmosphere – had developed to this point by a bunch of transplanted New Yorkers. Fostering this environment may be our greatest accomplishment. The atmosphere of the restaurants we frequented where we knew everyone in the place and they knew our order without ever seeing a menu was truly special. Colorado is a transient place on the whole. New York is full of lifers who will never leave and let’s face it, most people are scared of New York. What New York and places like it teach is the ability to get along with people from anywhere. Doesn’t matter the color, nationality, etc., we know how to get along. We missed the familiarity. Hays always orders a pepperoni pie as does RJ and I enjoy the NY handshake that cannot be faked along with his smile. Kerry likes light cheese and David loves the Godfather. Knowing your people is as important as knowing that your brother hates lima beans.. You know what else is paramount to the atmosphere’s existence? Our team.

Our Team: At present, 4 of our staff are from New York- two from upstate, two from Long Island. Jessica’s from AZ, but you’d never know it because of how naturally happy, confident and authoritative she is. These traits compliment the New Yorkers. I think she might actually be a New Yorker…. With 4 born and raised New Yorkers in here, you can feel and hear the presence of East Coast hospitality; words like dawg and cawfee are spoken with authority. Each member of our team brings certain strengths to the table, that, when combined, complete the circle. A real team is much like a family dynamic. There are days you drive one another crazy and have to go outside to breath, but you wouldn’t desert them regardless of how pissed off you are. When you reach this point, it’s like jello- the team/family has been formed. It wiggles and wobbles, but it holds together. We support one another, nurture and dare I say it, love one another like family. Regardless of where they are all from, each and every one shares the same attention to detail and unwillingness to compromise our product in any way. They work efficiently and persevere. I am proud of each and every one, especially the progress they have made as a team. Special thanks to my wife and children who support every effort, not to mention the great cannolis! We are also blessed with a great photographer and person- Kate Francher. Thank you, Kate for all of the beautiful photos and menus.

When taste and authenticity matter, come to Antonio’s Real New York Pizza. You may reach us by phone at 1-970-586-7275 and our online ordering page is at https://mkt.com/antoniosnewyork