And we’re off!
What a run! There are days I have to stop and sit a minute just to reflect and felt it was worth writing down the thoughts. The main areas of reflection are customer satisfaction, our progress and musings pertaining to what we’ve learned. So, here goes.
During the first few weeks we were open back in November and December 2014, we were visited by most of our competitors – some who introduced themselves, others who did not. If you’re gonna make it in this business, you have to be ready at all times. (CAVEAT: never judge a brand new business by a visit in the first days. You’re only fooling yourself for they will evolve in the location.) Well, we were ready most of the time but didn’t realize that we couldn’t just throw pies in the wood burning oven, we had to learn her quirks and the rules by which she played. Nothing bad ever happened during off-hours, oh no, she waited until 6pm every night to hit us between the eyes. Teaching other folks an art you haven’t mastered isn’t wise, but I had no choice if we wanted to open. So, we went through a few employees and the pressure of the oven caused more than one to storm out. Two quit without warning, notice or helping to train someone else before they left. A painful part of the game…
A wood fired oven is meant to make margherita pies and pies with a topping, NOT supreme pies with 5 toppings! In addition to learning the art, I had to improvise and brought in a second oven. The second is a 4-deck traditional gas fired, the same kind we used in New York. It works! All of the many topping pies are started in the deck, then moved to the fire. What a difference that made. Throughput quadrupled! A 5-topping pie needs time to cook- a wood fired oven is meant to have the pie out in under two minutes. Problem is, you cannot cook said supreme pizza in two minutes! Not possible without burning it. This was a major change that only took me a month to realize.
Timing is Everything!
Had we tried to open in peak season, we would have blown the shot. I’m fairly certain of this. It takes time to learn how to meet the volume and a summer opening would have been a train wreck. Our current weekend traffic is pretty high and its the winter. Walking in to this much traffic would have been a disaster. We started with two people on during a Friday night, now we have 4-5. What will it take in the summer? I have no idea, but its daunting. We will be as ready as possible and its certain that something will go astray. Again, part of the game. Anyone who has visited this town has waited two hours to get into Smokin’ Dave’s, The Dunraven or Mama Roses/Poppy’s. During the winter, there are seats anywhere you want to eat. During the summer, there is a wait anywhere you want to eat. We’ll manage to it as best as possible. I am so thankful we started at the slowest time of year.
46 years on this planet have provided a wealth of experiences – some came with scars, others came with growth. The ability to focus, improve processes and see patterns in a way that allow you to stop making the same mistakes were all born of my rather rough upbringing. New York is a tough place with even tougher characters. To survive, you must evolve quickly and to succeed, you must innovate continually. This are the major strengths I bring to Antonio’s.
After using the tools that came with the store, I immediately realized they were part of our problem. Something as simple as a pizza peel- the thing you prepare pizza on and turn them with – had been identified as garbage. There had to be better quality, thinner peels that didn’t wreck pies because of their thickness and poor quality. CORRECT! After researching the best pizzerias in the country and what they use, we found significantly more expensive, higher quality peels. Our old ones were $10-25 each. These are $90-140 and we have 9 of them. Further, I found that keeping them cold kept the pizza from sticking to them when placing in the oven. Wood has its place.
OUR DOUGH, SAUCE AND FRESH MOZZARELLA ARE MADE HERE DAILY FROM MY NEW YORK RECIPES! All of our pies are hand tossed, meaning we stretch the dough by hand, not with a press, dough sheeter or roller. Tremendous difference that takes feel, skill and patience. In the early days, the pies I made had a more artisan look to them. Today, through careful analysis of my technique and training with those who are much better than I, our pies are becoming works of art. All of these techniques are being taught to our employees and for the most experienced, it’s a difficult transition. Change is often difficult to accept, but progress requires change. Dough has to be treated “like a lady” as I’ve been taught. The outcome, just as with a lady, is remarkably different based on your approach. Speaking of dough, we’ve had to make some serious alterations due to the lack of humidity and elevation, but we produce a pie at 7500′ elevation that any NY pizzeria would believe was produced at sea level.
Our noses have been to the proverbial grindstone in an effort to improve. When I recently looked up, some of our competitors had added calzones and products they previously didn’t have to their menus. You see, it’s not about beating the others. It’s about raising the bar in Estes Park to be commensurate with the overwhelming natural beauty surrounding us. Every restaurant in town should be best-of-breed. Period.
Any restaurant’s main goal is to serve its customers something delicious that they talk about. Doesn’t always go that way and you have to be cognizant of their pleasure/displeasure at all times. We’ve all been to places where the staff could care less, they’re just waiting for an opportunity to look at their cell phones, facebook and twitter. Our focus is whether you are enjoying the meal and secondarily on making it to the highest standard possible. We are impossibly hard on ourselves and I was recently reminded of this by two employees. The reason I am hard on myself is that there is so much pride and passion in what we serve. These recipes have been refined continuously over the last 8.5 years so if you don’t enjoy them, we’ve taken a wrong turn and we take it to heart. If I could share how many times I’ve heard “this is the best pizza I’ve had in X years or ever” you wouldn’t believe me. People should be able to walk in from wherever they are from and enjoy this knowing nothing about New York pizza and they do. Validation from people who lived in New York or New Jersey for many years, then taste our pizza and say “Oh my God, it’s exactly what I remember” reaches my heart in a special way. Our initial plan was to serve pasta, deli sandwiches, salads, lasagna, etc. in addition to pizza. The demand for great pizza was so high, it precluded us from fostering any of the other lines until now. We take your satisfaction very seriously. If you ever have something you don’t like, bring it to our attention right then and there in the restaurant so we may address it. And address it we will, doing whatever it takes to make it right.
One thing our little restaurant does is foster conversation between the patrons. You see, many east coast folks have fruitlessly searched for a replacement to the hometown pizzeria they remember. Despite many disappointments, they hear about us and give it one more try. There have been times where everyone in front seating area is from New York and they reminisce with Frank Sinatra playing in the background. To me, it’s like “Field of Dreams” – we built it and they came.
Our promise to you is very straightforward- we will continue to improve everything we do and serve. When we outgrow this place, we will expand it or buy another to meet the demand. The food will only improve, the processes will improve and you will have a new haunt to visit again and again.
What I’ve learned
The number of lessons that have come with opening Antonio’s are countless. Among the most critical are authenticity and word-of-mouth. Our authenticity is unquestionable, yet people who’ve never been to NY manage to profess that it doesn’t taste like NY or some other foolishness. Two people have said the sauce is tasteless. MY ASS! I challenge anyone to come in here, taste a spoon of the sauce and tell me its tasteless. Some of our competitors are sandbagging our Tripadvisor.com rankings out of fear instead of being true to their product, improving it and innovating. You see, the word-of-mouth among the locals has propelled us in a manner no review site could ever. Ask anyone in town where they should go for pizza. Soon the tourists will come and they will forget about the word of mouth until the fall. Restaurant owners who continually hone their craft have no time to look up or obsess over what the competition does. Only those resting on their laurels have the time to obsess. Remember that. I’ve had to learn to let go of the anger that comes from anonymous b.s. reviews. Difficult for a guy from the streets. Very difficult.
Another huge lesson is that introducing food that people have never heard of and cannot pronounce takes time. The educating of your customer base is imperative and your people need to be patient. At least 70% of the people who visit Antonio’s have never heard of a cannoli. Boy have we made believers of many. What the hell is prosciutto or capicola? Italian specialties that I grew up with and am now sharing with you. Passion for food is unmistakable. Please come in to experience it.
Social media is a double edged razor blade
Well, if no restaurant in town is threatened by you, the roses grow quickly. If what you do strikes fear in the heart of competitors from which you hope to take share, look out. A perfect example is Baba’s Burgers. Their choice of products do not exist in the town and the store has quickly propelled to the top of every review site; bravo Stasi for seeing that niche and hitting it. Conversely, take a look at Chicago’s best, Bob and Tony’s, Cheesy Lee’s and Antonio’s on Tripadvisor. You will see awful, spiteful reviews from accounts that were created for that sole purpose. The great thing is that to an educated consumer, the reviews are transparent. Just as your success can go viral, so will your failure. Tread carefully people. I was there when Cheesy Lee’s had been hit with a string of vehement and nasty reviews. It turned out to be one of the other pizza shop owners who hired someone to do it. Karma is amazing however.
Playing the cards you’re dealt
Our restaurant was not designed to be a high-volume place. The architect who drew it missed the mark and we’ve had no choice but to play these cards. With seating for 20 inside, it’s reminiscent of the pizzerias we grew up with in NY. Most were very narrow, like a train car, and despite the lines and limited seating, the great food kept us coming back to this very day. Some of them have grown into ornate, gaudy restaurants, others remind me of Nicky’s here in Estes Park – a throwback to an earlier day which we all try to preserve in our heads. The bulk of our pies are taken home or back to a lodge, but those who understand a wood oven, will wait for a table here to have it fresh out of the oven – so hot you can’t possibly eat it yet – but you will try anyhow. Many come for the conversation that accompanies the food. Others have become friends. We look forward to sharing tastes of Long Island and New York City with you.