Dream, Innovate, Execute, Repeat!

 

Perseverance and fortitude are found by the truckload in people who are very successful! I’d like to share a few of my experiences to normalize what many idea-filled people experience. This picture is of my great grandfather his sons. Great Grandpa Francesco came to America fleeing starvation and seeking opportunity just as those with ideas look to create opportunities for themselves and others. Unfortunately, most innovators are mocked, jeered and put down for the creativity, including, me, Antonio. This post is not for the naysayers for they could never think or innovate on this level, it’s for those who create and are ridiculed.

 
Early on in my career, I created an internet marketing web site that was light years ahead of bigger corporations who consequently told me the design looked like “a Jamaican Flag” and these words were printed in a renowned magazine’s review. The kicker: it had the longest user session of any website I would ever design in 17 years of creation. I counted cash while they laughed.
 
In 2012, with the cash I made while others laughed, I bought some land on the other side of town and dreamed of making a drive-thru coffee shop with drinks that had crazy, catchy names featuring the best quality I could find. Those ideas spawned a drink that sold THOUSANDS: “The Chicken Fried Latte”. I was told by people whose businesses had failed that it was “stupid”, “ridiculous”, “would never work”. Well, it worked. Again, I counted cash while they laughed at me. Even being sabotaged by a worker who wouldn’t sell ice cream to people “because it made them fat”, the business succeeded and in that business, the pizza you enjoy today became a hit.
 
You see, I had another dream: to share with people the pizza I knew as amazing having spent my entire life in and around New York City, so I bought a little oven, cut a pizza stone to fit, bent a pan to fit the little oven, used a rice cooker to make sauce and brown garlic. With these rudimentary tools, I began making pizza to sell to others. Pitiful shapes compared to todays pies, not even close in taste, but I never gave up. People ordered pizza instead of coffee while others laughed.
 
Then, the location we currently occupy became available. Again, people said “you’re crazy to shut down a working business to pursue pizza”. “Have you lost your mind?”. No, the only times I really lost my mind is when I made the mistake of taking over someone else’s dream. That business failed miserably. Well, when Antonio’s began, something magical happened. Beyond the naysayers “NYP should stand for Next Year’s Yogurt Place instead of New York Pizza” (I know who you are btw), people who longed for a taste of home journeyed 100 miles just to see if we had what they were looking for. For some, we didn’t, for the vast majority, we did. But, we never rested. Crazy idea after idea created unrest in the kitchen through change. In the words of the immortal Scarface “LOOK AT US NOW!”. Without talented people who share my dreams and the support of my one faithful cheerleader – my wife Tracey – you would not be reading this today.
 
Like each of my Great Grandparents, I have built something viable out of nothing but an idea. My Grandfather and his sons and daughters built some of the finest furniture this country has ever seen. Their work is still in the White House! They stood tall through recessions, strikes, failures, bankruptcies and having a rival family in NJ burn down their factory. They mortgaged their houses several times during these cycles and employed hundreds. Their pictures hang one the wall so they can see that their hard work and ethics live on!
 
To all those who are ridiculed and made to feel silly when people mock your ideas. Put your middle finger up and your head down in your work. Even if it’s never commercially viable but fulfills a dream you have, DO IT! You hear me? Do it!

Pizza as a Science

Gone are the days of stereotypical guidos making pizza in white t-shirts. When companies like Chipotle start backing pizzerias, there is far more thought and science going into the processes than you would believe. Having only been in the game a short time, I have quickly learned that just about any heat source will cook a pizza, but to cook it well, you have to understand the physics behind thermal transfer, how weight affects cook times and characteristics, how sugars affect the browning of your crust and how that relates to limitations in temperatures, how to use a brick oven and where the pizza should be placed based on temperature gradients in the brick floor, etc., etc.  In short, the people who are truly knowledgeable have left no stone unturned in becoming so. I am quickly becoming one of those people. It’s in my DNA. Here are my observations:

Technological Progress in Ovens

There was a time when every pizzeria had similar deck ovens, be it a Baker’s Pride, Blodgett, Peerless, etc. Today, there are probably 100 pizza oven manufacturers competing in the space. Italian and American oven manufacturers have begun offering traditional looking wood-fired brick ovens with rotating floors. The kicker is they aren’t wood fired! Most are electric or gas but have the same finish as wood or coal-fired. This rotating floor takes away the skill requirement of being able to rotate pies in a brick oven.

It simply goes around one complete turn and when it reappears, needs to be removed. Contrast this with the skill needed to read the dough’s readiness to be turned, understand the difference between blistering and burned and most importantly: being able to read the little whisps of smoke that speak to blistering on a wood/coal-fired pizza that tells you it’s time to rotate. What this does – in addition to removing the skill requirement – is allow for a lower level employee to run the oven. Is it bad? Yes and no. Yes, because anyone can scoop a finished pizza from an oven and there goes another skill lost to technology. No, because a typical barrier to artisan pizza is the dexterity required to run a real brick oven. Move the pizza too early and it’s trash, move it too late and it’s burned. That’s a skill, like glass blowing. These ovens are in the $20k plus range and weigh 4-6000 lbs.

Rotating deck ovens are only one type of pizza oven that are changing the game. There is much more science in some of the electric ovens out today. Companies like PizzaMaster have very sophisticated controls over the decks. I have seen proprietary stones, decks made out of lava rock, etc. Embedded in the stones are heating elements. The coldest area of a traditional pizza oven or brick oven is the area in front of the door. In these electric ovens, the door area is kept hotter than the rest of the oven to compensate for the opening and closing. Try that with your wood-fired brick oven. These ovens are even more expensive and require 3-phase power to run them. I just looked into adding this option and the electric company wants $15 grand to run it to the pole. From the pole to the building is my problem and likely another $4 grand.

A third class of ovens which are changing the game are small footprint, ventless ovens made by companies like Turbo Chef. Turbo Chef makes a little oven called the “Fire”.

It heats to 842 degrees, has convection top and bottom and separate heating elements and digital controls. It costs just under $5 grand. For a single pizza oven limited to 14″. It cooks a pizza in 2 minutes flat. No bull. Two minutes! Compare this with the traditional 6-7 minutes in a deck oven and you have an ace in the hole. In 6 minutes, this oven will put three pizzas on your customers tables without the requirement of a hood. That means you could put one in an office building and make pizza for lunch. Game changing technology and the science of convection coupled with high heat.

Having multiple ovens has really helped us increase output. This wouldn’t have been possible without an increased understanding which can only be gained through experience and the willingness to break from convention. It has allowed us to put a serious number of pizzas out using each of the tools when and where necessary. We currently have 4 ovens, each running at a different temperature.

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.

The brick oven is obscenely hot but due to it’s large deck, allows us to even cook calzones in there by putting them further from the fire. Each successive year has brought challenges to Antonio’s due to growth and part of the solution has been in oven technology. Going to the Pizza Expo has exposed me to solutions I would never have known to be available. Plus, the guys who designed the ovens are standing there and will answer any questions you have. This is invaluable. Anyone who isn’t going, is standing still and will be passed by those who attend – and more importantly – adapt to the changing environment. Pizza is serious business people!

About 8 months ago, I began investigating how thermal heat transfer affects pizza. It’s crystal clear to me now that different materials transfer heat and absorb it, at far different rates. Understanding these rates will help you choose materials that will increase throughput without sacrifice. All come at a cost. A few months back, the universe sent in a geothermal physicist who, after enjoying a pizza, helped me understand how to use steel or aluminum/steel cooking surface and explained that steel will be cooler than the surrounding air because of how fast it transfers heat. This led me to cook pizza on one to see the difference. It really worked! The transfer of energy is so fast that the steel mimics a wood-fired deck that is much hotter. If you shave a minute off every pizza and lose nothing in finished product, you are seeing a huge increase in productivity. To help me understand, the physicist offered this analogy: touch a hot brick on a summer’s day and you can have a second or two before it transfers enough heat to burn you. Try that with a black car’s hood in the sun. Near instant burn. Suddenly, I was looking up heat transfer rates of various metals and thinking why doesn’t someone make ferro-cement decks. I’m probably too early on this idea. To compare surfaces, I tried ceramic, aluminum, steel/aluminum and cordierite. Each had its own sweet spot and we could run the cordierite at a much higher temp than the aluminum because of the transfer rate differences. Cordierite transferred heat slower which led to a crisper bottom. Aluminum mimicked a wood-fired oven in look and feel but at a lower temperature. Steel is a beast! Ceramic has a nice cook but we shattered it too easily. There is another stone made of the same brick in a Kiln which I would like to try. I feel like we are in science lab at times and love it.

Pizza Prep Table Progress

Another bottleneck area in a pizzeria – prep tables – has been addressed with technology. Randell makes a Dual Rail pizza prep table that effectively doubles the number of topping pans available to your pizza makers. Instead of 9 maximum in a 72″ table, there are 18 pans worth of toppings. No more opening and reaching into a drawer or pans falling out onto the floor. Technology in this piece is awesome as well. Temperature controls for each rail, plus a separate control for the area underneath. Two drains built in that actually work. $9 grand worth of technology that allows multiple pizza makers to put together pies quickly without shuffling continually. Priceless. We run the system with the controls set on 3 out of 10. That’s how powerful it is. The emerging pattern you are seeing is that technology is not cheap, yet these technologies create efficiencies that were previously impossible.

 

Dough and Sauce – nothing but chemical formulas

The top-secret recipes that every pizzeria thinks is the best(us included) are nothing more than chemical formulas. Add sugar, the sauce is sweeter. Add aunt Gianna’s basil and the sauce is smoother.  Most people don’t realize how much trial and error goes into sauce. Underlying it all is science. Some people cook their sauce to stop the breakdown of naturally occurring proteins which can ruin a sauce. For example, powdered garlic is stable whereas diced fresh garlic is continually decomposing as it ages. The latter sauce has a much shorter lifespan but tastes better. Sealed cans alleviate some of this but not many of us have an actual cannery…

Dough is actually a living organism whose lifespan is determined by many factors, including:

  • temperature of the water added to the mixer
  • the amount of heat generated by the mixing process
  • how quickly it is refrigerated
  • the amount of yeast added
  • ambient temperature of your store
  • sugars available to the yeast
  • whether or not you use cold fermentation
  • aeration based on mixer type(fork or spiral vs planetary)

Processes

Everything you do in a restaurant involves a scientific process. From how you answer the phone, how you transmit the order – on paper or a computer screen, how you time your orders, deliveries, track drivers, prioritize dine-in customers, how you prep vegetables based on seasonality, even how your people wash dishes- everything is a process. People who do not continually hone their processes are bound to stagnate or fail. You must continue to improve or be passed by competitors. We have only been open 2.5 years and have gone through mad changes. Changes that pissed off employees but resulted in a much better way of doing things. Your goal as owner and chief bottle washer is to streamline every process for your employees. If you leave it to employee whim, there is no chance at consistency. There are many ways to do everything. Don’t worry about everyone else, just make it better one step at a time. If you don’t have that knowledge or are having trouble with a process, ask another business owner. I personally know nothing about franchising, but when approached by three different groups of investors, had to reach out to someone who did and chose to pass. If you don’t know how to schedule prep or dough and keep throwing out too much, ask someone who does. I remember the day we had 35 orders up and the ticket holder couldn’t actually hold that many. We added another. Imagine scanning 35 receipts trying to find the right one. At that moment, I began searching for kitchen display screens and a program to print to them. We started with one screen that was too small. Added a second. Now we have 4 and send off orders to the station that should receive them. The science of change.

Connections are pure science that we don’t understand

Connections define people. Those with long-term connections that are strong tend to facilitate them easily. As a believer in Einstein’s “String Theory” I believe we are all connected with some connections much stronger than others. This is what brings people together. The value of great mentors is immeasurable for they provide the wisdom that only experience can offer. Finding them is the hard part. The pizza industry as a whole is far more nurturing than any industry I’ve previously been involved with. The ability to bounce ideas off people with 20-50 years of experience is simply incredible. Guys like Tony Gemignani, Tom Lehman and Chef Chris Gonzalez have listened to my crazy ideas and offered advice or guidance. At the 2017 pizza Expo, I spoke with Glenn Cybulski who offered: if you need anything or have a question, call me. The idea that someone who has sacrificed and invested years in honing their craft will share that knowledge is a solid indicator that I’m with the right people for I constantly share knowledge. I will be one of these guys in time and don’t take their kindness for granted. Thank you, Gentlemen. Had I not attended the Pizza Expo in 2015, 2016 and 2017, I would not know Tony, Glenn or Tom. Leave no stone unturned in your quest to create memorable pizzas for your customers or family. And remember, pizza is actually a science, not “just a pizza”.

 

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! 

img_1416
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

 

 

The first 9 Months

Notches on our belt and wounds to heal

How can a business go from just existing to actually thriving? Teamwork, dedication, and of course good food are some main components. Nine months is just enough time in Estes Park to either prove that you can stand tall and handle the crowds, or break under the pressure. And boy did the crowds come…. In the beginning, if there were four tickets on the board at the same time it was cause for a quickening of the heart, and deep breath, and some fast pizza making, well what we thought was fast! Once the crowds came, you lost track of the number of tickets. Each pizza had its two minutes of fame in your mind and then it was gone. Always to be replaced by another for hours at a time with no  chance for even a drink of water. This crazy pace left us with no room for mistakes, every one had to be at the top of their game at every moment! Or the whole thing would fall into chaos. How did we handle it? Teamwork. Every  member of this team pulled their weight plus some! A simple word, a look, a tap on the shoulder, and you had backup. Every one relied on each other to get through the day and once that sign got dark we sat down and laughed about the good parts over some good pizza, pasta, lasagna, or even chicken curry! Knowing that your team had your back is what got us all through the ever-growing lines, the endless tickets, and the heat of the oven. Not to say we didn’t  have our bad days. As hard as we tried for perfection sometimes a pie would die. If the oven had even a small obstacle it could tear a hole straight through a $30 pizza. That’s when things got stressful. We had to take every mistake simply as a learning experience to prevent future problems. Boy did we learn a lot in a short amount of time. Equipment was upgraded, workshops attended, even a business trip back to New York to speak to the pizza Gods who sent me home with ideas and more recipes! Every day was a chance to increase your skills and handle just a little bit more. That is where dedication came into play. Working for weeks at a time with no days off, 12 hour shifts that made you wish your feet were numb, and endless tasks to complete with no time allotted were what separated the winners from the fakers. Everyone who made this season possible showed an enormous amount of dedication.  This is more than just a pizza shop. It’s a home, a safe place, and for many workers, a chance for a future.

We lost countless workers along the way. Some we knew would stab us in the back, and a few with great potential but a lack of ability to see it or realize that potential; they simply weren’t ready for the opportunity. The ones who stood strong surprised us again and again. Picking up skills like manning the oven almost perfectly, which is no easy feat, checking out two parties at the same time while answering the phones, and staying calm while being asked to do five different tasks at the same time isn’t something that can be accomplished  by just anyone. Brilliant minds, great souls, and wonderful personalities set  our team apart from others. So thank goodness for every single one of them! This was the only way to put out the best product we could. Even that was a never ending obstacle. Good food in Estes Park can be hard to find. But not anymore! We brought the product, tampered, tested, and tweaked it over and over and over again just to find a better way to do it only a week later. Even still, we are constantly improving and I know we have a lot to learn. Just looking at how our product has improved in a couple of shorts – but very very fast – months is beyond encouraging. We provide the best food that we can and it shows. Everyday we have someone try it for the first time and are amazed at how tasty it really is! We are not fast food. We do not serve crappy material and call it a pizza. We use the best ingredients available and an unbeatable product has arose. The pride that comes from serving this food, is a reason to be excited to be at work. Good food brings together good people. And thank goodness  for the good people. They keep us strong, they keep us together. And we will stay strong for years to come, always improving. Thank you Estes for being there with us on this journey. 

Note to all potential restaurant owners: do not open in the high season unless your crew can hit the ground running full speed. Since our first day, the road has been uphill both ways and we’ve had to adjust to ever-increasing volume. We thought we had the correct procedures in place until we had an average of 24 orders on the board for 4 hours straight. We couldn’t get out from under it. The new order sound on our tablets haunted me for days after that. It was an ass-kicking I won’t soon forget with the highest average number of items per hour by 40%. People out both doors, in the parking lot and an hour wait. We had never been to an hour wait as we are literally fast as hell. That’s what we thought… The very next day, we put our heads to the grindstone again and collectively came up with a better way of doing things and got our average wait time down to 34 minutes on similar volume. Many hands make light work, but too many hands…

There were days we didn’t have a single error and days where one blown pizza or disruptive customer threw such a wrench in things that next 15 minutes were total disarray. With our oven setup, all you need to do is look away for thirty seconds and the wood-fired oven will turn a beautiful pie into a charred platter. To ease the stresses, we added another screen and a backup ticket holder to expedite orders. Have you ever seen a ticket holder 30 orders wide? Me neither. It must exist somewhere, but we were trumped again. As many folks reminded us, growth was the best problem to have and they were right. Thankfully, many vacationers were patient and enjoyed watching us fly around the kitchen throwing dough and producing many pies an hour.

Sacrifice

This is probably the most overlooked opportunity cost for any restaurant owner and their employees. Bringing a quality product to market, doing the research, training, creating standards, enforcing standards, running around to find the proper ingredients, tools, equipment, vendors, etc. is a huge sacrifice. We are away from our families nightly to serve you the best products we are able to produce. A big THANK YOU to all of families who miss us every night and weekend day. Without their support, we cannot thrive. We have lost employees over their spouse’s unwillingness to accept the separation. It’s a real and tangible sacrifice. The sacrifice comes as a result of missed soccer games, dinners, outings, etc. That is a big price to pay in return for the satisfaction of a job well done. Before the season really kicked in, I chose to close the store every Monday so the entire staff could have off. What was the cost? Many thousand dollars in lost revenue. What was the benefit? Priceless time with those we care about and a needed break for all. There has to be a balance in this game. As the owner, even those days off are filled with research and playing delivery driver as we head all over the front range to find products needed to improve. This must be weighed into the cost of doing business. There is no line item of the P/L sheet for this but there should be. All of the above sacrifice – when coupled with sound business practices and a team who can execute – produces a product that is revered. That is the prize!

A HUGE THANK YOU TO ALL WHO REFERRED US THIS SUMMER. We heard the same names many times and referrals came from all over. Even other pizza places referred people to us! That’s an honor. We are thankful.  An even bigger thank you to our regulars, the faces and names we see week after week. You are very appreciated!

The Bar has been Raised!

You may remember me ranting in the 5-month checkup that other restaurateurs needed to focus on their products instead of bashing us. Well, that happened. Several of our direct competitors added products that didn’t exist in this town prior to our introducing them. Another honor. Many stepped up their game to compete with the positive reactions directly resulting from our food. Bravo! Never fear competition. Bring your A-game and let’s get it on. The town of Estes Park should have best-of-class food across all types.

Quality is not expensive

Use the best tasting products you can buy and charge enough to pay for them- that’s my mantra. That’s how you make the best pizza. Most of the world uses all purpose flour to make their dough and swear by it. Our main flour is nearly twice as expensive as all purpose and comes from Italy. Our tomatoes come from Italy as does the prosciutto di parma, etc. Our artichoke hearts come from Spain. The cannoli shells come from New York, the sausage is from Chicago. Why all these distant products? Because they were the best tasting we could find.  There are restaurateurs who believe being the cheapest is better than tasting the best and there is some truth to it or McDonalds wouldn’t exist and be the success that it is. BUT, that’s not our demographic. Let me share a few numbers with you: fresh basil is $13 a lb at cost and is mostly stalks. A good prosciutto is $14-$17 a lb our cost. Capicola is $7 a lb our cost. How much do you think the toppings on a Dominos pizza you buy for $7.99 could possible cost? Do you think the quality is the same?  Bottom line, if you want a pizza with 150 pieces of pepperoni, this isn’t the place. If you want a delicious mix of high quality ingredients and understand that they aren’t cheap, this is the place. Our products come from all over the country and world. I tasted more types of sausage than anyone should just to find the most delicious one. I didn’t care how much it cost. Oh, and artichoke hearts – They are not cheap.

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There should be a show called Employee Nightmares!

Being in a small-town that swells to 50x its size during the peak season, we have a notorious problem- a qualified employee shortage. The employees we lost early did us a favor by quitting without notice but I couldn’t see that at the time. There was so much drama during the first two months that it would have sabotaged our growth and there is no way they could have scaled up to summer levels. All of our competitors know who these folks are as you were in to test our food. Beware anyone who has worked at every fast food business in town for two months at a clip, people who are thirty with no real work history, those who use vague language on the “reason you left” section of their application of cannot provide an employer for the last year or more. Always call the previous employers. If they cannot provide names and contact numbers, just say NEXT. Another pattern I noticed in employees who left abruptly was that they said “I love this job” too frequently. It was almost like they were talking themselves into it but had already moved on. Sadly, these same folks are often friends with half the town and paint a negative picture of you so that makes it even more difficult. An added bonus was the training other “pizza makers” received prior to coming here. Outside of people who worked at Dominos, not one of them could actually make a pizza. I’m not kidding. They could not spread a dough by hand. All had been taught to cut out a circle after rolling it out or that “it just went on a screen”.  We don’t use screens or a roller to make pizza. There is such a small pool that there are days where finding talented people who want to work appears hopeless.  What was the solution? Hiring folks who didn’t want “just a job”, but were motivated to become something more than an employee and didn’t bring a ton of drama to the workplace. That and summer help from other countries…

Building A Team

Our key employees are valued as team members and their input matters. They are family and form the foundation of the company with me. They are rock stars who are doing more than just their job. They are conscientious, intuitive and continually hone their crafts . For summer help, we had two fantastic Jamaican ladies who never faltered. They didn’t miss a single day- not one call in. What made them special? Education, capacity and drive. Both were college educated, intelligent and quick on their feet. Plus, they left their home country and came here to work to pay for more education.

The entire staff was driven and educated. In addition, we had two high school students who shared the traits above. Neither of them called in once either. The trick is to eliminate the problems in your team quickly. Building a team is difficult when there are employees who bring drama to the table but is so easy when all hold one another accountable. You see, it can’t be just the boss keeping people in line. Team members need to hold their fellow members accountable. It creates balance and none of us wants to let the others down. Nurture your people, help them grow, listen to them, respect them, celebrate their achievements AND REWARD THEM. This is how you build a team.IMG_8406

Respect the Craft

“Respect the craft” is a term made famous by Tony Gemignani- an 11 time world pizza champion who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Pizza Expo in Vegas back in March. I was one of only two people who got to make a pie with him critiquing and it was an amazing experience. He misses nothing and I mean nothing.  The term and the experience inspire me to never settle and I have passed this experience onto our entire staff. If it’s not up to our standards, throw it out and let’s make another one. Many people have seen me throw a pizza straight into the garbage pail from the oven if it wasn’t right. To further refine our products,  in July, I went back to Brooklyn and Long Island to see if what we are serving was really up to par. It is. But that’s not enough. We continually look at all aspects of the pizza making process individually to ensure we are putting out the best possible product. One of my oldest pizza contacts sat down to discuss every aspect of our dough and sauce and I walked away with one clear change. The rest was on-point. Upon returning, we put these ideas into action and wala, we heard “this is the best pizza I’ve ever tasted” more frequently and people from the east coast say “that’s exactly how I remember it” more often than you would believe. Our techniques are continually evolving and we thank everyone who has been instrumental in this journey.

Restaurant owners must work together.

An observation that struck me just the other day- almost all restaurant owners go out and effectively inhabit their own island. They start a restaurant, work millions of hours, perform ridiculous feats of magic to keep afloat and for the most part, stand alone. What got me through this summer was visits to other restaurants to chat with the owner and visits from other restaurant owners. What you learn is that we are all experiencing the same thing. I walked into one kitchen to borrow some cheese and a worker had just quit without notice leaving the rest of the staff a man short on a Saturday. Then on another visit to another restaurant, I heard stories of losing a whole order on a table of 8 and not realizing it for an hour along with how that screwed up the entire night.  The normalization that occurred in speaking with them eased my nerves and I’m sure it helped them to hear my tales. By working together, we all win. It’s not like any one restaurant can put all the others out of business so I would like to go on record and suggest we all grab a beer somewhere and share our journeys. NOW, IMAGINE IF SEVERAL OF US WORKED IN THE SAME PLACE…

Social Media

Still a minefield full of competitors and angry friends of competitors. Nothing else could explain the libelous comments and continual bashing. Do you really think your time is better spent trying to hold us down than bettering your own product? An open offer: if you want to know how to improve your restaurant or online advertising results, stop in and ask for me. I will share what I have learned freely and then you can improve your product, advertising, whatever. This foray into anti-defamation attorneys is going to expose the culprits and be quite expensive and I’d rather have more friends than enemies. If you want to just arm wrestle, I’m always game. ;o)

Changes

We have learned quite a bit in 270 days. Many of these lessons prompted change. Some of the biggest are that our Sicilian Pie is only cooked in a pan and in our deck oven. The high heat of the wood-fired is simply too much for that thick of a crust. One of our pizzas was once called a “soupy delicious mess”. Not any longer. We used to try to cook everything on the pie but certain vegetables are too high in water content. Cooking them on the pizza at 800 degrees causes them to release all that water and form a soupy mess. These vegetables are added after the fact now and result in a far superior pizza. We had a guy say “we ruined his pizza” because we added fresh spinach and fresh tomato after the fact. No comment.

All of the changes to our processes, food selection, methods, etc. were driven by our customers who allowed us to strive and continually evolve. Thank you all!

5 Month checkup! Reflections on the first 150 days.

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.

Progress

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.

Customer Satisfaction

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.

 

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

 

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained” said a wise person once upon a time. This fact is absolutely true. Along with the risk comes the learning curve. A wood burning oven has a pretty steep curve and has taken some real trial-and-error to produce great pizza. I spent an entire 24 hours early on just rearranging the wood to see the effect on the floor and cooking times. Moving a pizza too early destroys it, waiting too long burns it and at 800 degrees plus, you cannot take your eye off it long. Thank you to all who have given us the opportunity to serve delicious pizza. To those we have failed by burning a pie or worse, popping a hole in it – which happens to the best of us in such a beast of an oven – we apologize. It will improve continually and thankfully, we can make another one.

One of the things I will never get used to is the venom of people who have had something as simple as too much water on their pizza from the 6 different veggies ordered cooking off in near 1000 degree heat, or those who come in with statements/questions like “the last owners failed, what makes you think you will succeed?” or “this isn’t NY, it’s Estes Park” and you can just feel the negativity. To those folks, I’d say don’t change from your favorite spot in town as your barbs will not be well received. Anyone who stands up and takes the risk business owners do is of a good cloth for it takes serious fortitude to bring a new taste to town. If you don’t like something, speak up right there rather than take shots at us on some social media platform and if you see me in the shop, let’s chat face-to-face. We’re human too and doing the absolute best we are able. Since we’ve only been open a month, all of the processes are not in place yet to make everything seamless. Make no mistake, they will be.

Food is supposed to be enjoyed and fulfilling. That’s what we’re here for- to make you smile when you take that first bite and realize that it’s so different from what you’re used to that you’re taken aback.

Lastly, a big thank you to all of our employees who are evolving with us and to the regulars who have been back time and time again. Our sole goal is to bring you authentic tastes you will find few places outside of New York City or Long Island.

Growing pains

The year is about to end and we got a very late start. The toughest time to start a business in Estes Park is winter and of course, that’s exactly what we did. What have we learned?

1- Estes Park has some of the realest people of any town I have ever been in long enough to really get to know people. They tell it straight and many are business owners so they understand the struggle. I am thankful for all of the suggestions and words of encouragement.

2- Wood burning pizza ovens are less forgiving than my Grandma- and that’s saying something. It’s a beast to learn and manage but produces the best tasting food imaginable.

3- Start small. We all have many ideas and to try to implement a bunch simultaneously is suicide without a huge team of people. The processes take some time to develop and constantly evolve. People ask every day if we have: salads, delivery, sandwiches, etc., Get one thing right and then add others. Right now, we are doing pizza.

4- There are people who would rather eat something delivered than go out for something extraordinary.

5- Not everyone is your customer. Accept that and move on.

6- If you’re willing to accept positive feedback, you have to be able to accept negative. And, you have to act on it. We have had many pieces of positive and negative feedback that are greatly appreciated. Remember, food is very personal. I’ve learned recently that not many people know what a cannoli is. Even fewer have heard of a garlic knot. So, we must educate and introduce. This is one hell of an opportunity and we will not squander it. If you’d like to know more about pizza or whatever we serve, come on in. Lastly, there are those who will just make nasty comments and they came to your business to do it because of whatever reason. Accept that and let go. Very few will remain customers but they present an opportunity to change perception.

7- Put yourself out there without fear. Nothing monumental is achieved without risk. Yeah, someone is definitely going to say your stuff sucks. That’s life. Those who see opportunity, come up with a game plan and take the shot are people I truly appreciate. Learning a new trade is wrought with risk but truly enjoyable when you master each task. The funny part is, you never really master a task, you simply become increasingly proficient, but don’t be afraid to look at how far you’ve come.

Thank you All for the opportunity and friendship. May your New Year be safe, prosperous and above all Healthy!

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions: I have found that the same questions are asked all the time have included them below.

The frequent questions are:

1- Are you really from New York? Yes, Born, Raised, Trained and Educated.

2- How long have you been here? 8 years.

3- Why did you move here? Because I love the mountains, wildlife and wanted to live somewhere our kids could afford to live. Anyone from Downstate NY understands what $12,000 a year in taxes feels like and many know even more. Yes, $12,000. A year. Increasing forever.

4- Did you build that oven? No, Angie, the owner of Picnic in the Park commissioned it and oversaw the build. It was her baby. I now take care of it the same way she did.

5- What makes a NY pizza a NY pizza? The dough formula, the unique sauce and the cheese blend. It has crust, some oil on top and is very unique in taste. Don’t believe me? Bring in any pie and we’ll do a side-by-side taste comparison.

6- Do you make your own dough? Yes, every day. It’s my formula and has evolved to fit the altitude and lack of humidity.

7- Do you make your own sauce? Yes, every day. Sauce is what makes the pie and I’m a fan of a spicy sauce. It wasn’t always that way, so I’ve had to tone it down a bit.

8- Do you have gluten free pizza? No. The crusts are pre-made and cost $8 each and are smaller than our smallest pie. Can you imagine the cost when spoilage is included? Me neither.

9- What is your smallest pizza? 14″ which is the large in most places. Our large is 18″

10- What is a Sicilian Pizza? It’s a rectangle or square that is first risen in a pan, then finished in the oven. It’s thicker than most but not Chicago style thick. It’s a specialty that has more sauce and more dough than any of our other pies.

11- Are you crazy opening up in November? Yes.

12- Do you have a website? Yes, http://www.estesparkpizza.com/

13- Can we order online? Yes, at https://mkt.com/antoniosnewyork

14- What’s your favorite topping? Meatball.

15- Jets or Giants? Jets.

16- Mets or Yankees? Yankees. Forever. Thurman Munson was my favorite player. When he died in that plane crash, I was devastated. He was my idol.

17- Soccer team? Colorado Rapids!