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.
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.
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.
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…
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)
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!
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.
Here are some of our frequently asked questions regarding our Estes Park Pizza restaurant with a few tongue-in-cheek answers:
Well, what has always been a dream is now a reality! We were cleared to open back in mid-November but took our time getting the word out. There are so many facets when opening a new restaurant – especially in a remote location like Estes Park, CO – that one must really get their proverbial ducks in order before setting out the shingle. Through word of mouth and some select Facebook ads, we managed to get in enough folks to test the processes, refine what we thought were good ways to go about certain tasks and above all, learn how a wood burning, brick oven of this magnitude operates. That has been the most fun of the initial month open.
The beautiful fire you see above is very finicky. Just when you believe you understand it, there was something you didn’t know and of course it bites you. In a traditional oven, you have plenty of time before things burn. In this oven, I could burn your pizza in 20 seconds or less. No exaggeration at all. We’ve had a pizza out of here in two minutes and change. That’s an awful lot of cooking in a short time and you best believe it will make a fool of you quickly.
Enough of the technical aspects, onto the food. We started with big ideas of many products and quickly learned that pizza in several varieties- Sicilian, NY Round and Margherita was more than enough to start with.