Passion and Processes Brings Customers In
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So let's just start with my first question. Calzone or pizza? What, what's best?
Well maybe since October, I should say calzone, but you know pizza pizza's, number one. You know, not just. For me, but for the world, for the country you know, I think every year it's either You know, pizza wins the top spotter or the burger, you know, so it goes back and forth.
But it's just like different styles of pizza, right? You got New York style, Detroit style, Sicilian, California style, you know, St. Louis and all these different styles of pizza, Chicago. You know, it depends on the day, depends on what pizza you want. And I think once in a while, that's where the calzone falls in.
When you took over Peppino’s from another owner, what was that journey like for you to arrive at the, where you are right now with pizza?
Yeah, so when I was a young child -you know, eight, nine years old. My, my uncle was in the pizza business and he worked for a, a long time operator. And then him and my father and his two brothers they went partnership into a pizzeria, the old school mall. It was in a mall. And as a child, when my mother would go to the mall, she'd dropped me off at the pizzeria and, and, and I would help and work with my uncle.
And you know, even as a young kid at 10 years old, it, to me, I was just really fascinated with the idea that, you know, you got this bag of flour and then, you know, all the guys are in the back and they're Mexican, they're rolling it, it goes into the cooler and, and then it goes out front and you know, something, it's made with their hands and you know, and you put these top, it goes in the oven. And the reaction as a young kid that I would see of people when they had the pizza and how, how pleasurable it was for them. To me it was it, it always stuck with me. The fact that you can make something. From, you know, all these different ingredients make it with your hands and then somebody is gonna enjoy it.
And, and that ultimate feeling when they got done eating and they would walk back by the counter and kind of just praise and talk to about how much they enjoyed it. That was just one of the big reasons why I sort of, Felt the passion of, of doing the pizza. So all through my years of growing up in the weekends or summers or holiday breaks you know, I grew up, up in you know, the family pizzeria and when I was 23 years old for a few years the pizzeria had closed.
And I was actually doing more construction work. and a friend of mine worked at the pizzeria and he, I went to his house one day and he was like, Hey, yeah, work at this pizza place and they're looking to sell. Ironically, I grew up two blocks away from Peppino’s. Lived there for 20 years and never went into Peppino’s and never stepped foot in there.
The first time I stepped foot in there was to go in and talk with the owner about purchasing. . That is great. And then so you, you purchased Peppino’s, like what was the change that you wanted to bring into Peppino’s that that would make it yours really? Well, you know, one Peppino’s had had a long history.
They were one of the older, it was open in ‘68 and I was aware of them. And again, I come from an immigrant family. You know, I wasn't until I was like 14 years old, I didn't even know that you could get food delivered to your house. You know we just didn't do that, you know from an immigrant family. We cooked at home. And if we did get food out of the home, it was from the family pizzeria. You know, so when I looked at Peppino’s they were doing things, you know, a little bit differently. They had a very, very small menu, very traditional old school pizzeria, they you know, they basically did pizza wings. I think they did two subs at the time. They didn't do calzones or strumis and they didn't do any pasta dishes or anything. So it was a very small menu. So right off the bat there was, one of the things we wanted to do was introduce of larger menu and additional.
When deciding on that larger menu, what was it that you wanted to add to that menu?
Yeah. You know, even with a family business, it was in a mall, so it was a very traditional pizzeria. So that, that establishment too had a very limited menu. It was, primarily pizzas. In the last few years, they just added the wings that wasn't even on the board. And, you know, there they sold a lot of calzones, to be honest with you. It was mostly cheese, pepperoni and calzones. And, and then they introduced wings. So they didn't have any of that.
Adding the additional menu options really came into play about what the consumer wanted. How do we get the consumer to come to the restaurant, you know more than once a week. And we felt that, you know, it felt that, you know, limiting it to just pieces, we would lose orders to other establishments that had other variety.
Tell me about the decision to add catering, but also how does that work with your pizzeria?
Yeah. You know, so catering, we started really pushing catering in probably 2008. As we started to just get random calls from, and really the catering was really pushed for the first decade of catering, was mostly corporate catering. You know we were, we were a traditional pizzeria. We didn't have a huge lunch business, so that was a way for us to bring in lunch dollars was to deliver the food to the c.
You know, back in the early two thousands, I think a lot of companies made a decision of when they're gonna have a meeting or lunch and learn or a seminar, they're not gonna break for lunch and allow people to leave and maybe they go and have a liquid lunch, right? Or people get in traffic and, and things happen.
And now they're, you know, their whole itinerary for the day is kind of screwed up. And so we started to see that there was a More of a trend for companies to want to have food delivered to keep everyone in house and, and to break and enjoy their food. So we really focused on the, on the lunch.
And you can never predict it, you know, today, for example, 10 30, they called ten eight. It was about 10 15. They called a local cable cable company and they wanted 40 pizza. For 1130 . Now, you know, luckily that happens a lot. You know, so we, we've developed the, the right infrastructure and, and the right pro procedures in place that we're able to actually accommodate that.
And you know, like I said, a lot of that happens a lot. We'll do a couple hundred pizzas just for a lunchtime deliveries. How do you prepare for something for a big order like that, that's coming at 10 15 for 1130, of course that's gonna like disrupt the whole side. If you're not prepared for it, that's gonna disrupt your whole flow for the day.
How what have you learned throughout the years to be able to deal with that?
Yeah so one that happens more often than not and sometimes it's not a 40 pizza order, maybe it's 15, but two. did it. Yeah. So now that it's 30, we just established that during that lunch hour, you know, or, or just prior to lunch, we have our dough maker.
We make sure that he starts his dough at like nine, his shift. And now, so in a situation like today, he came out to Dough station and worked on the pizza line. , you know, so that we had that extra pair of hands to help with the oven or even the production. So what we'll do is just kind of slide some people around to make sure that we've got people in the building during those times when you might get those last minute calls.
And then even on the catering side what we've developed was a last minute menu. So people will call up and, you know, they want lasagna or tenderloin, you know, with a three hour notice. You know, so then we have to steer them to, you know, anything that's under, you know, 24 hour notice.
There's a specific menu options that they can choose of. And those are options you know, with Red Sauce or Alfredo, or Ricks or vodka sauce where we have Mother Batch. That, you know, we could absorb to utilize. So it's stuff that's on our everyday menu that we have ready and available. And then once we kick that out, then we reproduce and to replace that product that we just ran through.
What do you consider the most important and lesson or lessons that you've learned from running Peppino’s? Things that you didn't know that if you knew would you would do things differently?
You know, one thing that always comes to mind of what I've learned and, and I actually learned this pretty quickly and. I think it's one of the reasons for our success at our continued growth is everyone thinks that you're a business owner. You don't have a boss, but the reality is every customer is your boss.
Every customer is requesting something and they want it done a specific way. And even though it's your specific way, but you know, consistency is always an issue with staffing and everything else, right? So once you develop a product, then people call back for it. They wanted a certain way. So in the end of the day, as a business owner, every one of the customers that calls you every single day is your boss.
How do you keep that consistency when you are not there? When the team is there to act on your behalf, how do you make sure that they are providing the same level of service that if John was in, in the shop would give to that customer?
So, I, I think it's a couple things. Obviously number one is training. It's not practical to expect your staff to execute in a manner that they weren't prepared and trained to execute it. So training is critical. But I think one of the bigger things is I see other, you know, restaurateurs or other people in other businesses that are successful.
I think one common denominator is, and people end up feeding off it, is the staff sees and reads your. when they see that the owner's passionate and cares and, and, and, and is really passionate about the product from the way we purchased the product, the way we processed the product. You know, especially our, our dough.
Our dough is done in, in a, you know, much different way. We record, you know, the temperature, the temperature, the flower, the temperature of the room, the temperature outside. Our, our recipe changes every. And, and, and it's built into a baker's formula. So that way when that dough is start mixing at the end of the batch, it weighs, it, it degrees, it temps out at about 71 degrees.
That way it can age for three days. People who work at other places and they see our processes they start to understand how much passion is put into it. And, and just by osmosis and just you know, wanting to match that passion. And I, I think that's really critical and that's been a key component.
You know, over the 25 years we've been blessed with having just the fantastic... You know, still today, you know, we've got about 33, 35 employees. 18 or so have, have been five plus years. I think seven or eight or 10 or 12 plus years. So in this industry to keep people a decade.
It's not easy. You've gotta treat 'em well. And, and you know, they gotta wanna come to work. And I always say to my managers, you know, when there's somebody in there that's not a team player, the last thing we want is for staff to look out the window and see so-and-so walking in and they say, I gotta work with him or her today.
It's already put the. In, in a bad situation. You know, so we try to hire people to have a, a team mentality. tell you, when I look at resumes my first instinct is, you know, if they put down that they've played sports that's something I I really give credence to. I think in, in your youth you can learn a lot about playing the team sport.
You know, the discipline of being there every day, being on time, knowing that your teammates do you right and your left of you are really on you. And, you know, maybe if you didn't have, you know, the best home. typically coaches will be able to lead you into the right direction of of certain things in terms of, you know, being a, a, a team player, understanding that others are counting on you, and I think that's really important.
What has been the secret sauce, in attracting the right type of talents and to you - to Peppino’s?
I'll tell you what, prior to Covid,we rarely ran ads for employment. It's very rare. People would just walk in. And, and you know, a lot of times we need 'em and we'd interview 'em and, you know, we'd put 'em in file or what have you. So, yeah. And Covid hit . You know, we have a running joke here in the northeast of, in, in New York. You know, you talk about the employment pool, you know, me and a couple restaurants who are friends of mine you know, we joke about how locally it's the employment puddle and, and Covid hit, and it became the, you know, the employment pothole, even smaller
Yeah, I, you know, and it's every industry, right? It's every industry, no matter who you talk to. But we again, are fortunate, you know, and, and I've got friends and I know some other people in the business that had to go to a five-day work week had to shutter on certain hours. You know so we've been lucky.
We've been fortunate that we've been able to maintain a team you know, during the height of covid, things got a little touchy. But we were able to maintain our hours and our days of operation all the way through.
From a business perspective, how do you value trade shows and the competitions like pizza, pasta, and why do you go there and what is the value that you gain from being there?
You know, there's, there's a lot to unpack there because there is so much value. You know, there's guys that I know that have gone and even the one that we, I go every year in Vegas as well. Yeah. They go just to get away and have a good time. I've always looked at as a business trip and, and I still enjoy myself but the trade show itself. You know, you're able to see, you know, some of the newer technology that's out, whether it be tech itself, answering services, accounting software… all these different tools that can help you streamline your business and make you a better operator. There's marketing you know, the first four or five years I went into the Vegas one I would even take some of the classes and go to seminars. Yeah. I haven't done that last couple years, but those were beneficial.
You're learning from industry experts and, you know so that's on the trade show. On the floor, the technology, the equipment, everything else. You meet a lot of good people, like-minded people, people that are as passionate as you are. So some trade secrets. You're having trouble working on a specific recipe or dough.
There's people you can email now or even talk through social media. It's friendly competition entering the competition. You know, I'm really proud of my product. So the first year I entered in 2016 in Vegas I actually won second in the world. Mm-hmm. uh, With my pizza that pizza today. Still, we still.
It's almost a $20 medium pizza. There's a lot of, you know, more expensive ingredients on it, but we sell close to a hundred a week for a pizzeria to sell, you know, a $20 medium pizza. And so a hundred of a week, just a testament to to that pizza. So one, you know, I've always been competitive person, so you get into them and it's a lot of networking.
You know, I wanted to see what my product actually, how that stands up, you know? So the first time we went we won number, you know, two in the world. And the first place winner is, you know, out of Brooklyn and. , you know, he, he's won, I don't know, seven or eight different championships. He makes a fantastic product but able to meet with him and, and talk with him, and he's extremely knowledgeable and there's many, many others.
I think we've entered in uh, seven or eight pizza competitions you know, came second in, in the world in the first, and we won second, third, first in the northeast in the past. And I think every one I was in the top seven or eight except for one where my door didn't perform well and I was, I ended up like number 60 or something,
But you know, sometimes you learn from those as. Of course, you know when you lose I think sometimes you learn more than when you win. Absolutely. Because winning is just, just confirming what you've done, but losing is telling you how you can improve that. Absolutely. That, that is great. And do you ever use those awards to promote the restaurant itself?
To like put that in, in, in a in a local newspaper or anything like that that will get people to come out? Or is that just the byproduct of having a good, a good pizza that actually people will order more of that? Like is there a promotional value in those competition? Absolutely promotional. When I won second in the world in Vegas in 2016 our local food writer, he wrote the article.
He saw me post it on Facebook. He wrote, he had the article out before I got back to my hotel . And that was 2016. It was all the elections and everything else, and for the entire. That story was the number one story ahead of Hillary Clinton, Trump, wow. And everything else. And it was the biggest story he's ever written.
It was shared over 20,000 times. So for, you know, a local area, like a Syracuse, you know, size of it was pretty substantial. You know, this past competition with the calzone, the writer picked up the story and calzone sales were up 400%. and wow that lasted 400% lasted just over a week. And we're still over 180% above what we were doing prior to the the article.
And it's not just the winning calzone actually, you know, that was about 30% of the sales people were just ordering calzones in general. And it was kind of nice to see because. As we talked in the beginning Cal, Cal Soldier, sort of almost like that underrated item. And, and many people have never had it.
They've heard about it. They've seen 'em, they just never did. And, and you know, reading the story and, and hearing all the hype about, you know, the win and things like that I think it got people to wanna come out and, and try it. And they did. You know it, the reach it has, especially today with social media.
Within the first week there was a couple people that they got off the plane at the local airport and, you know, maybe they're hungry. And they came straight from the airport to FiliPeppino’s to to eat, you know, and that's what's nice with the internet. You don't have to be on the major thoroughfare anymore, you know, with websites and, and, and review sites and things of that nature.
And with Uber Eats and Google Maps You can just about find anywhere. Well, you can, you can find anywhere. So they, you know, gets people to read articles. When we, one second in the world, we had a location in downtown Syracuse and I couldn't tell you how many times people would come in and they, and they'd recognize me from the article and they'd say, yeah, we were driving up 81 going to Canada, and we decided to stop in Syracuse because of this.
You know, so it has a long reach. You know, I wouldn't lie if there's, you know, sort of a chip on the shoulder, a little bit of bragging rights involved, right? When you're a competitor you know, you wanna win, and that's of course, sort of confirmation to a degree. But you know, that's what I tell my staff too.
I go, guys - people are coming in for this calzone. They're expecting the best calzone they've ever had.
John, two questions I have for you before I let you go. One is - Pizza has been probably the longest running product that had been doing delivery for long time. What have you seen that changed from your previous MO model of doing delivery to the post covid model of doing delivery? Do you use a lot of third party delivery, and if so, what? What are your challenges? What are the benefits that you're seeing in the, in the change in the past decade?
Yeah, we do do third party. I think it's a necessary evil, if I could say, I call, we call 'em the third party disruptors, you know, and at this point we talked about, you know, staffing and everything.
Well, there's so many delivery jobs today you know, from Instacart delivering groceries to delivering food for Ubers and things of that nature. You know, you're talking about. a delivery job that is entry level, that is a second job. But you're also talking about, well then you gotta have a reliable vehicle too, so that employment pool starts to shrink.
And you know, at this point we don't have enough in in-house staff. To be able to deliver all the food. The other benefit is that, you know, there's areas that with our in-house drivers we wouldn't go to because it's a little bit too far. You know, somebody orders 30 hours with the food, you're paying your driver, you know, whatever, you know, 14 bucks an hour, let's say, plus tips.
If they're gone an hour, you know, 20 minutes, 25 minutes there waiting for the money exchange and back half of your sale went to the labor. It's not a recipe for success. But having, being able to utilize the third party drivers were able to expand our delivery zone. So, and that's how that's helped in that.
With your experience in the restaurant industry what is one piece of advice that you would give someone that wants to open a pizzeria? What would you tell yourself before you started Peppino’s about things that you should know about?
Yeah, the first thing I would say is if you've never worked in one before, you open your own go in, put at least eight months to a year into a, a well volumed pizzeria. And if you've only worked at a slower pizzeria before you open your own, go work at a busier one. How you do things in a busier pizzeria are much, much different than in a slower pizzeria.
There's a light you. So that would be the first advice. And if you have worked and, and you are knowledgeable I think the number one ingredient is remember that the customer is your boss and work with passion.
Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for Restaurants, helping them gain and retains their loyal customer base.