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Building a Pizzeria: Pizzicletta, One Year Young

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One year in, lots of pies ordered. [Photograph: Chris Hinkle]

I've always loved July: warm weather, long days, watermelon, pools, camping, sweet corn, tomatoes, the start of monsoon season, ice cream trucks. Now as a business owner, I have another reason to love July—it will announce another year of business at Pizzicletta and, today, July 5th, marks year one.

I've certainly learned a lot during this first year, and as I've tried to suggest with this post's title, I still have a lot to learn. I had many expectations one year ago. Some were fulfilled, some were not. There were certainly many surprises, both good and bad. I've been candid with all the Slice readers while writing this series and today I want to talk about Pizzicletta's highs and lows, future outlook, and the unexpected joys of turning a little corner in Flagstaff into a destination for great pizza.

The Business

I will try not to discuss the business nuts and bolts too intensely, but this series has been about Building a pizzeria," which should include as much about running a business as it does about the final product, pizza.

Expectations

Everyone is advised to write a business plan before starting a new venture and I would also highly recommend it. It demands that you clarify your thoughts, crunch a lot of numbers, and think critically about whether your ideas can be profitable. Because let's face it, if you aren't profitable and don't have a reserve of cash to feed a business that is always in the red, you will eventually close up shop, no matter how passionate you are or how much you believe in your concept. At the same time, I haven't looked at 95% of my business plan in over a year. Concepts, growth, and daily business operations evolve based on the amount of business, functionality of your space, staff, customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and your own abilities, amongst many, many other factors. The 5% I do glance at are my cash-flow predictions. Are sales as good as I expected? Are my costs of goods, wages, and overhead falling within the predicted percentages based on sales? Can I pay down the principal on my loans? Essentially, am I making money? With one year complete, I recently crunched the final numbers fora year of business and was quite pleased. Cost of goods are within a percentage of my original prediction. Wages and operating expenses are both about 5% below predictions. That leaves an extra 10% of profit, which I've used to pay off about 50% of a six-digit loan and also to reinvest in the business with new equipment or investing into my space with small, but valuable remodeling. Financial expectations? Exceeded.

Future Outlook

When I was staring at lake mud and writing science papers in my former career, I never had to think about how business' grow, adapt, and become more efficient. Now, a day does not go by where I don't ask myself, what can I do better and how can I grow my business? Growth can be defined in many ways, however. For me, I view it as a way to improve service, employee happiness, and eventually, sales. From my customers stand point, it seems growth involves expansion, whether it's about a larger location, a second location (most often in their hometown), taking over the bike shop next door, or adding pasta to the menu. These concepts of growth rarely enter my mind and I don't believe it's due to lack of ambition. With the business as young as it is, my approach to growth is more about maintaining and improving on what we do now. So, I have a few go-to responses when customers discuss growth that usually involves me discussing how much I love the character of my current space, my lease (KILLER value for 5 years, with option to renew under same terms for 4 more years), my desire to do one thing as best I can, and the fact that scientists have yet to clone a human being. After all, the business is profitable, our reputation is building, the vast majority of people appreciate my model of simplicity, so why fix what isn't broken? Even after my short rant, my of my customers do turn their head as if to say, "but what if!?"

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Can't get too many photos of this oven. [Photograph: Elaine Hawk WakaWaka]

"Growth" for Pizzicletta at the moment is focused on improving and adding to the products we make in-house (fresh mozzarella, burrata, specials, house-cured meats, and gelato, to name a few), maintaining our high level of customer service, better-training staff to be more knowledgeable about our wines, meats, and cheeses, and, overall, becoming more efficient with our space. New equipment has also been an avenue for growth. For example, for Pizzicletta's birthday, I bought a Berkel 330M manual fly wheel prosciutto slicer. Have you seen one? They're amazing. My first meat slicer was the one piece of equipment I'd been unhappy with. I simply did not have the confidence that I'd be able to present antipasti as it should be, with razor thin meats being the showcase. With the new slicer, I'll be adding an antipasta plate that will include a range of cured meats, a rotating selection of Italian cheeses, house made mozzarella or burrata, and house made pickles, relishes, or marinated vegetables. A new refrigerator purchased in February has allowed me to up my dough production, which has enabled us to crush just about every sales record we had set last summer. Growth is happening here, but remember, the name of the series is "Buidling A Pizzeria."

Staffing—Expectations vs. Reality

"Finding good employees in this town is one of the most difficult aspects of owning a restaurant." - Local restauranteur.

After consulting with many business owners in Flagstaff, I had expected being an employer to be an uphill battle: never satisfied with performance, high turnover, mostly seasonal help. Happily, this aspect of the business has been very positive and easier to manage than I had anticipated. One aspect that makes it easier for me, I believe, is that I have only six employees and they were attracted to Pizzicletta not just for a job, but because of its origins, the space, and the energy emanating from our 650 sq ft. In fact, Scott, who has been my right hand man since day one, discovered Pizzicletta through THIS series! However, I believe it took me longer than it should have to realize there are multiple reasons to really invest in my employees, as well as solicit as much feedback as possible. I've refocused on this aspect of being an employer during the past few months and by doing so, and showing my staff that they mean a lot to me and that the success that we've been having should be credited to them as well, they too have committed to making Pizzicletta better even if it's not a career for them. That's gold for all of us, because they bring that energy, the story of this place, and a smile to our customers who, more often than not, leave ridiculously happy. It's reflected in their comments, online reviews, and their tipping percentage (gratuity averages around 25% most nights). Of course, my staff and I have a lot of fun too. When this place is humming, we are all on that high that people in the restaurant industry often grow an addiction too. So, staffing has been one aspect where expectations were turned on their head.

Life as the Chef/Owner

Perhaps you're thinking, "Wow, it sounds like its all been sunshine and lollipops!" Ha! Hardly! As I've stated above, there have been many aspects of the business that have exceeded expectations (and many more I've not discussed), but it's not been easy. There have been a lot of bumps and realizations that have been difficult to accept: I've learned that having a relationship is nearly impossible. I have moments of EXTREME fatigue.I rarely see family. I have very little time to slow down and take it all in. I take criticism way too personally. I opened Pizzicletta knowing that the first few years would be tough and entirely consuming. This expectation was met and exceeded. Running this place can take a lot out of me at times. My staff sees it. My family hears it. My dog gets lonely. Fatigue gets to a point at moments that I feel outside of myself and I have to mask it because it will inevitably affect service and the vibe of the restaurant. Recall, Pizzicletta is small and everything is on display.

The topic of a "full commitment" brings up a term that I've never used, but will say anyway... the "Pizzicletta difference." Believe me, I hate that kind of corporate jargon (this place is anything but corporate) and when my staff reads this, they will surely get a laugh, but it is different in here. I've only experienced and witnessed it in a handful of other restaurants in my life and they are always chef-owned restaurants, but it's our customers who really bring definition to what otherwise sounds corporate.

I was flattered this past week when Sue and Henry, readers of Slice, were up from Phoenix. It was a bit of an emotional moment when I came to check on them as Sue looked straight into my eyes and said, "I feel like I already know you from your writing. We are so happy to be here." I certainly don't want to take anything away from that moment, because it was touching to have someone pause and genuinely connect and thank you, but I hear it constantly, whether it's in the restaurant, while I grab coffee down the street, or dinner on my night off. It's given me pause to hear that people are happy I've left geology, that I took a risk, that I found myself in Flagstaff many years ago following a trip to Italy. Geez, I thought I was just in this to make pizza! However, the story of this place has turned it into something larger than I knew was coming. People really love that aspect of a business and the connections and comments confirms to me that despite bumps in the road and, while I am still climbing the learning curve, Pizzicletta is most certainly on the right track. It's a large part of what a chef-owned restaurant should be - a small group of people dedicated to creating a great experience and food for their customers.

So thank you all for following along as the story of this place continues and I hope you will find yourself in Flagstaff some day. It's been an amazing year "Building this Pizzeria." I look forward to many more to come.

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