It’s hard enough to have one restaurant that is well run with great food let alone three as well as a catering company. However, that’s not even half of what impressed me here. Brian Pieri has managed to accomplish all that while showing the type of leadership, management, and emphasis on team and overall community that I have only seen in the absolute best run organizations. Here we take a look into what has made this work.
Jason Ranalli: What made you want to start your own business? What were you doing before this?
Brian Pieri: I was a financial advisor for American Express for 10 years. I got into that business because it offered me an independent channel to work in sort of “entrepreneurial light” type environment. You didn’t have to build the infrastructure or anything but they give you a channel to sort of work by yourself. Do your own thing, make as much money and build your business as big as you want or as small as you want to fit your lifestyle.
So it appealed to me and that’s what I did for the first 10 years. I kind of had that mindset coming out of college only because I grew up in a family that had a dad who was an entrepreneur and a grandfather who was an entrepreneur so it was sort of ingrained in my head to go work for myself. So I think that’s really what set me off on that path. This was kind of getting my feet wet, but doing it under an umbrella of a company that sort of it sets everything up for you.
JR: So what flipped the switch to go from financial advisement to the restaurant business?
BP: Well, I really didn’t like having that company lay out a path out for me because you start to realize that you walk to their beat. You get to make a lot of decisions on your own and have a little bit of variability in how you do things but it’s very limited. I always wanted to be a restaurateur. As a financial advisor I was always planning out my financial goals and one of my retirement goals was to own my own restaurant and be that cliché of serving wine to your guests and talking about wine.
So I said if I’m going to do this I’m going to do this now because you realize that at 60 you’re probably not going to start opening up restaurants. It’s not the relaxing business it can look like from the outside.
JR: When exactly did you make this shift?
BP: 2009, so we’re going on eight years that I’ve been in the restaurant business now full-time.
JR: A lot of small business when they’re getting started have parts at the beginning that are very much a struggle to get the ball rolling and build any kind of lasting momentum. At what point did you feel that you started to have things under control?
BP: I’m not even sure I’m at that point now.
JR: Even with three restaurants?
BP: In the restaurant business, and I’m sure in a lot of other business that you run on your own you always have a little anxiety. You may look at the door and hope guests show up and that someone is there to open the door for them or wonder if tonight is the night it doesn’t open. Today might be the day you found out that a way bigger operator is moving into town.
Operationally speaking, I feel that we hit a point of relative comfort about a year in. You start to make a little bit of money, you’re starting to be able to pay the bills without having to worry about it, so it’s that operational equilibrium where you feel you’ve achieved something. But there is always a little bit of anxiety that one more thing is going to come down the pipe, either a curveball that you weren’t expecting or the economy is going to change, something like that.
JR: As an owner, how did you manage to stay on top of all the various types of jobs that need to be done in order to run a restaurant without really knowing at least initially how to do them all?
BP: My only restaurant experience was a dishwasher at the local country club when I was 15 years old. I really had no unique skills to bring in terms of the turning out food or the presentation or service of the restaurant. It was a lot of surrounding myself with talented people. I know it’s a clichéd thing to say but surround yourself with smart people.
JR: It’s true.
BP: I also think that the biggest thing that sometimes people miss with that is to surround yourself with really talented people and let them be talented. Don’t let them be what you want; let them be what they are good at. That was really what I told myself from the beginning to make up for all my shortcomings. I think I’m a good evaluator of character, I’m a good evaluator of work ethic, but you have to have a little bit of faith when it comes to your ability to really cook a good meal or to provide a good guest experience.
JR: As an owner you have to have that higher level view because you’re the one steering the ship. How do you manage to maintain that view without getting trapped in the weeds of all the lower level operations?
BP: I think it starts with hiring the right people, but I think that it’s also your mindset. It’s having a vision of where you want to be the next day. When you run your own business, sometimes the next day is almost an insurmountable challenge because you think of all the things you have to get done.
In the beginning, I was bussing tables, I was helping the hostess and I was running around like a maniac. I probably was exerting way too much effort because I also didn’t know what I was doing so I wasn’t being very efficient.
JR: That reminds me a little of that show Restaurant Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay where he discovers that part of the problem of a ten year old restaurant is that the owner is still washing dishes rather than managing and leading the place.
BP: Right, I completely agree and I think it’s great when there is that owner-occupied model and the owner is out every night on the floor bussing tables, waiting tables and there is certainly a lot of successful businesses that operate that way. But I wanted to go a bit further and build a business. I wanted to focus on the overall brand and I wanted to focus on the bigger picture in the town that I was in and to do that you have to carve out time to make those changes.
When you make a little bit of money you have to be you one who sacrifices. In the beginning, you make no money. You don’t draw a paycheck unless everything is being paid and then some. There are times where you say: I can probably start paying myself now but I would rather expand my people and I would rather hire more talent so that when I do decide to open a second place I’m not one personnel loss away from disaster.
I’m going to guess that we have one of the largest management structures for a restaurant in our area after seeing how other people operate. I decided that you have to really invest in your people. It probably pushed my expense further than I had to in order to give myself the go-ahead to open up a second place.
JR: I also noticed that you were sending some of your employees abroad for travel? Can you expand on that?
BP: Yes, so just about every year since 2011 which is our second calendar year in business, we would send away at least two or three of our leaders to somewhere. Half is just a reward trip, a thanks for the hard work and to unplug a little bit. However, the other half is to learn part of our brand and what we are trying to put out to our customers in terms of brand. We need to understand where the brand originates from
We try to stand out in the business where there is a lot of the same vendors and the same type of things. People like to eat what they eat and it’s easier to follow the crowd in my business. We’re trying to stand out in what we offer our customers but also how we work within the staff.
JR: I don’t know any restaurants that do that for their staff.
BR: There is a lot of turnover in our business – you can send someone on an expensive trip and then perhaps he comes back and decides to take a job down the street because he can get more money.
I just decided to take that leap of faith, went to my guys and said I want to invest in you and put a little bit of money where my mouth is. I’m not trying to invest in you by having a nice restaurant and things that are all mine. I want you to have things that are yours; your program to run and your trip to go on to discover your ideas you want to bring back to the brand. It’s been very beneficial and I have had guys that have been working for with me for 7-8 years.
JR: That seems to be great retention for the restaurant business.
BP: You know, it provides us with the stability that helps us to have the opportunity to grow.
Jason Ranalli: What was one thing you did or thing that happened that gave you a huge boost in your progress somehow?
Brian Pieri: You know, I think in the beginning it was having a mission statement of really trying to do things uniquely.
The lack of experience in the restaurant business generally was not an asset for me personally. However, the few areas where I felt that it was, were challenging a lot of the preconceived notions on how things are done. There are a lot of preconceived notions of how things are supposed to be: the culture of a restaurant, the culture of its employees, the way the owner is to his staff and I really had no experience.
I took the culture that came from my family, from the example of my parents, from past business ventures that I have done and just my own personality. I decided I was just going to use what I know and implement that and I think that that helped us to stand out not just on the staff trips but on other operational items as well. We paid people more than everybody else I would see advertising for help. There’s the chance I might make a lot less money but I’m going to have a manager who is going to be with me for 3,4,5,6 years versus every six months wasting my time and energy looking for new people because of just trying to really focus on the bottom line.
Having a business brain versus a restaurant brain turned out to be an advantage. A lot of time you run into “restaurant people” and they don’t really understand the side of the business that focuses on margins, branding, and marketing. I felt that that’s where my brain was excelling at rather than the technical skills needed to be working in a restaurant kitchen.
We became profitable pretty quick. We had maintained cash flow, we worked on budgets, and we had declining budgets for ordering things right out of the gate only because I didn’t know what else to do. So I just focused on the things I did understand and then when you look back you can see we didn’t have exorbitant costs in certain areas of the business.
We managed payroll like a business as opposed to based on feelings and emotions. Everything was based on numbers and statistics and we had working models – not perfect, but we went down that road and I think that gave us a little bit of an advantage in the beginning. We were able to set things up right, fine tune that, replicate it and then we opened our second and third restaurant.
JR: So to summarize, the success was not having so much of a restaurant mind but more of a business mind.
BP: Yeah, and as odd as it sounds I think my lack of experience actually was an asset. While I know that sounds a little bit funny and I don’t recommend that as a way to go down different business avenues I think that gave us a unique way to do things and it worked.
JR: Alright, so on the flip side, what was something that either as a business or an entrepreneur that you look at as a mistake or would’ve done differently?
BP: I think I second guessed myself a lot in the beginning with hiring. You wanted to find people with long resumes and all the names on those resumes that you wanted to see and say, “oh, this guy used to work for so-and-so, this guy trained under this guy.” I didn’t pay attention to my instinct and hire people whom your gut tells you is a good person such as this young guy who is going to be aggressive or this young girl who really wants to develop into something great.
I made some questionable hiring decisions against gut feelings and they backfired. If you lose a high-up person in your organization it sets you back. We probably had around two or three of those over the years. I’m sure I probably have two or three more but we made a conscious choice to invest more in the quality of the person than the quality of the resume. Surround yourself with people who are loyal and passionate versus stocking the names of former employers.
JR: How do you as an entrepreneur, a business owner work through any kind of fear that you have?
BP: Well, to be honest with you, I think that the essence of being an entrepreneur is your disposition toward fear. You know, it’s the reason I think people cross that line and go from a more secure path or more known path into more unknown or unsecure.
I think we all develop our own coping mechanisms. I try to always maintain a sort of circling back to perspective. I think that’s your past experiences in your life – the challenging ones, the tragedies and the good ones. I think that your perspective gets to a point that you can handle the fears of the day to day.
I could drive myself up a wall wondering what if we had three slow January days in a row and then payroll is coming up or what if my manager quits. So it’s a little bit of focusing on the things you can control. I can do the best I can to brand, market and promote my restaurant and have the best staff and service. So it’s reminding yourself that things outside of your control are not worth wasting a whole lot of fear on and then it’s just having perspective.
JR: Since you have such a large staff across three restaurants and a catering business you’re a manager but you’re also the person out front leading everything. What would you say are your characteristics of leadership that have led you to be a successful leader?
BP: I think the number one thing is does your staff believe you truly care about them, not about the things that they produce or the things that they oversee. Do they honestly understand that you care about their well-being and their dreams because as an owner, sometimes you are so focused on departments, numbers and margin. When you really boil it down, those are all your things and it’s your business and your responsibility.
But sometimes you have to really make sure that your staff understands that you’re not just interested in increasing margin or increasing your revenue. It’s how is this person progressing in their career? What are their career goals that you are helping them attain and what are their personal goals?
You know, we spend a lot of time with each other in the restaurant business, so it’s understanding their home life and their financial goals. I was a financial advisor for 10 years so my guys all get annoyed because three times a year I give them their one-on-one lecture about saving into this and doing that and stop smoking and put six dollars a day into this.
JR: I can’t think of too many owners or managers at least in the restaurant business that would take the time to do that.
BP: Yeah, and it’s not just coming by and saying, “is this done”, or “is that done” which is the stuff I have to ask as a manager. It’s more along the lines of, “how is the wife? How are the kids? How are we doing on the smoking thing that we’re trying to give up?”.
A lot of the guys who work in kitchens and restaurants smoke cigarettes. My guys want to go outside and take cigarette breaks all day and things like that. One day I’m walking by and I said, “guys, I don’t want to regulate your time, but I will give you $1000 cash if you stop smoking for six months.” And I just thought they were going to laugh it off.
One guy actually did it and sure enough I had to go back and draw a thousand dollars and give it to him. It then became a thing. Over the years six guys have quit smoking and these are guys that were chain-smoking two packs a day. It cost me more money than I thought and I really didn’t think it out but there are are six guys who no longer smoke, their financial lives are going to improve, their productivity at work is going to improve, my bottom line will probably improve because I invested $6000 to help them out.
That’s really just an example of my mentality. They are my people and we are all in this together. I think it’s having that relationship with your staff and then also pushing them to reach their potential. If you look back in your life you might be able to find a parent, a coach, somebody who didn’t just always make you feel good but always made you feel that you can go 20 percent further and that they believe in you.
JR: It’s really like a mentorship.
BP: And just the act of believing in somebody is a powerful thing. If you believe that your manager can go from running your small site to managing your whole organization or the chef can go from a sous-chef at one place to running his own show I want to let him know that I believe he can. You know, it gets people out of bed with a little more energy.
JR: Above and beyond all the relationships internal to the restaurant, how, did you go about building the massive network of people outside the restaurant such as reliable food purveyors, folks that build your website the way you want, etc?
BP: You know, it was a challenge in the beginning but I’ll tell a funny story about Stone Rose before it became what it is now. It was a really, really run down old mill bar. It opened at 7 in the morning, it was a shot and a beer kind of place and the walls were orange from 20 years of smoking. Really run down.
At some point we have to get ahead the menus and things like that so we can start having promotional materials. I would reach out randomly to friends in the business and say, “Can you send me who your best wine contacts are?” We would also reach out to wine vendors and say, “Hey, I’m new in the business, we want to buy some wine, can you come by?”
Half of them would stop by and we would never hear from them again because they would take a peek of this disgusting little upper avenue place and think, “this guy is not really worth my time.”
So you really learn quick that the people who did believe in your business were very valuable and you have to build deep relationships. We just try to really be different.
In the restaurant business a lot of vendors are running around chasing checks all day and trying to get accounts up to speed. Again, the business guy in me said, “let’s be the best customer for all these people, let’s be the big clients, let’s buy a lot from the people who treat us well, let’s pay them on time or early as we can so that they say, ” this guy over at Stone Rose is our best customer.”
We were as good as we could be to the people who believed in us enough to show up. It progressed from being this little guy on the block that couldn’t get a vendor to show up to a point where folks always stop by now. At this point we have become some of the biggest customers for some of the wine purveyors in Montgomery County.
JR: I would think and that’s kind of how you would leverage it for a lot of different avenues when you’re meeting people, right?
BP: Yeah, and the restaurant business is very connected. You’d be surprised how many vendors popped into 25 different restaurants in the city so they know the manager that’s on the move or the chef that’s on his way out the door or the place that is about to close. So you realize that by joining those networks that you kind of entered this communication ecosystem that’s a little strange and a little gossipy. We just try to be really working those relationships – be nice, treating everybody well.
JR: Be the better man.
BP: Be the better man. Let’s pay on time, let’s be that customer that’s not beating down the door, the owners not hiding and saying, “I’ll pay next week, the checks in the mail.”
It’s a little bit of the golden rule as hokey as that sounds, but it kind of works out. That’s how we find everybody.
You have a couple good vendors who refer you to the person in town who is a great website developer who then comes in and we pay them to develop our website. When they come into my restaurant I’ll buy them something or send them a bottle of wine. You would think it would be the reverse where they come in and spend a lot of money because I am a customer of theirs. I tried to always look at it the backwards way. We have a relationship. Just because I paid you $5000 for a website doesn’t mean now I should expect you to come in and spend a lot of money here. I would love if you do, but I’m still going to treat you like you are now on my team because I need you to look at my website and say “I’ll do a good job for this guy.”
JR: That personality trait that you have for wanting to follow the golden rule and be good to others, vendors etc. – was that something that was learned or was something that innately within you from childhood?
BP: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think it’s very hard to find somebody who is polite and nice to people. I saw the way my father did business and the way that he treated everybody and you end up emulating what you see growing up. When you’re nice to people life is a lot easier. It’s better to be the guy doesn’t get caught up in all the BS and doesn’t get caught up in the little grievances.
JR: I’ll admit it took me longer to let that stuff go but that’s when I really started seeing success.
BP: And it’s an ever working skill because somebody at times will push your patience and make you go a few steps backwards on that front.
Jason Ranalli: So you have three restaurants now, a catering company, I think you sell wine – do you sell your own drinks too I think?
Brian Pieri: We have cobranded with a few companies – the distillery boom in Pennsylvania has been pretty massive so we’ve cobranded with some local distillers to do our own brand of vodka. We are doing infused vodkas and now we are starting to work with a local brewer and a local vineyard to try and do some house wine, some collaboration on special craft cocktails and craft beers. Again, just trying to do something a little bit differently. We could all drive up the store, buy a bottle of Grey Goose and make a martini, but at some point you have to define what your brand is and we are trying to do more collaborative stuff.
JR: As you look three, five or even seven years down the road, what are some of those longer-term goals that you have for your business and brand?
BP: You know what, we started to just sniff around merchandising and distributing some of the things that we already make whether this would be pasta, gelato, some of the core products that we have in some of our restaurants and looking to possibly brand those items.
JR: Kind of like DiBruno Bros?
BP: A little bit. Our next step is going to be developing packaging for some of our pasta so we could have Pieri Restaurants pasta and then use enough for catering and small gifts and then eventually exploring distribution under a larger level depending on how things feel. The same thing with gelato. I would love for one day to go in and see the gelato we’ve made in the house at supermarket up the street.
While that’s kind of more on the horizon, we probably have one more restaurant concept on the idea board for when the right opportunity comes along. The goal was to have 3 to 4 concepts to sort of support the whole company and then offshoots. We did the catering, we did a pop-up beer garden this summer. We might do a pizza truck or a food trucks
There are so many ideas that are floating on the idea board. Eventually one day we might be getting into a little bit of the wholesale distribution side.
Because as we have gotten bigger we’ve had to scale things up. We have a whole team that comes in and bakes every morning. It used to be the first guy in makes a couple loaves of bread and now we are making 130 loaves of bread a day. When going from four loaves of bread to distributing bread that’s a big gap but as that gap gets a little bit smaller those types of opportunities become more realistic.
JR: I honestly can’t believe how much you’re making from scratch when I see your social media posts.
BP: It would be 30 percent cheaper just to buy it. And to be completely frank, 50 percent of the customers wouldn’t mind either way. But again, our goal was we’re going to invest in doing it the most unique way that we’re capable of. We’re not reinventing the wheel by making things from scratch, we are just willing to take on that effort and that work to do it and then hopefully doing it at a higher level.
To check out Brian’s restaurants visit