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.
More to follow – watch this space for the second part of this interview.
To check out Brian’s restaurants visit