To see part I of this interview click here.
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 who wasn’t raised by good parents. 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.
More to follow – watch this space for the third part of this interview.
To check out Brian’s restaurants visit