Book Update – Chris Sommers of Pi Pizzeria

Pi Pizzeria of St. Louis has been wildly successful in a short amount of time. They opened their first location on “Pi Day” (3.14) 2008, and by that October then-Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama enjoyed some of their pizza after a St. Louis campaign rally. He loved it, and Pi, which was already very popular, become a sensation. They now have four locations and a mobile pizza truck, and they are opening in Washington, D.C. in 2011.

Founder Chris Sommers left to open Pi, after buying a recipe for an insanely god deep dish pizza from a small pizzeria that he frequented in San Francisco. Here are a few snippets from our conversation with Chris, who has learned a lot about owning restaurants over the last couple of years…

Growth Ain’t Easy To Manage. “You can either choose to operate or you can choose to expand, and I’ve chosen the latter. We struggle with growth. There are lots of offers of money and lots of interest. But there is money and there’s smart money. And we haven’t exactly figured out what the proper mix is. We know that we want to strike while the iron is hot, but we also don’t want to dilute and expand too fast. We’re just trying to be smart and prudent, and make sure there are not too many cooks in the kitchen, and that we don’t get heavily leveraged. It’s nice to use other people’s money for growth, but at the same time it gives us a lot of flexibility when we don’t have to answer to anybody or service a lot of debt.” (Pi opened on 3/14/2008 and currently has four locations plus a pizza truck, and they are opening another location in Washington, D.C.)

Learn How To Delegate. That’s also been a huge part of our success, is being able to delegate.

Being Green. It’s a core part of our DNA. It is just critical to make sure that it is factored into every decision you make, from vendors to products to design and build out. And as long as everybody on your management team down to the lowest level understands everything from what a reclaimed material is, to “Can I throw this away or do I recycle this?” It will cost you a little bit of money up front, but ultimately will save you a lot of money, and I think it is the only way to own and operate a business.

The Importance Of Communication & Transparency. Our hospitality mission is about communication and transparency. We don’t get upset if people make mistakes as long as we know about before I hear about it the next day from a guest or the web site or social media. We have a philosophy that you don’t win alone and you don’t lose alone. So keeping everybody informed, keeping the manager informed, and letting everybody know what’s going on helps us operate and keep the ship afloat when it could become unwieldy. As long as we know what’s going on if there is a potential for a table to be unhappy, as long as you inform your manager, we can fix the situation and nip it in the bud.

Evolve Or Die. Yes, the world is flat in every industry. If you look at fashion and what people are wearing or what people are eating. Stagnating is only going to get you so far. It used to get you maybe twenty or thirty years with one business, but it’s not going to any more. People are just more informed and their palates are more sophisticated. Their dollars are more stretched. You can’t get comfortable. When I talk to some of my other restaurateur buddies – especially the successful ones – you have to have a healthy level of paranoia that you are not keeping up. It can be to your demise if you get overboard with it, but you have to keep thinking about innovation. Recognize what’s really important to you and don’t change things that continue to be winners, but at the same time recognize and offer new things.

Dine In Lots Of Other Places. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t have a team in place that enables them to go out and visit other people’s establishments, but that is really critical. Whether it reinforces something that you are doing well, or drills home the fact that you are failing somewhere, it’s just a constant discussion. In ten minutes when I have my core manager’s meeting with my senior management team…a lot of what we discuss in those meetings is what we experience elsewhere, and not just what happens in our stores.

Make Job Applicants Do Their Homework. It starts off on our job application, with asking “Why is Pi important to you?” I don’t want to hire somebody who has not at least done their research and can’t come up with something creative.

Keepin’ It Educational,
The Schedulefly Crew