Pizzeria Toro has spent their first year in business learning how to
1) create an amazingly stable and happy team in an industry notorious for its high turnover,
2) cultivate tons of repeat customers, and most recently
3) operate the business when their storefront is out of commission due to a scary chimney fire.
I caught up again with Gray Brooks, co-owner and founder of Pizzeria Toro, to get an update on the fire, life without his brick and mortar restaurant, and what he has continued to learn about creating business success since our last conversation almost a year ago when Pizzeria Toro was still in start-up.
Teri: Please tell me about the fire and where things stand now.
Gray: The fire was very scary. It started in the middle of the night. After a friend called to say he saw smoke coming out of the building, Cara, Jay and I (his business partners) ran to the site and from across the street watched fire fighters combat the fire for many hours. We are very thankful no one was hurt.
While we hope to re-open as soon as possible, the reality is that this was Toro’s second chimney fire, so we, our partners, our insurance company, the city and the state are all taking great care to look at this very carefully. Once the best design is agreed upon, we will rebuild in a way to ensure this will not happen again. We just submitted building plans to the city two weeks ago, so we think we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Teri: So how does a pizza restaurant survive for months without a brick-and-mortar location?
Gray: Fortunately we have insurance that covers the salaries of our staff while we are down. (Thank you Parker & Otis, another local food business, for that great advice!) With that cushion, we are able to maintain our team.
However we really miss the daily contact with both the staff and our customers. So, twice a month we have hosted a fundraising dinner at the Cookery (a hub for restaurant and food entrepreneurs) for a local non-profit organization. Last month we supported KidzNotes (which changes kids’ lives through orchestral music training) and were able to donate $3,000. This work really keeps the morale of the staff up, allows us to continue to connect with our customers, and give back to the wider Durham community by supporting important local work.
If it was not for our staff, customers, and the broader support of the community our restaurant would not have been a success.
Teri: It is so nice to hear an owner have that kind of appreciation. I think it is rare.
Gray: We have been really fortunate to have developed a solid team so quickly out of the gate and attract so many wonderful repeating customers.
Teri: How do you maintain such a strong team?
Gray: We have a strong positive culture at Toro and as owners we are always looking at how we can make that self-sustaining.
Team members who are unhappy (and we have had them), intentionally or not, tend to spread their negativity. What we have learned is that if the existing culture is strong enough, an unhappy or negative employee will either buy-in to the culture or leave.
Teri: I love the idea that it is not up to you to ‘change them’, but just being in a positive culture can have that affect. How does that work?
Gray: The disgruntled folks see that people are happy here. That gives us a strong base, and for the right people it has a magnetic effect. It pulls them in and they are able to turn their negativity around. It does take some time, but you can see when it is working.
For others, they don’t fit and have to leave. It becomes clear.
Teri: How do you create such a positive ‘self-sustaining’ culture?
Gray: Jay, Cara and myself all started from the ground level in the restaurant industry. We have done everything from washing dishes to managing multi-million dollar restaurants. With that breadth of experience, it was not only important for us to open a place where we wanted to eat, but also a place where we wanted to work.
We are technically the owners, but the restaurant belongs to the people who work and eat there. We are really more the stewards.
We work hard to create that condition. It is not random.
We can see it’s working because so far every single staff member, wants their old job back when we re-open. We want them back but at the same time, if they were to feel working somewhere else was a better fit, we would support their leaving. We want what is truly best for the team and for Pizzeria Toro.
Teri: Besides the immediate challenge of re-opening, what are your biggest challenges as an on-going business?
Gray: Now that we are out of the start-up phase and had some success, our biggest challenge is maintaining that success. Years ago I heard a story that the UNLV basketball team did not look at the scoreboard during a big championship game. No matter the score board or clock, over the season they had cultivated the mentality that there were four minutes left to play and they were down by 10. That is genius.
Teri: Yes, then you are 100% ‘in’ for every play.
Gray: Right. Every day we come to work at Toro, I say we are down by 10 – not because I want to beat other restaurants, but because we can always be better. We are great on some level, but we can always improve. We owe that attitude to ourselves and to others.
The desire to constantly improve is where you find all the energy, creativity, and fun. Especially in cooking and kitchens, there is so much to learn.
We are blessed to have had a lot of success and we could say we have a formula now and let’s just ride it out. But for me that is not fun, and it is the beginning of the end. So the challenge for us is – how do you keep that freshness? How do you keep the interest and desire to keep making things better?
Teri: Is that hard to do in yourself?
Gray: Absolutely. There are days when I feel I don’t want to go to work, making pizza, dealing with dough problems. It requires I take a minute, take two steps back and ask ‘why am I here?’ Why do I keep doing this? For me it is about the people who eat here and the local farmers who do better because of what we buy.
If I had the day off today what would I do? I’d watch a movie, take a hike, drive to the coast, meet a friend for lunch.
What makes those things great? It’s all the people who work hard to make those experiences great. Even taking a hike, someone maintains those trails. What if those people started bailing?
We all feel like jumping ship sometimes, but I don’t want my favorite hiking trail to be impassable because a park worker just didn’t feel like coming in for a while. If I have to have a kidney removed, I don’t want my doctor to just not feel like doing surgery that day.
I see how much I am supported by the work of others. This keeps me going.
What have you found most helpful in sustaining a business? Please share below!
This is part 1 of a two part interview. Next week…Gray shares thoughts on: keeping himself and the team motivated, making mistakes and making managers into leaders.