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How to Create a Successful Start Up Business

Gray and Cara for web
Gray and Cara Brooks in front of their 700 degree wood burning pizza oven

Gray Brooks, Cara Brooks and Jay Owens created Pizzeria Toro in Durham, NC, in a span of 2 years in a pretty competitive local restaurant market.


  • Raised a significant amount of investor capital – 1/3 of the total they needed to begin operating;

  • Secured and closed on an SBA loan to cover the remaining costs;

  • Purchased and renovated space in a revitalizing downtown neighborhood;

  • Created 35 new jobs;

  • Support 2 dozen (and growing) local vendors and farmers with regular consistent business.

  • Exceeded their business revenue projections by 50%.

Clearly, they have created something of significant value for themselves and for the community.   This is Skillful Means!

Recognizing their success, I wanted to know, what were the causes and conditions, the actions and decisions that created this little bit of magic in Durham?  I also want to know how can other entrepreneurs learn from Pizzeria Toro’s experience?  Gray was gracious enough to sit down with me and share.  I tried to get clear on the ACTIONS they took and the OUTCOMES they got.

The first thing Gray identified was that he and his partners consistently applied qualities love and discipline (a lot of love and just enough discipline) to successfully start their venture.  This might sound kind of mushy and not very business-like, but their whole success story seems to be a delicate intertwining of love and discipline – one leading to the other and back again.

1 – LOVE – how does love apply to business?

Action: Take time to discover what you love doing, where you love being. Outcome: Happiness.

Gray was the head chef working in a very high-end successful restaurant in Seattle with all the possible restaurant “toys”, when his boss Tom Douglas asked him to go operate a fledgling pizza restaurant downtown.  Gray felt a little demoted, but went anyway.  After 2-3 months he was having more fun than he had had in years.  He was challenged to work in a much smaller kitchen with less tools and he was forced to become very creative to make the best pizza possible.  He loved being challenged like this.

pizzeria toro sign Action: Listen to your curiosity. Follow it. Don’t ignore it. Outcome: Invaluable opportunities.

Even as a youngster, Gray was interested in the building at Main and Chapel Hill Street in Durham.  It is stucco, different than the surrounding brick buildings, it was on the corner, and it stuck out.   When his Mom overheard someone talking about redeveloping this building at a dinner party in Durham, she could not help but ask about it…, quickly Gray got the opportunity to reserve a spot to buy the space and seed his dream.

Action: Move closer to what is important to you.  Outcome: You end up in the right place where your business idea can work.  

In the middle of trying to decide whether to keep pursuing a great restaurant career in Seattle, or to go for this “own your own business thing” in Durham, Gray and Cara got pregnant.   Having lunch at a local Durham restaurant with his Mom and Cara (Gray is from Durham), Gray could see an open generosity of spirit in Durham, less boundaries between people in public spaces.  He instantly knew he wanted his child to grow up in a place like that.

Action: Create what you love. The heart knows more than the head. (The head is good for organizing.)  Outcome:  Something of beauty that is well supported by the community.

Gray and his partners asked themselves: What are the qualities of the restaurants we love?  How can we re-create that for others?  (Notice, the question was not ‘how can we make the most money?’ or ‘How can we impress as many people as possible?’)

table 2 for webTheir answer: We love dinner parties.  They intentionally created a space where diverse people (couples, families, retirees, business people) would be comfortable mingling, talking, sharing.

They hated trying to figure out when a restaurant is open.  So they are open 11 to 11 EVERY DAY.  Easy to remember and created out of deep service to the customer.  They want to be the restaurant people can depend on being open, always.

They love and are committed to fresh high quality food and a healthy sustainable environment.  So they have relationships with and purchase food from over 24 local vendors and farmers.


2. Discipline: This word has a bad rap.  It might be like salt – just enough brings out the flavor and potential of food.

Action: Develop unrelenting focus. Let nothing deter you, even when you don’t know how to make it happen. Give yourself space and time to listen and learn.  Outcome:  Slowly, step by step, they built their dream. There were lots of set-backs, but there was also measurable progress. 

The owners never allowed themselves to be distracted from their vision.  Once their vision for a restaurant was clear, it was like it already existed – they just had to learn  how to overcome the necessary obstacles to manifest it in the physical world.

Action: Develop a good business idea and commit to being really good at what you do.  Outcome: Customers love Pizzeria Toro and keep coming back.

pizza for web

Pizzeria Toro makes an amazing pizza – and they only focus on artisan pizza.  And they focus the most on the crust, which takes days to make.  Everything that goes on top is pretty much concocted by mother nature – and Pizzeria Toro makes sure they get the highest quality of what mother nature makes, from as many local producers as possible, so everything is really fresh.  Downtown Durham did not have a restaurant with such a singular focus.

Action: Create an Intentional Environment that works for your business and your values.  Outcome:  Customers see value and re-pay the business over and over.

table 3 for web

Gray could see the diversity of diners in Durham and that there was little segregation between young couples out on a date, business people meeting, retirees and families with children.  He wanted to honor that with an environment they would all feel comfortable sharing.  There are lots of long tables at Pizzeria Toro that encourage people to interact and know others in their community.

Action: Raising for the $$$.  Be yourself and show people your passion, your dream AND your capacity to make it happen.  Let them become a part of what you are trying to do.  This may require being vulnerable and asking for help.  Outcome:   Receive the financial support needed to ignite the business!

Gray was very successful in raising money from investors for his restaurant venture (a restaurant – not a trendy high tech venture!).  He attributes it a lot to luck.   As someone who helped him refine his business plan and watched him raise the money, I attribute his success to him finding a way to embody his values and experience so that others could see his capacity and commitment to successfully operating this restaurant.   Then it was easy to want to invest.

Action: Learn to Work with Conflict and Obstacles.  Outcome:  Create a culture where people can take responsibility for being at your company. 

A crowded happy kitchen
A crowded happy kitchen

Gray says: “Love and discipline really come together here.  With all that is going on during the start up period, it is really easy to stick your head in the sand about management issues.  We never have.  We make a point of constantly confronting what is going on – if something is bothering people, we want to talk it out.  This was really important in early days.  You may think – oh let’s just let it ride and keep working, but what happens is very early on you instill a culture in your company.  Things can quickly get so bad you almost have to really clean house to be able to turn it around.  We are clear with people upfront, here is the deal – you don’t have to have this job – you have a choice.  You can be somewhere else.  We want you to be here.   This is a good place.  When things do come up – we listen to people when they are upset.  We may not necessarily agree with them, but it is important for people to be heard.”

I asked him – how do you have time for that when operating a busy restaurant 7 days a week, 12 hours a day? Gray: “You become like family.  We all have families of some sort, and we all know it is hard work to keep those relationships healthy, but the rewards are astronomical.”  So, he does not let things slide.  He makes an effort to address directly what is going in with employees, with vendors, with his business.


Action: Know and charge what you are worth.  Outcome:  You more than meet your financial goals and obligations. 

expresso machine
Gray’s amazing expresso machine

Gray gets some feedback Pizzeria Toro prices are too high.  He stands firm in his awareness that the prices includes the cost of purchasing the highest quality equipment to make the food, paying his staff above average and wanting to give them more (like health insurance), purchasing the freshest food from local farmers and vendors, being open 12 hours a day 7 days a week regardless of how full or empty the restaurant is, and finding other ways to give back to the community.  They are serving way more than pizza.   Pizzeria Toro is fully integrating making a profit and making things better for the owners, the whole team that works there, the customers, the investors and the wider community.


Visit Gray and his team at www.pizzeriatoro.com and at 105 East Chapel Hill Street in Durham, NC, USA.

Do you know a Skillful Means Hero?  Please let me know @ info@skillfulmeanstraining.com.  I would love to feature them.



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