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Lost in the Sauce

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Running a business isn’t for everybody. Today, many people shy away from the service industry because of the rigorous nature of the job, which begs the question: Is running a restaurant worth the effort? After speaking with pizzeria owners from around the Bay Area, it became clear why so many people are reluctant to join the service industry: spending time with friends and family becomes nearly impossible due to the tremendous level of dedication and focus needed to run a full-service pizzeria.

Representing the vibrant atmosphere in the restaurant, this neon sign greets customers at the door.

“You know, I wish my life was more balanced. I do sometimes wish I could balance it more, with family or friends,” says Brooks Bernstein, manager of Za Pizza in San Francisco. Bernstein frequently works 12 hour days and, “On a good week, I get one day off.” As a result, when he does get time off, he just wants to sit back and relax.

Luciano Faria and Roseline Resende, owners of Rocco’s Pizzeria in Mill Valley, describe a similar routine: “When we have time, we like to stay home, make a nice dinner, and talk. Staying home with the kids whenever we have the opportunity, we do.”

Bernstein prepares the dough for the day with partner Buzz (center) and Pepe (right).

Growing up working in restaurants, these pizzeria owners knew nothing but the service industry. Starting at the age of 16, Bernstein began washing dishes and cutting vegetables. Bernstein felt that owning a restaurant was his calling, but it was also the only way he knew how to make a living, he says. “I moved out here in 1975 with my mom and sister, and in order to survive and keep up, I had to start working.” Early in his career, he had an experience that prepared him for the demanding setbacks and frustrations the industry can provide: “I did work at a high-end Chinese restaurant for a while, which really set the tone for my work ethic. Either I got it right, or I was out. Everyone needs that at some point in their lives in any kind of field they go into.” Now, 40 years later, he owns his own business.

Similarly, at the age of 19, Faria started working as a delivery driver. He soon became a cook, and then proceeded to be the manager of Stefano’s Pizzeria. Years later, after forming his own pizzeria, Faria saw the work as more of a fun opportunity than a necessity: “For me it was an adventure, just to explore.”

Giuseppe Terminiello, owner of Piccolo Forno Pizzeria in North Beach, San Francisco, experiences something different: the service industry is the only thing that still connects him to home. The cuisine is centered around the recipes of his Italian grandma: “I grew up in the restaurant business for generations, three generations long. My family has never been here. I’m the only one that is around. I left when I was 18. If I sell [the restaurant] I die.” The food is what connects Terminiello to the comforting idea of Capri, Italy. When he has such little time to himself, maintaining that connection is vital. He can only truly disconnect from the restaurant when he spends time overseas.

The owners of Rocco’s Pizzeria can no longer travel as a family. Faria states that someone always has to stay home to watch over the business because without an owner present, it is not a smooth sailing ship, but rather a Titanic of sorts: “We cannot just leave. Right now, we need someone that really knows how to take care of the restaurant. We have good employees, but we don’t have one main person that can do the job I do if I’m not here. Ordering, fixing, payroll, all that stuff.” Finding a work-life balance is the ultimate goal for these owners, but it is a nearly impossible goal to achieve.

With little time to recover from long shifts, let alone opportunities to enjoy themselves, each and every owner needs their own form of motivation to maintain sanity at the counter. These owners find that the connections made with their customers, in addition to pleasing them with good service and a great product, are the most rewarding aspects of the job.

Termniello is not afraid to let customers see Piccolo Forno’s masterful work in the kitchen; all of the food items are displayed in the front and the pasta dishes are prepared for everyone to see.

“When you like to be with the people, this is the best job for you,” Terminiello expresses. Although some argue business owners are making a profit, the reward is minimal. Their true “reward” for hard work is not to provide themselves with a luxurious lifestyle, but rather to compassionately improve those of others: “[When] you have a day off, you work on another project, you work on payroll, work on new orders, work on menu. You don’t exactly have free time to enjoy; you sacrifice for the business,” states Terminiello. It’s rare the money earned goes towards their personal gain as most of the profit is put back into the business; customers don’t really understand the effort it requires. Taking into account location and clientele, the owner has to undergo the demanding task of creating their own business model in order to be profitable as well as being a valuable contributor to the community dynamic.

Although every restaurant owner has its unique formula when it comes to running their business, each of them can be equally successful. One may think these pizzerias’ smaller sizes would put them at a disadvantage; however, in reality, all three owners expressed that they feel a smaller space makes for a sound operation.

“700-900 square foot restaurant. It’s easy to manage. The bigger the space, the more things ‘you got to take into account’. Yeah, this business, this is a great size,” says Bernstein. Terminiellowholeheartedly agrees: “Small space always; it’s a nice to fill up, not too big. Don’t need too many employees, perfect.”

Rocco’s is a true family business; no matter their age, every member of the family contributes in some way to business operations.

Despite the small size of each of their spaces, Za and Rocco’s manage to maintain an emphasis on accommodating families. Both Bernstein and Faria say that families are their most common customer; they ensure that the parents feel comfortable bringing their kids to the restaurant by creating a hospitable, warm environment. While Za and Rocco’s cater their business to families, Piccolo Forno attracts more tourists and workers returning home from downtown: “20 percent is the locals. They like you; they try to come in because they love your food and they like the person you are, the rest changes all the time, you never work with the same people.”

The restaurant must remain incredibly consistent in its quality as most people choose where to dine based on online reviews: “When you work in the kitchen, you need to give it the best you can for all dishes,” says Terminiello. He believes in training all his cooks himself to ensure that the food is always the best it can be. Technology has begun to affect the industry as more and more people try to avoid extra spending on in-house service. It represents a generational emphasis on saving the maximum amount of time. Terminiello continues, “People want to stay home, they order and you bring it. That’s the new business in the future.”

Za has also seen the effects of the Internet on restaurants firsthand. A decade ago, things were quite different: “Before computers, we were in books. People read the book and come in, and then it became more word of mouth… now there’s trip advisor, you get 100 million people reading it [versus] 1,000 people buying a book. The TripAdvisor thing just blew it up another level,” Bernstein remarks. The transformation is quite remarkable in such a short span of time; management has been forced to make so many adjustments solely due to the tech boom. There is far more potential for praise, as well as extreme criticism that could create a huge triumph or a gigantic disaster. Terminiello says, “People choose if you’re good or not, they make or break your business, they go on Yelp, they see oh, three stars, don’t go there, go to the other side, four stars; oh that’s good check it out; everything is based on the technology.”

Bernstein believes technology has positively impacted the business.“I had a gentleman who came in from London yesterday, he goes, ‘My buddy from London told me I gotta come here’, so ‘word gets around’.” However, owners of Za Pizza choose not to get involved in the reviews and do not let the critics dictate the business. “I don’t read too much of that stuff. You don’t want to get too high on the high ones, and you don’t want to get bummed out on the low ones. The low ones can be constructive, but it just messes with your head a little bit.”

In this case, avoiding the critics provides some much-needed perspective to the lives of these men; they need to have the ability to distance themselves from the restaurant if need be. These three owners’ lives are already revolving entirely around their restaurants, and to spend their free time reading Yelp will lead to a lack of engagement while working. They can only focus on what they can control as people will always have their opinions. The owners can only do their best to allow the joint to meet its full potential.

There is no cookie cutter way to run a business, as every person in the service sphere understands. One thing is for certain: you have to love what you do (like a lot). Never having time to spare with family and friends, owners are tied down to their businesses. If you want long breaks without any responsibility, the service industry is not the job for you. Owning a restaurant speaks to their character and resiliency as it is a tremendously selfless endeavor, making the work incredibly admirable. It is imperative to show appreciation for those out there who dedicate their lives to providing for us.

 

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