Me: Congratulations on the new restaurant opening last night!
Mike: Oh thank you! Yeah it was crazy, there were lines out the door. It was a good turnout.
Alright, so just tell your story as if you are speaking to your child.
I've never had children, I’ve never been married.
Okay, your dog then?
Haha I don't have that either!
Alright, then just speak
Who is Mike:
I am a restaurant owner these days. I used to be a chef and own a bistro in Massachusetts for 6 years. Before that, I was a commercial fisherman in Alaska for 10 years and in Mass and Maine for about 4 years. I’ve owned Otto Pizza with Anthony, my business partner, for 7 and a half years now. We have 15 stores around new England with 400 employees. So I would call myself a chef, but I guess, I'm also a job creator.
Why did you choose to leave fishing to become a chef?
Because fishing was dangerous. HAHA. I’m lucky to still have all my fingers. There was also a lot of moving around that came with fishing and I just wanted to be in one area. So I went back to Mass and cooked at some restaurants for a while. The experience definitely helped when I eventually wanted to start my own restaurant but most of it was self taught.
How did OTTO come to be?
Anthony and I both owned restaurants in Massachusetts before we met. We then got together and discussed doing something together. So we decided to start a pizza place. We felt that pizza could be more than just a fast food and wanted to make it something special that you can enjoy with wine. So Anthony brought his experience with pizza, and I brought what I knew about food into the pizza and OTTO was born.
It absolutely wasn’t planned. We were just kind of trying something so we could figure it out as we went and when the OTTO concept worked out we stuck with it. We were actually going to name it ENZO. But our designer played with it and found that OTTO fit perfectly into the design we were looking to capture.
What has contributed to the success of OTTO?
The partnership with Anthony definitely. We work flawlessly together. It kind of happened organically and our skills complement each other. I am more of the creative side so I deal with the interior design and presentation while Anthony is more of the business side. He knows how to work the numbers better. So we are like Yin and Yang. I would also say our team.
We have extra ordinary people in our team who keep it fun and exciting. In hiring, we want people with energy, You can teach anyone to make dough and clean the floor. What we want to know at OTTO is what our employees' interests are beyond their jobs.
This way, we can provide opportunities for them. We focus a lot on helping them achieve their goals through tuition reimbursement, helping them find housing, that kind of thing.. Our IT and Marketing departments also do a great job at being aware of what is happening around them. We encourage them to go beyond 2 for 1 promotional activities to building connections with the public via social media and our website. Oh and of course the pizza haha, I keep forgetting that.
When did you know it was time to expand?
We had no plans for that actually. It was just opportunities that presented themselves. 7 months after opening OTTO, the space next door came available and we decided to turn it into ENZO, our wine bar. Within a year, we got a call that a space in Harvard square was available. This was prime real estate, so Anthony went and looked at it and called me and said ‘You gotta come see this place. I think we might even get a meeting with the landlord.’
So I went down there, but the landlord would not give us time of day. He said we didn’t have what it took to make it in that location because we only had one product. We got the space eventually and when we did really well, the landlord admitted that he had spoken too soon.
The location did great and really increased our brand awareness. After that there was sort of a domino effect. As spaces opened up, we jumped on them. We once even moved into a space 6 hours after the previous tenants had left. We never really borrowed money either. We both scraped together everything we had for the first location, and borrowed equipment from friends. But the profits and cash flow we got from the restaurants pretty much financed every next project after that.
What mistakes have you made and what did you learn from them?
Definitely some bad hires. We once hired a top level person who was dishonest and stole quite a bit from us. It took us years to recover from that and just now got back into the swing of things. He went to jail for 30 days. In hindsight, we should have taken the advice to just leave him alone, because the legal and accounting costs accrued from taking him to court to proving how much he had stolen just added onto the financial burden. But now, our main concerns are that we are losing connection to the stores. Because we are rarely in them anymore, we are putting better training practices and processes in place.
Where do you see OTTO in 5 years?
We are looking at various avenues to get our products to supermarkets and beyond. Already we have a facility in Lynn, Massachusetts which produces our dough that we are using in various of our stores. But we want to do this on a larger scale with our sauces, and maybe even gelato. We may do some expansion but not at the rate we have been going.
We are also putting more focus into going back into the stores and improving on mechanics and employees. We are working to improve the training programs in place for our general managers. We want our employees to understand the industry better, understand leadership and how all these components come together to work in a restaurant. We will also increase our partnerships with breweries who make beers in our name specifically for us and just find channels to get these products out there.
What advice would you give to somebody in terms of factors to consider when opening a restaurant?
Well the team is very important. Make sure the people on your side are able, willing and complementary of each other. Then make sure the product is good. Then if your team is great, great service will follow. And finally location. It is very important to pick a good place.
What 3 applications do you use most on your phone?
Hmm my calculator. I use that a lot. Shazam. And Google, gotta have it haha!