A Look Back at One Year of “Unemployment”

So it’s official.  As of today, I’ve hit my one year mark of leaving my stable healthcare job at the consulting firm I used to work for, and proactively choosing to pursue opening a restaurant as my passion.  What triggered this whole year of not working?  Well, after searching for a spot since October 2013 to open up Paulie Gee’s Chicago (name to change), I had finally located two spots, one in Wicker Park, one in Noble Square, that seemed to have great promise.  Both were ready to make deals, and I was in a good negotiating position for both locations.

Negotiations were moving along well for both spots, with two choices and positive vibes all around, a lease signing seemed eminent, and since I already notified my bosses about my pursuit of opening a restaurant a few months ago, they were bringing up inquiries of when I was planning to leave more and more frequently.  So after a few major projects I had started and wanted to see through were wrapped up (incidentally, the main project that was my baby was published in Journal of American College of Surgeons) and before the next big project that I wasn’t so excited about embarking on, I decided it was the right time to step away and go full focus on the getting the restaurant open.  After all, the process couldn’t take that much longer to get open, right?  Financially, I had saved up plenty of vacation days so that I’d have an extra month’s pay upon my leave, my wife’s business was doing well enough to support all our necessary payments, and we had saved up a good chunk of money in various funds to cover emergencies, insurance, etc. for a few years.  My plan was to take a little bit of time off to spend with my wife, go to Brooklyn and do some training at Paulie Gee’s once I sign the lease, and come back and start renovation/building work immediately.  Great plan right?  Well, as the saying goes, “best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”…

My first day of not being employed was amazing.  Wake up at 5:30 AM (which was still ingrained in my system), work out, make breakfast for the wife and I, check e-mails (corporate habits die hard), visit the library and read up on various recipes/ingredients/techniques/restauranter experiences, work out again, prep dinner for the wife, stay up and read more, pass out.  Days like these were common, with some Netflix documentaries on chefs/restauranters mixed in, trips to the city to help progress of the potential locations, etc.  It was phenomenal.  But as time progressed, progression on the two locations started to stall…

Without getting into the details of why both these places turned into failures (reserved for a future post), by the end of September, I was back at square one in my search… no location, but this time with no steady income as well.  And after a long discussion with my wife, we decided it would be useful to pick up some hours to help build some experience in the restaurant business and to make a little extra money on the side for spending.  So what have I done and learned this past year?

Pizzaiolo at a local “Neapolitan” wood fired restaurant:  $10 an hour is tough pay for a job that you’re on your feet all day for with pretty much no breaks if you’re not a smoker.  (Smokers tend to get a 15 minute or so break, but if you’re clear from the start that you don’t smoke, the group tends not to ask you if you need a break).  I have a lot more respect for the line chefs and restaurant workers of the world who are grinding out $10-$12 an hour and have a family to support… one of the guys I met works at three different restaurants, about 90 hours each week, to support his family of four.  After taxes, that paycheck is enough to get you food, housing, and if you’re lucky, a night out every once in awhile… retirement savings?  Not even close… but what blew my mind was that these folks still lived up life going out to bars, drinking, gambling, etc.  I understand it though… post shift, you want to destress… blow off some steam, enjoy life.  There’s a post shift energy that you feel you just gotta burn off by going out and enjoying life.  While I worked here for a short three months and only three days a week, I learned a good deal about restaurant operations (good and bad) that gave me a good understanding of life on the line at a pizza restaurant.  But also one of the key things I learned was that for many folks working in this industry, it isn’t about loving what you do and serving the best food you can possibly make.  While you could feel that some folks loved what they did, others definitely had no incentive drive for continued self improvement… you can quickly tell what passion folks have for their work based on what they do in their free time… Are they trying out other local pizzerias in the are?  Are they trying to refine their technique?  Develop new flavors/concepts?  Or are they coming in to grind out the job?

Dishwasher, Bartender, Day Prep, Pizzamaker at Paulie Gee’s:  While I was “paid” for my time here, the experience was undeniably eye opening.  Seeing the passion from some of the folks working here for the food being produced was phenomenal.  No, not every staff member had that passion, but you could tell which ones did by the way they talked about food inside and outside the restaurant, their attention to details, their focus on refining their techniques… They literally spent their free time thinking about how to improve the food, and testing ideas to implement onto the menu.  Just as importantly, I was able to work in multiple roles at Paulie’s learning more of the in and outs of the restaurants operations all around.  And I definitely have a new found respect for the dishwasher position… Sure, it’s easy enough to keep up with dishes all throughout the night as people are eating, but come closing time when the wait staff bring you all the final plates/silverware, the bar staff bring you all their glasses/cups, the line staff bring your their equipment… etc.  Those last 30 minutes of the restaurant closing are really just the beginning of your night rush.  It feels a lot like the scene in Ghostbusters when their containment unit starts releasing every possible ghost, and you just can’t keep up…  And being a bartender is as fun as you think it is, at least in a restaurant where there are no mixed drinks, and the bar is pretty small and easily manageable.

Extra on a television show casting call:  This one was really just for fun… and why not?  A full day of standing around, doing scenes that they want to film you in for some cash?  It was interesting to find out that a lot of folks do this for a living… in fact, out of the the 50 or so extra they had, only two of us had never done it before, and by the way most of these folks connected with each in such a friendly manner, it was definitely a small network that all seemed to know each other.  My main lesson, however, was that as type A personality who’s always looking to be doing something, doing this job really drove me a little batty… the time it took to set up a shot was probably 85% of the time we were on the job, while the last 15% consisted of moving to different scenes, reshooting, etc.  Sitting around killing time annoys me, even if I’m getting paid for it.

Tutor at GradePower Learning:  During my next stint of time off, I was considering getting some shifts at Trader Joes since I heard they pay well, and the employee discount at a store like that would’ve been nice.  I mentioned that I was considering applying to work there to my aunt and uncle, and instead, they asked if I’d like to work at their tutoring center since they were in need of an extra tutor, and I had tutored before at Kaplan.  Figuring I could help out family while making a little extra cash, I agreed to help tutor.  While the majority of the time was spent tutoring high school kids into improving their score on the ACT (which is a largely good test taking technique once you’ve acquired the necessary basic knowledge), some time was also spent improving the focus and intelligence of grade school kids.  Even though the job wasn’t tied to food industry, the job paid well, and I got to spend hours interacting with various ages of students, encouraging them to push themselves and improve, helping to build their confidence in skills many of them already had, but never took the time to apply.  Some of the techniques I learned are likely translatable into working with the staff that I eventually have at my restaurant as well…

Research trips/vacations:  One of the greatest memories of this year is that since I had no work obligations, my wife and my schedules finally lined up somewhat.  As someone that owns her own business, her off days were Tues/Thurs, while I had the typical work week off days of Sat/Sun.  It made for planning vacations tough, and the concept of a “weekend getaway” was impossible.  But with all the time in the world suddenly, and no significant extra income for flying, we decided to do a bunch of driveable vacations mixed with some family weddings that we flew to…. with a lot of pizza eating/research along the way.  A total of ten vacations (if you include some of the family weddings) in this one year and not including the training trip to NYC.  What pizza did we eat?  Here’s the list:

  • Minneapolis – Punch Pizza and Pizzeria Lola
  • Detroit (stopped for a few hours) – Buddy’s Pizza
  • Toronto/Niagra Falls – Pizzeria Libretto
  • Starved Rock – August Hill Winery (wine for the restaurant possibly?)
  • NYC – Joes Pizza, Best Pizza, Paulie Gee’s
  • San Francisco – Cheeseboard Collective, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
  • Dubuque, Iowa – Breitbach Country Dining (saw the movie Spinning Plates and had to come check them out and meet the owner), Happy Joes Pizza
  • Memphis (one night stopover as we headed to NOLA): Hog and Hominy
  • New Orleans:  Slice Pizzeria, Domenica Pizza
  • Washington DC:  Pupatella Pizzeria, 2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria
  • Back to NYC for training (without my wife though):  Paulie Gee’s, Prince St Pizza, Robertas, New Park Pizza, Lucalis
  • New Mexico: Giovanni’s Pizzeria
  • Denver (one night stay):  Pizzeria Locale, Marco’s Coal Fired Pizza
  • Iowa (lunch stopover):  Fong’s Pizza
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan: Harmony Brewing Company (noted for their great pizza), various cider tastings, The Filling Stations (woodfired flat breads), Eremis Pizza (in Kalamazoo on the way back)

What did I learn from all this research and vacationing?  First off, I gained about 10 lbs from all the food we ate… and I definitely came back with some great ideas/concept for pizza, and have developed a great appreciation for the business owners that run each of these places.  But perhaps what I enjoyed the most was the chance to spend time with my wife traveling, driving, talking, laughing, stuffing ourselves, visiting friends and family, and the stories that have come of our travels this year… the memories of all these travels will stay with me for a long time to come… and I hope will carry us for the first few years when I won’t have time to take vacation when the restaurant opens.

All in all, it’s been a phenomenal year of not working!  My wife asked me this morning if I wanted to do something to celebrate my one year of retirement… I’m pretty sure she was being sarcastic.  =p  But honestly, for the experiences we’ve had, I’ve enjoyed the year as a whole!  Would I have preferred the restaurant be up and running by now?  Absolutely… but given the circumstances, I’m just counting my blessing to have a patient wife who helps support us financially while I pursue my own dream of opening up the pizzeria, and that we’ve been able to spend so much time together this year.

So one year of retirement down, a lot of great life experiences later, I’m even moreso ready to open up and start serving up some Paulie Gee pies in Chicago…  Keep your fingers and toes crossed that we keep moving forward!


“Practice Makes Improvement” and Update on Pizza Endeavors

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, mostly because I had planned for a post about the process of seeking a restaurant location as my next post… and unfortunately, I’m still in the process of seeking.  Who knew it could take this long?  Sometime in the last month, I decided that I should really keep posting anyway, mostly because the habit of not posting is far too easy to continue, and I felt the need to get back to good habits again.

Practice Makes Improvement

I’m a firm believer that no matter what you strive to do in life, it’s great to have a mentor to connect with, bounce ideas off of, provide constructive criticism, etc.  Even in today’s day and age, where so much can be learned through Google, YouTube, etc.  there’s a distinct advantage in having a mentor guide you down a path.

One of my mentors has a saying – “Practice Makes Improvement”.  I’m sure almost all of you have heard the old adage “Practice Makes Perfect”, but the older I get, the more I believe that perfection is pretty much impossible to achieve.  Sure, one can argue that there are some things you can perfect… a score of 300 in bowling, a 100% correct on a test you may take, Olympic scoring in gymnastics, etc.  But those achievements within themselves are considered perfect due to limitations we’ve put into place – 10 rds of bowling, 200 questions on a test, an open ended formula that rewards based on difficulty of gymnastic elements.  True perfection, as assessed not only by ourselves, but also the society we surround ourselves by, is near impossible to achieve, with a lot of the reason being the eye of the beholder… what one person deems perfect, another may deem just shy of perfect or even inadequate.  Perfection is subjective to the experiences of each individual’s perception.

So if true perfection in not realistically achievable, what’s the point of even trying?  Well, that just comes down to self-motivation and drive… Are you willing to be mediocre at things you do, or do you strive for continual improvement?  The phrase “Practice Makes Improvement” acknowledges that you will achieve perfection… but you will always improve, which is an important aspect of life itself…

During the one year of making pizzas, tweaking with techniques of how/when to stretch the dough, I was definitely able to see improvement in the pies we were making.  The two pictures below clearly demonstrate what lots of practice and willingness to learn/adjust can do.  The pie on the left is what our pizzas looked like the first day we seriously decided to pursue our pizza endeavor, and the pies on the right were from the last days we were at market.

IMG_3479 Za Pi Pizza Oven and Pizzas

Are there diminishing returns on continued practice?  Sure, at some point… but that’s when you have to decide for yourself when you’ve hit that point of “good enough” for you and those opinions you care about that surround you… But for many, “good enough” never exists.   And we continue to practice/improve/tweak looking to make even minor gains that are worthwhile within our own perspectives.

Update on Pizza Endeavors

For many of those who know me personally, through Pizzamaking Forums, or otherwise, this is nothing new… but for those who only know me through this blog, I wanted to give you an update on what’s going on now with my foray into the pizza business!

1.  At the end of 2013, my mentor, Paulie (of Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn) revealed he would be looking to expand in Chicago, and asked if I’d be willing to partner with him!  After much deliberation, discussion, thoughts, and a few visits to New York to meet Paulie in person and try his pies, I’ve decided that this is absolutely something I wanted to pursue!  So this is the next step in my passion of food – opening up a Paulie Gee’s in Chicago.

2.  At the beginning of 2014, my partners and I decided to shut down Za Pi.  2013 was a phenomenal year of planning, learning, experimenting, eating (oh sooooo much taste testing and eating), and meeting amazing people at the markets… but with my focus on opening the restaurant, there was no way we could continue to run Za Pi effectively… so with that, we threw some a few days of good parties with lots of pizzas, sold the oven, and shut down.  It was a phenomenal year, one that I’ll never forget.

The process of opening a restaurant in Chicago has been a interesting life lesson so far… and I’ve definitely become the weathered cautious optimist over time.  More on that in future posts…

“I think I can I think I can”…

“Life has no limitations, except the ones you make” – Les Brown

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours” -Richard Bach

“Mind is consciousness which has put on limitations.  You are originally unlimited and perfect.  Later you take on limitations and become the mind.”  -Ramana Maharshi

Limits, like fear, is often an illusion” -Michael Jordan

We live in a world where Hollywood and overall culture teaches us consistently that there are no such thing as limits.  Think about the books that we’ve read as children.  Between movies of the average person or even the hero breaking through fears, overcoming all odds, to defeat the situation or bad guy, to the quotes we see above, to even the books we read as a child such as “The Little Engine That Could”… the life lesson has constantly been that the limits we have in life are only those we impose upon ourselves.  It’s a great lesson in learning to apply your best efforts, but in many ways, the lesson does a disservice to good process based decision making.  And the more that I think about it, the more I believe that it’s this mindset that is the downfall of many small businesses…

We recently had an opportunity to bring our trailer and our pizzas to the gay pride parade in Chicago to serve up under another restaurant’s name.  While the arrangements in terms of payment weren’t clear (we make, sell to the restaurant to resell, or we would just sell them direct and the restaurant would take a portion of the profits for us renting their space), and we weren’t sure about the paperwork/policies we needed in place to execute on such a thing (public health approvals?), there was one part of the request that stuck out like a sore thumb to me…. The restaurant wanted a minimum order of 500 pizzas.

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that the first thing that came to mind was what the net profit margin would be.  An order of 500 pizzas is huge, and even if they were the basic traditional pizzas (which we currently charge $7 a piece), we would be in a great position to really generate some excellent cash flow for Za Pi.  Hell, we’d be nearly break even within our first year!  But as the realist in me began to really take a look at this idea… all the screw started to come loose.

In our current process to ensure great quality pizza, our team isn’t comfortable with more than two pi’s in the oven at once.  In theory, we could get up to three in there, but we haven’t practiced it enough for any of our forninos (oven tender) to be comfortable with it.  When the oven is churning at optimal temps, we can get a pie done in 90 seconds.  So for the current math, 500 pi’s, 2 at a time, 90 seconds per set, 6.25 hours of continuous pizza making.  Doable.

Now we take in the reality that since the oven isn’t continuous gas, and the fire needs to be re-stoked and the oven given time to gain back some heat after a certain numbers of pi’s.  For sake of ease of calculation, let’s say 15 minutes to reabsorb some good heat into the oven walls every 1 hr.  We’ve now added about 1.5 hours (rounded down).  7.75 hours.  Still potentially doable.

Now we also need to keep in mind the oven takes two hours to heat up before we begin… it needs time to absorb all that heat into the walls, floors, etc. so that it can stabilize and hit an optimal temp.  9.75 hours.  Still reasonable, just a long work day.

Let’s add the 1 hr commute into the city and back.  11.75 hours.  Sure, why not.

Now, prepping all the ingredients and doughs… at current, we can get 100 doughs ready in about 2 hours, along with ingredients.  While there are some economies of scale, we’ve pretty much maxed it (use the full size of the mixing basin) and with our pi’s, there is always a portion of balling each dough ball by hand, which is the rate limiting step for our process typically.  So just for prep time alone, we’re talking about 10 hours of work to get the dough/ingredients ready. Again, not horrible, but these hours are getting tougher…

Now I’m a stats/benchmarking kind of guy (which is why I work in the field I currently do) so I’ve been making sure that we record all sorts of stats around our customer’s orders, time in/time out, pizzas per hour, etc.  Some may say all this information is excessive, but I see this information as ways to continuously improve.  In our 500 pizza scenario, it also provides a basis of reality.  The reality of the situation is that at our best pace at any market yet, we’ve put out is 25 pi’s per hour.  (We’re far from a perfect system yet, the oven needs re-stoking to heat back up, etc.)  If we’re performing at our benchmarked optimum based on past performance, we would have to work 20 hours in order to churn out 500 pi’s.  20 hours, in one day, to churn our 500 pizzas.  If it isn’t obvious yet, we were not ready to do this.

And then I started thinking about other things… while we have great pi’s, they really aren’t nearly as good after they’ve gotten colder… Neapolitan pizza is best within those first 10-15 minutes post oven, and tends to lose it’s great airiness/light crisp and start’s becoming slightly “chewey” with time and cooling.  Which means unless we had a continuous line of folks coming up to eat, our reputation would be tarnished because they’d be eating “less than optimal” pi’s.  How would we lug 500 doughs to the city?  How would we prep all those ingredients?  Where would we store all the ingredients for use?  How much new equipment would we have to buy just to execute on this one-time order? Does the parade even last 20 hours?  Etc…

But just as importantly, I sat down with my partners to brainstorm outside the box… could we hire a team to help with prep?  Could we find another woodfired oven pizza crew to split the profits with to help churn pi’s?  Could we “heat” a bunch of a shells in advance, and then top to order and do a final reheat for 30 seconds after an order is put in?  How long would it take to make 500 shells?

Ultimately, all the brainstorming ideas led to less margins or more time invested, which really pointed to the fact that in our current condition, killing ourselves to fulfill an order like this would just be impossible…

As much as the capitalist side of me wanted to take advantage of this big order, it made us realize that we’re not at a point where we can take on a 500 pizza order.  One of the key lessons in catering is that you need to know what size party your capable of catering for, and this helped us examine, explore, and better understand our limitations.

What could have happened if we took on the job?  Bad reputation with folks who tried our pizza due to quality… long wait times due to backlog… severely reduced margins because we couldn’t serve pi’s up fast enough… or we could’ve successfully completed 500 pi’s by pure luck and chance, even though all the evidence pointed otherwise.

A couple hours of pondering and discussion over this 500 pizza order did not go wasted however.  We were able to identify our weak points, think about what we would need in place to really pursue an order this big,and toy with ideas that could eventually help us move towards fulfilling larger scale orders.  Perhaps Albert Einsten said it best…

“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” -Albert Einsten

It takes a clear, methodological thought process to understand what your limits are, and how to address them, before you can surpass your previously identified barriers to success.  Don’t get me wrong, we’re in the world of small business, so it’s always important to dream big.  We’ve got a dream to someday open up a restaurant that can serve 200+ great quality pi’s per day!  But understand that dreaming isn’t enough… you have to find the path and the tools to get there.

Readers, what do you think?  Have I gone too far and broken down the process to much and fallen into the trap of “paralysis by analysis”?  

And finally, speaking of overcoming limitations and self improvement, I’ve been learning to use some pretty basic photo software to help jazz up some of our pictures…

Jun 29th 2013

Double sauce margherita on the left, Kaner Buffalo Chicken on top, and a Pesto Chicken with Sun-Dried Tomatoes on the bottom.  Not bad for toying around with photo software I have no idea how to use yet, right?  Trust me, I realize my weakness here and plan to work with some folks who actually know what they’re doing to get better…

Lean/Six Sigma thinking, repeat customers, and building a social media presence…

We’re now three week into our markets, and inevitably, lots of changes to our work processes at the market.  I’m a firm believer that in order to improve and get better at our operations at the market, it’s important to de-brief what happened each day with volunteers and co-owners so that we can analyze and correct mistakes while become leaner and more efficient as a whole.  Can you tell I’ve been trained in the six sigma/lean process methodologies?

So each week that I”m at the market, I have the owners and volunteers that worked for the day come back to my house and we discuss the mistakes (e.g., pizza had to be scrapped because it stuck to peel, customer waited nearly 20 minutes for a pie, excess ingredients left over, we gave out free pie to someone that wasn’t a kickstarter backer, dealing with rain, etc.), how to avoid them in the future through process flow changes, and other ideas for improving our efficiency and reducing waste.  It’s important to recognize that every suggestion, comment, or idea should be examined and explored, for two reasons:

1.  Everyone’s input on the team makes a difference.  You do not want to alienate someone’s thoughts, as that can create a cycle where they no longer want to submit suggestions, volunteer, etc.

2.  You never know what the comment/suggestion/idea will evolve into, and could be one of the most beneficial things ever done.

I’ll dig more into the Six Sigma/Lean methodologies in different posts later on, but for now, those that will be kicking off a business, just remember:  always look for room for improvement, and involve your staff that are doing the work to seek improvement suggestions.  Obtaining feedback after each experience, especially if your business is part time, is an important part of the process.  From our first day at market, we probably met for 2 hours discussing changes to the workflow from ordering, to dough stretching, to topping, to oven management. And it showed, as we became more efficient in week 2, and reduced our mistakes more by week 3.

For example, in week 1, we had to scrap six pies of 49 due to mistakes (12.24% error).  Very high from a percentage perspective, especially for a day that we sold out of pies by 12:30 PM.  But this past week, thanks to learned experience, discussing errors, and making changes to our processes, we had to scrap only three pies out of 47 that were ordered (6.38% error) , which is a nice improvement over the first week.  While we didn’t sell out (we had 48 pies ready), it’s still good to see the error rate drop significantly.  But as always, there’s room for more improvement…

There’s practically always another way to became more efficient from a work/cost perspective, improve output from a quantity and quality standpoint, and strategies to help make life easier for your team.  And no one knows how to better improve the process, than someone who’s actually doing the work… whether it’s preparing ingredients, working the oven, sanitizing cookware, etc.  the person in the job will likely best understand how to improve the workflow for themselves, which in turn can help the overall process.

But enough about process improvement for today.  Onto some fun stuff!

One of the most exhilarating things that I’m sure any food establishment owner enjoys is repeat customers.  Repeat customers, to me, means a lot of things:

1.  The product was good (or great?).  If I’m anything like the majority of the population, people will only visit a restaurant more than once if the food was tasty.  To me, seeing repeat customers means that we’re making a good to great pizza that people want to come back for.

2.  The experience was enjoyable.  I’ve definitely been to places where the food was great, but the service was just terrible… and really, it only takes once or one important occasion.  One of EyeDoc and my very first dates was at Grand Lux cafe, a place that I had frequented often as a college student, med student, and grad student.  I’ve always enjoyed the breadth of menu, decent quality, and somewhat reasonable prices.  But on the day I proposed to EyeDoc, we went there for brunch to celebrate and had possibly the worst customer service experience ever.  That one bad experience basically drove us away, and we’ve never been back since.  I know that the Soup Nazi and Sushi Nazi trend is out there, and some people love to flock to it due to just how great the food quality is, and I’d like to think that it somewhat of a minority, and somewhat due to the concept of people wanting access to what’s high demand/limited access (think long lines for limited iPhone releases on opening day).  But for the vast majority, you have to create at the very least a neutral, if not enjoyable experience for them to come back.

3.  The price point is reasonable.  Repeat customers also lets us know that your price point is within reason for what you’re selling.  In a world where you can by mass produced over processed cheese burgers from McD’s off the dollar menu, having a $7 Margherita pizza may seem like a splurge… but it’s fresh ingredients, handmade dough, handcut toppings, made to order in front of your very eyes in our hand built oven (yes, we use our hands a lot)…  Yes, you’ll always have a few folks who believe that $7 for a pizza is high (especially when Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Little Caesars offer their pizzas up often for as low as $5), but I would point back to the quality argument.  We do it fresh, and I personally think we have a better product.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the dollar menu at McD’s every once in awhile, but not everyone understands/tastes the difference in quality of food.. for some, food is just food.  And those are folks that will be tough to win over, if you’re even trying to win them over.

Having executed on three markets, I’d have to say one of the highlights of my day is seeing our repeat customers come back for the same pizzas, or even ask us for recommendations because they trust our judgement.  It’s akin to asking the sushi chef at a restaurant for omakase, simply because they trust in your tastes and abilities to prepare the food.  The other highlight is to talk with those who are hesitant to try our pizza, only to come back the next week or even a few hours later to order up more because of how much they enjoyed it.  Really, it’s these moments that make me realize we’re making some great pizzas.

And just for kicks, I wanted to share this picture of my nephew eating his first pizza crust ever:

Evans First Pizza

He’s got two teeth (I think), just past six months old, and is chewing away at the crust!  Per my sister, it took him a few minutes to figure out that the crust was food, and once he got it in his mouth, he wouldn’t stop eating!  (My sis tried to take it away, only to have him cry).  It’s really an honor to have his first pizza experience as a pizza we made.

So while we’re building fans of our pizza as we meet more and more people at the market, we constantly feel like we just haven’t promoted ourselves properly yet.  We’ve established a Facebook page, have encouraged people to find us and follow us for more updates, but we’re not quite sure what the next step is to help get our name out there.  Part of why we’re able to offer such a low cost for our pies is because we purposely made the decision to keep our price point low… which means that we have to make it up on volume.

We’ve made profit at each market from an operational standpoint (gross revenue – costs of opening each day = positive value) but we’re definitely not making much.  From our initial estimates, we need to sell about 30 pizzas per day to break even.  And while we continue to look for ways to reduce our costs (installing a trailer hitch to a car we own as opposed to renting a Uhaul, improving efficiency in the kitchen to reduce our rented kitchen time, etc.) ultimately we still need to increase our volume and customer exposure to have this succeed.

So in the world where social media is free and dominates the landscape, how can we go about improving our social media presence and create more exposure for our pizzas?  Readers?  Any thoughts/advice?


And finally, a picture of one of pizzas from market.  We’ve been so busy getting pizza orders out that we haven’t had a chance to snap any photos of the pies we’ve been making!  Here’s the second to last pizza we sold for the day:  Bianca – Drizzle of olive oil, fresh garlic which roasts to a nice sweet flavor in the oven, and fresh mozz.  Simple, elegant, and tasty.  Notice the beautiful leoparding/char spotting that our oven man, Gambit (aka Charizard) was able to accomplish!  While the crust is a bit thicker than I would’ve liked, I’m told the pie was delicious.



The cost of manual labor and our first day at market!

I’ve been remiss in updating, but I have an excuse!  (Yes, I’m like that kid that forgot my homework but have a great reason for it…)  I cut my middle right finger and both thumbs on the finger tips, and thus was unable to type effectively.  It still hurts a bit now (anyone feel sorry for me yet?  No..?  Moving on then…) but I’m able to at least just wince when I type instead of not being able to touch anything at all now.  How did this happen?

We had decided early on that we should spend a bit more money to make our oven exterior a bit more rustic.  So instead of just plain stucco, we picked up some veneer stones to add to the face to add to our “homemade” feel.  Over Memorial Day, I spent 8.5 hours putting on an external finishing stucco layer, along with trying to attach veneer stones to the face of the oven.  Notice I said “trying”.  The finishing stucco layer was easy enough, but the stones, oh the stones… I’d attach one, hold it in place for 3 minutes (really just sit there and hold it for 3 minutes!), and then tentatively let go to see if it would stay or fall.  70% of the time, it would fall.  So I resorted to using my bare hands to help push finishing stucco into the cracks behind each veneer while I was holding it so that there would be more surface area that would stick to each back.  Using my bare hands to push stucco clay across dried stucco and into veneer stones basically is what tore up my fingers…

Let me tell you, I definitely had moment I was about to just give up on completely on the veneer stones… particularly when I had 80% of the stones done, was installing a piece near the top of the oven, only to watch it fall off, hitting the stone below it, and watching a domino effect of knocking out another 6 pieces below it.  (4+ hrs of work wasted).  I was literally ready to tear all the stones off and call it a day.  But I took a deep breath, turned the music on louder, and eventually we ended up with this:



After showing my wounds to EyeDoc that night, I recounted all the injuries I had sustained (minor carbon monoxide poisoning, various cuts/scratches, knicked my leg with a hand axe, getting fiberglass insulation all over my arms, etc.) we talked about whether it was worth it or not… At the time our team kicked off this project, we decided to build the oven ourselves and pick up the trailer so that we could save around $6000.  Was all the man and woman hours (EyeDoc really spent a lot of time helping and staying up to help build this, even on her birthday!) worth it?

My answer given our current situation is always going to be a resounding “yes”.  Let’s take a look at the situation:  We’re a new business with the idea that our partners wanted to invest minimally ($1000 each) to reduce our cost of entry and risk.  We raised good money through Kickstarter, but really just enough to pay for the trailer, fees for licenses, market applications, some ingredients, equipment, building materials, etc.  (our personal investment went into the oven).  We’re doing this as a side job for now just to get our feet wet in the market.  What would $6000 mean?  Some numbers to toy with:

Assuming we make a $5 profit per pizza we sell, that’s 1200 pies we would have to make/sell to cover the cost.

Assuming a day job makes $4000 a month after taxes/savings, that’s 1.5 months of work AND not saving it in order to pony up the cost of hiring out.  Let’s say we had each partner pay equally to cover it and we all made the same amount?  That’s still a minimum of two weeks of post tax pay AND saving it (meaning you can’t pay for anything with it, going out to eat, paying for bills, etc.)

Simply put, we were not in a position to just casually “drop” $6000.  And personally, I think this is part of the reason why a lot of new business don’t make it past the first two years.  Small business owners with the mindset that you should just “hire out” all the things you don’t want to do would have easily said “yes” to spending the $6000 in our situation.  But then you’d be $6000 in the hole, with 1200 pizza to sell to cover that cost of equipment!  That’s a lot of pizzas…and that’s not assuming any other overhead costs…

People have taken the message of Tim Ferriss (notorious author who’s claim to fame is how to create a 4 hr work week by hiring out other folks to do the work for you) and skewed it to convince themselves that you should hire out all the time.  That, and potentially the new generation of workers that just want things handed to them on a silver platter.  Don’t get me wrong, Tim has some great ideas and concepts, but it only makes sense to hire out if you can use that time to generate more success/wealth/progress in your business.  If you’re not able to actually use the time you have to generate more income in some aspect, then it’s really just wasting your money to outsource.  A brief and likely unfair model of Tim’s main premise is that you use cheaper labor to manage your work to generate income that is greater than what you’re paying your labor.  (He uses personal assistant to help advertise his products, grunt work essentially).  And from there, the idea is that you use your revenue to hire more workers to do more advertising, which generates more revenue, etc.

Tim’s book is inspirational, but in many ways, his greatest success is the release of his concept: Four hours of work a week.  Who wouldn’t want to buy into that dream?  That’s like saying you can be fit and in model shape while eating whatever you want, as long as you  just be eat this one pill a day.  We all know (at least I hope so) that being healthy and in shape requires working out hard, eating right, and making good decisions… there is no magic pill.  (Though GNC and other pill pushers have a billion dollar some market that is still successfully fooling many people otherwise).  Similarly, financial success has no magic pill that everyone has access to… (we’re going to leave the arguments of getting some fluke financial windfall off the table). It’s not simply four hours a week of work to make a business succeed.  It’s take focus, hard work, determination, perseverance, vision, etc.  all those crazy buzz words that really do mean something.  But it’s funny, people are always looking for the easy route: taking a pill, or hiring someone out to just do the work.

Yes, there may come a time when you can coast on 4 hours a week of work and have great financial success, but no one gets there without building the empire first… and once you’ve built it, do you really want to coast?  Coasting just means your competitors will outpace you…

Could I have hired someone locally at a more reasonable price to do some of the oven build work?  Possibly… but I’ve also been a firm believer that to fully understand a business, you need to understand all aspects of it from the ground up. Hiring someone to do the work would have just excluded me from the knowledge process and I would be no better.  I’m also a firm believer in continuous learning to be a better person… by being a jack of all trades, you aren’t necessarily a master of none.  You just have more skills to pull from than the person next to you.

Bottom line:  Don’t overestimate how much your time is worth.  $6000 is a lot of money that would have taken us a long time to recover from.  Would I do it again in the future if we were to order another oven?  Well, if we had $6000 available and steady income that could cover that cost, probably not…  I’d probably hire someone or just pay the $6000 flat out to have the finished product delivered.  But given we’re at the start of our business, it only made sense to take on the project ourselves, save a boatload of money ($5000+ after building equipment costs), and learn what it really takes to build the oven.

Finally, as an update, we had our first day of our market yesterday!



It was a great day, the bad weather held off until we got home, we made 49 doughs and sold out (lost six due to quality assurance e.g. too much burn, dough broke into oven due to thinness, etc.) so with 43 pi’s sold, we made a small profit!  A couple lessons we learned by the end of the day:

1. We need a queuing system to track order at the market.  People often come by, order up a pi, and then go shop around at the market.  It’s very easy to forget who you owe a pizza to if you don’t have it tracked somehow and have two in the oven and two more on deck being made already, while three more orders were placed.

2.  Make excess dough.  The reason why I said it was a small profit was because overhead really brought down a lot of our net revenue (costs of renting a truck, costs of ingredients, etc.) Dough was our limiting factor for our first market, (and tomato sauce it seems) as people continued to come by to order more pizza, and we had plenty of extra ingredients (which we cannot re-serve), so really it would have been pure profit.  And dough is one of our cheaper ingredients, so we could have easily made another ten-twenty doughs and really turned a healthier profit.

3.  Expect that things won’t go smoothly, and learn to roll with it.  Much like your wedding day, not everything will go as planned.  Gambit was stopped by the police due to inactive brake lights on the trailer.  Our commissary forgot we were going to pick up the dough and ingredients at 6:00 AM, and didn’t get our calls until 7:30 AM.  We forgot our dough scraper to pull the dough out of dough boxes, and had to resort to using a pizza cutter and my hands to gently pull out the dough… not everything will be perfect, especially with so many working pieces…but it’s important to take a deep breath, level head, and roll with it.

4.  Talk it up with customers.  Even with a five minute time period from ordering to a finished pizza, not all customers wanted to go into the market to shop.  Many just wanted their pizza!  It’s a great time to talk about what kind of pizzas they like, whether they live in the area, how often they come to market, etc.  Get to know them, because these are the folks that will help spread the word, and come back for more!  We used this time to introduce the specialty voting system to them, have them sign up for a potential free pizza, and let them know they could follow our schedule and special on the all important Facebook.

5.  You can’t please everyone all the time, so stabilize your customer base.  We had plenty of customers who loved our pi’s, and a few that had some suggestions after eating them in terms of how to improve.  Some of the best advice I received before starting into this business was that it’s more important to get a consistent product than continually changing the product based on advice of customers.  Yes, it’s important to take feedback and tweak, but if you’re constantly tweaking your recipe/process/etc., then your repeat customers will basically be trying a new product every time.  McDonald’s, while terrible, succeeds in part due to consistency of product.  You walk into a McDonald’s and expect a very similar menu, similar quality, similar taste each time you go.  Your business product needs to be the same.  You can’t continually tweak all the time or else you’ll never stabilize your customer base.  It’s important to take feedback on how to improve, but it’s also important to know that you can’t please every customer all the time.  Want to improve and truly get feedback?  Due a larger scale study of your customer base to really understand 100+ opinions on the product… don’t take one-two comments and change it up.

All in all, it was a great first day with lots of lessons, a small profit, and plenty of great family/friends/kickstarter backers who came out to support us!  We even had repeat customers on our first day, which was extremely gratifying to see as it just signaled that we’re making some good pies and our price point was right.  (Someone came back after a few hours to order another pizza because their daughters liked it so much!)

And after a nice long nap in the afternoon, I got up to get in a workout, eat some arrachera, and catch up on some DVR’ed TV while I took notes on improvement for next week.  Here’s a shot of me at the end of our clean up, while our team ate the “mistakes” that didn’t make it past quality assurance…




One day down, twenty-one more days to go.  Can’t wait to get to my next market!

Passion’s Place in Business, plus a Jalapeno, Chorizo, and Queso Fresco pi!

There is a joy in starting your own small business, as anyone that’s done so can attest to.  You likely have the type of personality where you like to be in charge, have a want/need to create something of value, and enjoy the challenges and busyness that come with.  (It sounds a little narcissistic, right?)  The romantic view of  pouring your passion into something that you love or truly believe has created many small businesses out there, and feeds the idea that anyone who’s truly passionate about something can make their dream come true and be successful.

But what if you don’t have that passion? If not, then it becomes more of a chore, and the rewards must be far higher to receive the level of satisfaction for to help drive your focus on the venture.  Without the passion, the drive is far harder to muster within yourself to push forward with business!

As we get closer to our first market, everything in my own schedule get’s busier.  While I”m lucky enough to have the opportunity to work from home up to two days a week (thus saving me 3 hours each day I work from home), my time after work is now filled with check lists of what’s in place, what’s not, training volunteers, contacting folks, and just aligning everything to ensure our target date of our market open on June 1st is ready.  Is it tough schedule wise?  There is far less “relaxation” time, far less time to enjoy TV, or date nights, or going out to movies as now I essentially have two jobs at the same time now.  Am I enjoying it?  Absolutely… the idea that we’ll be selling pizzas at the market in under a mere two weeks fills me with all sorts of emotions .. excitement leading off, angst that we don’t have all our equipment yet and agreements in place yet, nervousness that anything that could go wrong WILL go wrong, etc.

But it helps to look at what’s gone right so far:  We’ve had a successful kickstarter translating into family, friends, and strangers that believe in our vision.  We’ve practiced, and practiced, and practiced some more to get a technique down with opening the pie (which I”m trying to teach to my partners and volunteers for when I’m not at the market) along with a recipe that we believe people will love, the county health department has given us the okay to proceed (which was far less painful of a process than I thought, perhaps because I had done my research on food safety pretty in depth), etc.

It’s the little goal achievement that help continue to drive me forward and push me to focus on the next task.  Goal achievement, as well as the fun I have shopping for equipment for our business.  Nothing like more toys and tools to play with, like the arrival of our oven paddles, equipment, etc.


I guess what I’m saying is, if you don’t have a passion for the business you’re considering getting into, you’re probably better off just NOT going into the business… It will show.  Who here watches Shark Tank?  It’s a great show where people with business ideas are able to pitch it to five “shark” investors to see if they’re willing to partner with them from a money and business standpoint to help make the proposer’s business take off.  A recent episode of Shark Tank (which I’ve begun watching in the mornings on my DVR while I make the dough), one the sharks rejected partnering with a proposal because through the whole pitch, the two owners never conveyed their love for their project, but focused solely on the infrastructure and potential income generation they believed would be great.  (It was a pretty weak infrastructure to be honest, and very untested).  It’s easy to tell when someone isn’t passionate about their job or business… it doesn’t mean you can’t necessarily be good at it without the passion, but you’re definitely a lot less likely to make the sacrifices and put in the extra time to make it great.  It comes out in your body language as you do “tasks” associated, in the way you talk about your business, in your excitement or there lack of when you execute.  And I firmly believe that your customer/audience can feel it, see it, and will be turned off by it.

At a recent market I went to, you could tell who was truly excited about their business, believed in their product, and wanted to engage you by telling you more and more.  And you could also tell who was burnt out, no longer wanted to be there at the market, and was ready to toss it all in, but probably kept at it just to make a bit of extra cash or hope that somehow, they’d get lucky and hit it big with someone wanting to place a big order with them.  And in the same fashion, it was easy to see which tents were filled with people ready to interact, talk, and learn more while other tents were just empty of customers, with the vendor standing there looking like they were ready to go home.

As the new tagline of one of my favorite companies, Baking Steel, says:  “Start Doing Things You Love”

It’s such a simple belief and thought that just doesn’t seem to translate in nearly enough people.  On a semi-related note, I feel like I should get another Baking Steel just for that quote!  Perhaps when I’ve made some profit from our business first though… =)

Now while I believe you need passion to drive the business, passion should not get in the way of making good business decisions for your business either.  All too many stories have been told of the passion and frenzy of a business owner not making good decisions for the business, and going down with the sinking ship because they were too passionate/obstinate to see things any other way.  There’s a place for that passion, and there’s a place for good decision making processes to ensure you’re taking your business the right way.  More on this in a future post…

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a new pi that we’ve been toying with that our taste testers (see family and friends) seems to have latched onto:


Oh yes… that’s jalapenos…. and chorizo… and queso fresco!  And it was delicious… While I personally think it needs some more tang (cholula maybe?)  this particular pie has been requested multiple times after we made it during one of test sessions.  Look for this to become one of our rotating specials.

Mobile Oven Selection and Next Steps for Registering Your Business

So let’s talk ovens.  When we first decided to make this a mobile business (so that we could go to Farmers Markets, move the oven into storage when we’re not using it for long periods, and delve into catering), I started researching into both into turn key operations (the oven arrives mounted and built already) as well as self build option.  For those who do a topical search for mobile ovens, the first oven’s you’ll likely see are the Forno Bravo ovens.  I’m not sure if this is because they’ve marketed well, if they have a dominant share of the market, or some combination of the two, but it’s easily the first thing that comes up in any search engine.  I’m probably not the first to tell you that if you plan to do serious research, Google really only lets you scratch the surface when you don’t fully understand what your searching for.  My initial search resulted in 4-5 ovens options, which gave us a lot of pause in pursuing the mobile since the set ups were running $12-20K.  I even called a few places, and they told me that a mobile oven set up would easily be $15K and up.

As I continued to dig deeper, check out forums focused on making great pizza, and mobile catering forums, I found that there were faaaaar more ovens than what my initial Google search turned up.  At the end of my searches, here’s what I turned up:

Round Boy Oven
Breadstone Ovens (FGM)
Los Angeles Oven Works
Raul’s Ovens
Bel Forno Pizza Ovens
Maine Wood Heat (Le Panyol)
Forno Classico
Outdoor Pizza Oven (Batali 750)
Earthstone Model 90 PA or 90 PAGW
Rocky Mountain Woodfired Oven (with Trailer)
FornoBravo Tailgater
Woodstone Portables – Trailered Oven
Solo Pizza Cart
Mugnaini Mobile Oven
Marra Forni Oven

And these are just the ones that could potentially be mobile!  So after talking to all these vendors, looking into their websites for UL and NSF certification, and reviewing oven designs, we started to narrow it down as a balance between cost and focus of the oven.  If anyone is ever looking for an oven, mobile or not, and would like to talk more about what I learned from each of these places, drop a note!  I’d be happy to share more info!

Here’s the thing:  Ovens aren’t designed equally.  Wood fired ovens (WFOs) can be build with larger openings for ease of putting in larger objects (whole turkeys!), have higher ceilings to hang stuff off of (smoking sausage, standing up turkeys to roast or even suckling pigs!), and are made of different materials (piece by piece bricks, cast cement, copper, etc.)  So what were we looking for?

Here’s what helped us simplify the list – We needed the oven to be cast, as with the travel we were going to do over roads, highways, etc. having a bunch of smaller brick pieces would result in many small pieces that would be vibrating creating potential for the oven to break apart more easily.  Our oven was going to be focused 90% of the time solely on making a great pizza, so we wanted a low dome (to keep the high heat close to the top of the pizza) for a more balanced cook.  We also wanted a smaller opening in general so that less heat would escape from the front of the oven, which would be open pretty regularly since we would be operating at the farmers market over 4-6 hours of time.  It needed to have UL/NSF certification so that it would pass health inspection.  We also wanted someone with great customer service pre-purchase as well as post-purchase, since this was new territory for us.  And, we wanted to keep the price low enough that we could afford to invest in it ourselves, so that mobilizing, permits, equipment, etc. could be covered mostly by the kickstarter.

Ultimately, we chose the Four Grand Mere (FGM), a French company that has expanded into the US and renamed Breadstone Ovens.  It met the requirements we were looking for, the owner was very active on forums, and they had great reputation from previous purchasers.  And that’s the new toy that’s been in my garage since last Tuesday!


Note the low dome, small entry way, and cast pieces instead of brick.


Let me tell you, the oven did not come so prettily arranged… it took my wife and I about 2.5 hours to unpack, and then move the pieces into place for this shot.  The oven is 700 lbs, and while it’s spread across 5 pieces (3 dome, 2 floor), the awkwardness of attempting to grip the pieces in a small space between the two of us was VERY challenging.  But for now, it’s set up and sitting in my garage, getting initial stages of curing thanks to a halogen lamp, until we can mount it and start some real fires.  Rest assured, you’ll see more pics as we build out the oven, whether you want to or not.  =)

So for those that are looking to this blog to learn more about setting up your business, even if it’s not food related, we’ve taken you through the process of becoming an S-Corp or LLC for your new venture.  The next step now is to establish your federal employer identification number (FEIN) so that you’re registered at the federal level.

First off, unlike registered your company with state, setting up an FEIN is FREE.  If you’re using a service or a website that is charging you for setting up the FEIN, you’re getting ripped off.  It’s an easy process, and you can do it online in just a few minutes here:


The site is only available from 7 AM to 10 PM EST, Mon-Fri (odd since it’s a website) so don’t plan on doing this over a weekend.  Since you’ve completed your S-Corp/LLC registration, the FEIN is actually breezy compared to what you had to do before… you’ve got your name in place, you’ve decided on your owners, picked an address, etc.  Just click through and fill out the info!  The only hiccup I noticed between the state of Illinois and federal level was that I was able to use any characters easily producible by the keyboard with State of Illinois, while at the Federal site doesn’t allow you to use non-letter/number characters.  So I can’t use commas, periods, dashes, etc.

Trust me, even with the hiccup, this was a fairly easy process.

Once you receive your FEIN, the next step in Illinois for our business was to register our business.  Confusing at first, as we’ve already registered our LLC, right?  Technically, the LLC/S-Corp is just the structure of your controllers for your business.  It basically tells the state you’ve set up a group of folks or have the intent to do business.  Now you actually have to REGISTER your business for the purposes of understanding what type of business you’re doing, and what type of tax they should be collecting from you.  I’m guessing this is true of all other states as well.

Here’s the website you need for registering your business in Illinois:  https://mytax.illinois.gov/_/#1

Again, a fairly simple process where they ask for your FEIN, LLC/S-Corp name, officer names and addresses, etc.  Then they have a string of very business specific questions (do you sell tires?  vending machine sales?  cigarettes?  are you renting a vehicle or hotel room for the business? etc.)  Our process was simple, yours may be less so depending on what your business is.

So as a recap, here’s what you’ve done to start your business:

1.  Set up your LLC/S-Corp with officers, paperwork, etc.

2.  Apply for your FEIN.

3.  After receiving your FEIN, register your business with the state.

There will be a few more steps for a food retailer that we’ll cover later, but for now, most generic businesses are set for a bit!  Congrats on being registered to do business in your state!

Alright, I’m off to the city for some meetings, to do some ingredient and equipment shopping, and then back home.  Tonight, I”ll be teaching one of my partners (Gambit) the intricacies of opening the dough, and then having him create 10 pizzas for practice so that we’ll have multiple folks that are capable of opening the dough!  Looking forward to a great pizza night!

Kickstarter Success! And some thoughts about preparing for a KS…

And we made it!  It’s a bit surreal that we hit our goal since we were still just over halfway there going into last weekend, but thanks to all our supporters, a few angel high reward investors, and a great push from all our friends/family, we were able to make our goal!  Wooohaaaa!!!!!!!

With the $8800 target, we hit $9733 in the end, and after Kickstarter took their 5% share and Amazon Payments took their 3.19% (up to 5% depending on types of pledges you get), we ended  up with $8935, before taxes.  From what I understand with discussions with my accountant though, is that while this is technically considered income, we balance against the capital equipment we will need to purchase for the business, depreciated over multiple years.  And since LLCs have to pay quarterly taxes, it means we plan to do some shopping this quarter!  What will we do with the extra?  We’re likely to upgrade our trailer to make the height adjustable and more ergonomic so that we don’t have to bend over/crouch down to look into the oven and watch to ensure the pies don’t  burn.

A percentage geek and out of just plain old curiosity for potentially future Kickstarter planning, I did a percentage calculation to see where our funding came from (in dollars) broken down into three tiers:  Close friends and family, friends/acquaintances, complete strangers.

Family/Close Friends 57.90%
Friends/Acquaintances 28.72%
Complete Strangers 13.39%

In terms of funding came from (just source wise, not dollars), we had the following stats:

Family/Close Friends 21.15%
Friends/Acquaintances 43.27%
Complete Strangers  35.58%

While this our first Kickstarter, and we’re a very local concept (really, not much point in someone from LA or NY investing unless they like our concept and want to support us, since they won’t be able to eat pies unless they’re visiting!), we were just happy to hit our goal!  Since the beginning of pushing out the Kickstarter, I’ve always looked at the stats with some mixed feelings… the idea of crowd source funding is not only to help get funds to start the business, but also to get the word out to strangers and folks you don’t normally have access to and build a fanbase around the business as well.  Since a good chunk of the funding came from close friends and family, the mixed emotions comes from the 10% cut that KS and Amazon takes from their pledges… I’m a firm believer in cutting out the middle man whenever possible, especially with family.  The question we always received from close friends/family was whether we would prefer to get the support outside of Kickstarter or in it, since KS/Amazon payments takes up to 10% of funds.  While we continued to be low, I consistently told everyone to contribute through KS, for two reasons:

1. It will help us reach our goal and get access to the funds overall.

2.  It legitimizes the process of us pursuing the business, and looks far better than us going to our family and friends holding out our money and just asking for monetary support.

The key is the 2nd reason really… Even in family/friends situations, it’s typically far better to legitimize the fact we’re pursuing a business through KS and demonstrates that we’ve taken the time to set up a KS, plan our business, etc. rather than asking for money and having them doubt whether you’ll actually use the money for intended purposes.  KS was definitely the way to go… a 10% loss, but a small price to pay to maintain trust and sanity with those relationships.

I’d by lying to you if I told you that things have been crazy hectic since then… ever since we were within $1500 of the kickstarter, things were starting to get crazy as I started to sign up for food manager safety training classes, putting in the order for the oven and trailer, and finding food liability insurance.  To be honest, we had discussed the “what if you’re close” situation around Kickstarter funds and at what level we’d want to fund the rest just to have access to the capital.  After all, with the pledges that came in, a good percentage of them we would likely not be able to access again if the Kickstarter failed and we decided to do this without the process.  I firmly believe a lot of KS projects have this approach, based especially on how so many projects end with just over 100% funding (the overage is likely backers who waited for the last minute to pledge).  In fact, I wondered sometimes if KS would end up funding some of the projects just to improve their own financial situation… take our project as an example: if we were at $8600 with one hour to go, I would imagine the owners of KS would think about chipping in the $200.  From an economic standpoint, the success of our project would allow KS to earn $440 (5% of $8800), so what’s $200 when you get make $240 of net profit?  Interesting right?

Finally, after our successful funding, I had received a few messages from folks who just kicked off their own KS asking about tips on being successful.  Here’s my thoughts:  there are two types of projects on KS, those that are “feel good” charity style projects that people want to fund out of the kindness of their hearts, and “product” style projects where people want to fund for various reason – to be one of the first to have the item being produced or to have access to a great discount (think Groupon) through the KS.  Our project, while focused on using local ingredients and focused on sustainability, fell more squarely in the 2nd category for most people.  This meant that we needed to provide a good value for those folks that weren’t going to fund us just out of the kindness of their hearts.  Perhaps one of the first lessons I learned from researching hundreds of successful vs. unsuccessful kickstarters is that while the KS community is great, just like any person, they want to get a deal on whatever you’re offering since their reward is delayed compared to a typical consumer and the risk is far higher.  (What if you never succeed with your KS?  You technically have no obligation to fulfill rewards… but could face individual lawsuits from pledges).  Unless you’re a charity/feel good project that just tugs on the heart strings of everyone, you’ll need to create a tier of rewards that appropriately gives your pledges a deal that appeals to their sense of value.  At it’s simplest, if I plan to charge $7 for a margherita pie at market, no one from the value perspective is going to want to pledge $8 to help us start our business… they can just wait for the success (or failure) of the market and buy the pie for $7!  This impacts the decision of all the “complete strangers” category above, and likely around 50% of the “friends/acquaintances” category as well.  Moral of the story:  If you want your KS to succeed, plan your reward tiers carefully.

So while our KS success isn’t a flagship for success, here’s the few lessons I’d suggest you consider if you decide to go the KS route:

1.  Figure out your minimum that you need for your goal/operations, and plan in a 10% take from Amazon/KS.

2.  Unless your project is impactful on a nationwide perspective (a product that can be shipped and has mass appeal), expect a large percentage of the funding to come from your close friends/family.

3.  Be okay with funding coming from close friends/family through KS.  It shows that you’re really pursuing the project, as opposed to just asking for a handout.

4.  Plan your “what if” situations in advance, especially around at what point you may just want to ask your spouse or partner(s) to pony up the rest and cover the gap for the close of KS.  Assuming you made the decision from a financially sound standpoint, stick to the decision and don’t waiver, and be sure to wait until the last day to close the gap if appropriate.

5.  Really think out your project and decide which category it may fall into… and then plan your reward tiers appropriately.  Bad tier rewards = no support from your average joe on KS, and can easily be the cause of your failed project on KS.

Alright, time to go plant some grass in our front yard, get a workout in to stay sane, and make some pies for lunch.  And in other exciting news, the oven is scheduled to arrive in separate pieces on Tuesday!  It’s like Xmas in spring!  (Except it was literally snowing in the Midwest last Friday still!)  I can’t wait to start curing this bad boy… pics to follow!


Setting up an LLC in Illinois… and Tandoori Chicken Pie tests.

One of the biggest challenges that you learn early on is that in order to venture into your own business, there’s a lot of paperwork to fill out.  If you’re flush with money already, you always have the option of hiring someone to figure out all the paperwork, and just sign off on where you signature needs to be.  For the rest of us just starting out with our first business and not wanting to be wasteful with our funding, you’ll have to learn just what paperwork needs to be filled out.  While there’s something enjoyable about the success of being able to complete the work, there tends to be hours of frustration trying to figure out which form you need, where it needs to go, etc.  This post will help you get started with the LLC work you’ll need to be familiar with in starting your journey of opening your own business.

Why set up a business?  Because it offers you a level of protection.  While the option to set up as a sole proprietorship is tempting, especially with the low cost and low amount of paperwork, by doing so, you have not separated your personal assets from your business assets.  Sounds simple, but it has high repercussions when you run into trouble, namely if you’re sued or go bankrupt or default on loans, this which are somewhat uncontrollable in the business climate.  By setting up an LLC or S-Corp, you basically have added a layer to your personal assets so that others cannot get at them as easily.  It’s still possible, unfortunately, but it’s definitely more difficult.  And from the horror stories I’ve heard about from small business owners, you want to set up as much protection for your personal assets as possible… You never know what may happen and who may want to sue, so do yourself a favor and do the paperwork.

First and foremost, you’ll want to figure out whether you want to be an LLC or S-corp.  While there are many modifications of this (LLC partnership, S-Corp, C-Corp, etc.), these two are the most commonly used for start ups.  I won’t go into the details here, but Mashables has a fairly decent explanation of consideration here.  After a week of reviewing with lawyers, accountants, and with each other, we decided that an LLC made the most sense for us right now.  From here, it’s time to begin setting up the business… now’s a good time to note that every state has slightly different rules/policies/costs associated with opening your own business, so I”ll be focusing on the Illinois LLC process from here on out.  If you’re looking for info around another state, Google is your best friend and your worst enemy at the same time, as usual.  Just make sure you look up multiple links and articles so that you get a full picture in whatever state you’re in.

Step 1:  Pick a name!  The first rule is that the name of your new business must have “limited liability company” or “LLC” or “L.L.C” in it.  Also, the name of your LLC needs to already not be taken.  Check this website to do a corporation/LLC name search around name ideas, and see what companies may sound similar to what you have in mind as well.  If you find a name you like, you can reserve the name for up to 30 days for $300.  This cost can be completely avoided if you don’t need to reserve the name, and just go to the next step and file incorporation papers.

Step 2:  File Articles of Incorporation!  This is where you fill in the information of the names of the business, who are the owners/managers, name of the LLC (note, you’ll be rejected if you didn’t check the existence of the name as suggested in the first step!)  The form you need is form LLC 5.5 at the time I’m writing this.  Since we didn’t hire anyone to do paperwork for us, the registering agent is you, as well as the owner.  Perhaps the only part that’s not completely clear in terms of what you should fill in is the free text field for “purpose of the LLC”.  You could definitely write the purpose of your company along the lines of “to serve great food in Chicago” or “to raise money for 3rd world countries” etc.  In actuality, the standard language is: “The purpose for which the company is organized is for the transaction of any and all lawful business for which limited liability companies may be organized.”  You may add a little specificity if you’d like but don’t really want to get so specific that you’ll lock yourself out from doing certain business either.  You’ll also need to state if you’re filing for a series LLC or not.  A series LLC basically allows you to form multiple LLCs that have separate assets protected in separate areas.  For instance, if you open three restaurants and set them up as a series LLC, a customer who is bent on suing can only go after the one restaurant they were at, and not all three.  The pain is that you’ll have to keep separate assets for each restaurant as well (revenue, expenses, payroll, etc.) but think of it as minimizing your risk by diversifying.  Each part of your LLC is insulated and protected from the other portions.

Articles of incorporation cost $500 to file via paper (which can take a LONG time) or $600 via online (24 hour approval stated, 2 hr turn around was my experience).  It’s $750 for a series with $50 for each additional series LLC, and prolly $100 more for the online convenience.  You can file on line here.

And you’re done!  Mostly anyways… at this point, you just have to wait for the response from Illinois to appoint your LLC.  A key thing to remember is that as an LLC, you need to file a annual report each year ($250) which is due on the first day of the month your LLC was formed.  I haven’t done it yet, but next year, I’ll be visiting this page to better understand what needs to be done.    If you’re late, it’s a $300 penalty to file (unsure if that’s in addition to the $250 or not).  If you don’t file, they can shut down your LLC.

Congratulations on your LLC!  It’s the first step of many that we’ll go through in order to get your business up and running in Illinois.  Next time, we’ll talk about how to set up your FEIN and notify the state that you’re planning to business.  (Yes, I know, confusing… one would think the LLC would’ve done that!)

Before we go, a new test pie that I worked on just this morning based on some suggestions of Za Pi fans:

Tandoori Chicken Pie Test

Tandoori Chicken Pie Test

On the whole pie: Tandoori chicken (soaked overnight in yogurt/masala seasoning, cooked in oven briefly), sliced red onions, and diced orange peppers

On left side of pie: Mango chutney base
On right side of pie: Tandoori paste base
On top of pie: Fresh mozz
On bottom of pie: Cubed paneer (to test for melting and flavor)

Overall impressions – Mango chutney base is sweet and tasty! Tandoori paste is overly salty, I may have added too much. I made a cilantro yogurt to finish on top of the tandoori paste side, and it definitely helps. Mozz melds the food together well, while the paneer doesn’t even begin to melt at 550 degree oven under broiler. Will have to test on a WFO at 900+ degrees to see if it melts any better.

What do YOU think Za Pi fans? Any thoughts on what would be great on an Indian based pie? Looking to hear your thoughts!

Partnership – Is it for you? And Chinese Sausage Pie…

Even though this blog’s primary focus is making great pies, part of the blog is also focused on the challenges of starting your own business in the Chicagoland market.  So today, I’d like talk a bit on the idea of business partnerships.

The idea of pursuing your own dream is not only exciting, but can also be a scary thing.  Not only is there the monetary aspect of investment, but also the idea you’ll be fully responsible for the success or failure of your dream in many ways.  While your gung-ho entrepreneur may never admit to the fear aspect, I firmly believe there’s always some nagging gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach that gives you pause/doubt. (I personally imagine it to be kind of like that implanted Alien egg that pops out of the guy’s stomach in Space Balls and starts singing “Helly My Baby”).

One of the ways we help ease our fears in starting the venture is to seek partners who will share not only in the risk, but also the work associated with making the venture successful. But as everyone in the world will tell you, mixing business and friendship (or family for that matter) can result in the destruction of those relationships.  So how does one go about pursuing the business without losing those relationships?  I’ve always firmly believed that it’s the same as any relationship you have: clear expectations.

Whenever you begin a partnership, it’s rare that your partners will commit to the same amount of work as you will whether it’s logistical reasons, interest in the process, or personal drive.  At extreme levels, they may work far faster and harder than you and spend 80+ hours a week on the business or they may do the bare minimum to get by with 1 hour a week.  Ultimately, there is no such thing as a perfectly equal partnership, and if you attempt to provide each individual within your new business equal stake, someone will likely start to develop feelings of discord and resentment.  This is why it’s important to establish those expectation as soon as possible from all partners, along with an identified list of roles, responsibilities, and duties that each partner will be responsible for so that you can hold each other accountable (that includes yourself!)

When Za Pi first started, we believed erroneously that it could be an even split of 33.33% ownership across Gambit, Aku, and myself, which definitely caused some feelings of discontent on my part as we progressed in the project.  It’s a feeling that I’m not comfortable with, as I never like internalizing feelings of unhappiness/disappointment with friends.  How does one separate business and friendship?  You really can’t… as much as you’d like, your interactions aren’t fully separable, and I would argue that they shouldn’t be.  You’ve selected some of your friends to join you because in your mind, you firmly believe that there will be a joy in working together on something to move towards success.  Something that will benefit the friendship and each of you individually.

Luckily, in our most recent conversation, we’ve clarified the work in terms of delegating responsibilities in our pre-kickstarter process as well as when we go live at the farmers markets, which has also helped define how our ownership shares should be distributed amongst the team.  While each of us has committed the same amount of money for investment, anyone that’s started a business can tell that the work required to succeed in business isn’t just about the money (unless you have one individual who is looking to serve as the primary investor and fund the majority of all needs).  The challenge is finding the right balance of ownership for those who are investing more and/or doing more work so that everyone is happy with their roles and ownership.  One would think that this is trivial at the start of any business, but it’s an important detail to be worked out earlier rather than later.  After all, what if the business succeed beyond your wildest dreams and there’s big money at stake?  I’m guessing the conversation gets much more heated when significant money is at stake (think Facebook fallout).  Similarly, if the project crashes and burns, it’s important to know who bears the risk.  Ultimately, I’m just glad that we’ve been able to negotiate amongst ourselves and come to a comfortable consensus  along with clear lines of responsibility.  Don’t forget, if you’re creating a multi-partner LLC, your bank will want a similar description that defines roles and responsibilities for each of your partners.

My advice to you: it’s never too early to start identifying roles/responsibilities in your business venture, and it’s important to revisit them whenever the situation changes.  The honesty between partnerships is paramount in keeping your relationships clear of resentment, and making the partnership work.

And now, a new pie in testing:  Chinese sausage pie!  For those of you who never have had Chinese sausage before, it’s a tasty/fatty cured meat, very similar to salami in concept, but much smaller and sweeter in taste.  I’m not entirely sure what the curing process entails (something to look up later), but there is a definite sweetness that brings back great childhood memories for me.


You’ll see that it has a familiar curl from the oven that pepperoni gives, and the shimmer of delicious flavorful fat that has been rendered out at a high temperature bake which melds nicely with the tomato sauce.  Unfortunately, we need some additional ingredients to help round out the flavor more, as while the sausage is good, the sweetness is a bit much.

Any one with ideas on what may help balance out this favorite ingredient of mine?