Brian Coli, co-owner of this emerging Chicago-area chain, talks about what it takes to be successful in today's pizza segment, including equipment, labor and more.
"My dad had a pizza place in Elmwood Park, Ill., 25 years ago, and the two women who worked for him had developed the original Chicago-style pizza recipe that was used at one of the city's most iconic pizzerias," says Brian Coli, co-owner of Georgio's pizza, which now has locations in the Chicago suburbs of Crystal Lake, Algonquin and South Barrington, the latter of which opened this past June.
When the two women were lured back to the city pizzeria, they allowed the Elmwood Park restaurant to utilize their recipe, which was then passed down to Coli and Georgio's.
Coli spoke with FE&S about his operation and the pizza segment overall, discussing the challenges and key equipment.
FE&S: What makes the pizza segment unique?
BC: Pizzerias are more of a family gathering place than standard restaurants, where everyone gets their own entrées. Pizza is a dish everyone can share. Also, pizza is affordable. The price per person comes down when sharing a pizza to about $5 a person rather than $9 to $12 per entrée at other restaurants. It harkens back to the days of family dinners and this has made pizzerias a draw in this economy.
FE&S: How have you set yourself apart from your competition in this crowded field?
BC: It depends on the comparison, but 95 percent of the time it is the quality of our food that sets us apart. We try to have the best service and still have a vibrant, comfortable atmosphere. We are not a fine dining restaurant, but our service and ambiance is better than [what consumers] expect for a typical pizza parlor. We have Chicago sports on all our TVs to keep customers entertained. Our new Barrington location will have an open kitchen so customers can watch their pizzas being made and cooked, which is not typical of many pizzerias. We also keep our menu simple, concentrating on the things we do well, and not adding items just because they're trendy. Our menus are consistent at all of our locations.
FE&S: What are the biggest challenges you face as an operator?
BC: In growing from one location to three, consistency between all of our sites can be a challenge. This includes service as well as food. Labor and employee turnover also is an issue. We've brought some of our employees over to our newest location to help keep everything consistent.
FE&S: How can pizza operators distinguish themselves in this competitive segment?
BC: It always goes back to having the best pizza you can, and from there it's word of mouth. Many restaurants claim to have the best pizza, but it's something we work on every day. It also helps having good people and managers in place.
FE&S: What equipment innovations have been invaluable to your business?
BC: We just switched out our ovens to a modified version with two-inch thick stones, which are a half-inch thicker than the stones we had used. These stay hotter longer, so we can cook more pizzas in an hour than we could before.
FE&S: What are the key attributes you look for when purchasing foodservice equipment?
BC: It depends on the equipment. With ovens, there are a lot of factors, including how fast pizza cooks and the quality of the finished product. The equipment also has to last. The most important consideration is whether the unit is a good fit with our product.
FE&S: What piece of equipment is most valuable to your operation?
BC: Pizza ovens are the most valuable equipment we use. Also, dough rollers are pretty important right now, as well.
FE&S: If you could design a piece of equipment that would increase your efficiencies and speed of service, what would it do?
BC: A lot of the things we do are by hand, like prepping pizza pans and pushing the dough down. There are some automated systems for these tasks, and they are meant for speed, but we've found they alter our product and impact the quality.
FE&S: What are your plans for the future?
BC: If everything goes well with our current locations, we would like to open a new location every two to three years. Right now, we plan to stay in the Chicago area so we have as much control as we can. Our long-term plan may include locations out of the area.
FE&S: What is the one piece of advice you would give someone starting out in the pizza segment?
BC: It's important to have a lot of experience behind you. Work at a place first to learn the business before going out on your own. There are many people that can make a pizza and open a restaurant, but not everyone is successful. It's important to know all aspects of the business, from running it to the business management side and marketing. It's not just about making a good pizza. Small business owners wear a lot of hats and have to know how to get people in the door.