Tell us the story of Christianos.
My dad started it in ’96. He had prior experience growing up in Milwaukee, working with some Italian families that ran restaurants. He got to the point in his life where he wanted to live out his passion, and that was always making pizzas. He thought, “Let’s start a restaurant.” I think I was 10 or 11 years old at the time. It was a big life change for us. My dad was doing construction work so he’d leave early in the morning, he’d come home at four or five at night, and we’d all have dinner together. Obviously when the restaurant opened in ’96, our lives changed drastically to the hours of restaurant people. But it’s been fun so far.
What did you enjoy about growing up around the business?
What I loved about it was the interacting with people constantly. It was always exciting, always changing. That is what excited me — seeing the different dynamics of not only your employees, but your customers, and being so involved in so many other people’s lives. That was a big change for our family, obviously. Most people don’t get to be in as many relationships as we’re given the opportunity to be in because of the restaurant business. That was the exciting thing. Especially when you give people good food, they seem to enjoy themselves and it’s usually a pleasant interaction. But even when things don’t go as planned, you have an opportunity to get to know people even on a closer level by how you handle that. That’s what intrigued me about the restaurant business.
I think what I didn’t like was probably the amount of attention that it takes and the hours. It does get hard when you’re working when everyone else has off. The big holidays are busy times for a restaurant. That is obviously the hard part about it. But I think that it’s all relative. Every career has ups and downs. I would rather be working on a Saturday night, hanging out with our employees and our customers, than sitting at home watching TV.
Since you grew up in the business the schedule wasn’t as shocking for you. Do you think that’s a hard adjustment for other people?
People often tell me, “Man, you really work a lot. You’re always here.” But because we did start it when I was so young, it has become a way of life for me. So, I caution people the same way. When friends are thinking about it, I always caution them and make them think about that too. For me it’s easy, because it has become what we do. For some people it is hard. It is totally different, especially when you have a family and they’re at home at night and you’re working. That’s a whole new dynamic and I think it’s important to have the support from your family because it does get challenging at times.
Even with your many years of experience, it’s clear from our previous conversations you are still constantly trying to learn more about the business.
I think in this business, you constantly want to be growing and doing better because it’s constantly changing. The way people are eating and what they’re eating and what they expect out of food and the dining experience are always changing. That’s one of the exciting things about this business — you can’t stay the same.
There are traditions, especially with Italian food, that are never going to change. And there’s one way to treat people and that’s the right way. So, from the service standpoint, I don’t think anyone’s going to ignore good service or not appreciate that. I think those will always stay there. But the different menu items, different toppings — all those types of things are always changing. And it is fun. It’s fun to experiment. Just things like arugula or portobello mushrooms: 15 years ago I don’t think anyone cared if that was on their pizza. Now we see those types of toppings being used so much more.
The cool thing about Wisconsin — some may call it a negative but I think it’s cool — is we’re usually pretty far behind the trends. If something’s been working for someone out in California, it usually becomes popular in Wisconsin two years later. We can piggyback on a lot of that.
Expanding the business
You have three locations. Are they all in different towns?
They are. Probably around a 45-mile radius. So, relatively close.
We just had one location until I graduated college. I guess I was probably more the motivation behind growing when I graduated. At that point we opened our second location. Then I think it was only three years after that we opened our third.
How do you find that balance of knowing when it’s time to go for the next location?
I think we definitely grew too fast, although business has been good. I think it’s been probably more stressful on us than it needs to be. If I could go back I would probably make sure that our systems were a lot stronger, and our processes were a lot stronger.
What’s an example?
It can be anything, like even lasagna recipes. It sounds simple, but if you don’t have a lasagna recipe system in place for making it the right way every time, it’s amazing how your employees can start to sway from how you originally intended it to be made. Recipes can kind of get altered pretty quickly. Handling guest complaints is another. There’s just an array of all aspects of the restaurant that you need to have a clear, clear way of how we do it — the rules of this restaurant. I don’t know if it’s intentional. Sometimes it might be, sometimes it’s not. Some of your employees might start doing it this way, or say, “We’ll try this, this time.” That’s kind of what I mean by systems and processes.
We’ve been able to make it work because I have my siblings involved. We’re very hands-on at all of the stores. But I think for an operator who owns one restaurant and you’re looking to expand, and you don’t have the family help, the people you can trust, who care as much as you do, I think those systems and processes are crucial and will go a long way.
Is it hard as you grow to let go of things and trust other people to do them?
I think it’s very hard. I think it depends on the type of person you are. Most entrepreneurs are the type of people who know that they can do it better themselves. I think that’s why they become entrepreneurs in the first place. They see a problem and they say, “I can do that better.”
I have a good balance with my family. My dad has a little bit of that in him, obviously, whereas I’m probably a little more willing to let other people do some things. But I still think it goes back to those systems. If you can establish “This is how we do it — this is how I know works the best,” then you give that to your people and then you’re managing that system and you’re not managing those people.
I think that’s where a lot of people get in trouble. You can have conversations with people and you assume that it’s common sense to you, but it might not be common sense for that person because we all have different life experiences. That’s why I’m just real big on getting those systems established so that everyone can agree that this is how we do it. It’s not left up to your manager’s perspective on things. It’s not that you don’t want their opinion or their perspective, because I think that’s always good and that can help. But I think at that point if you decide if one of your staff has a good opinion on a way to make something better, you obviously take that and then you make that the new way of doing it. Don’t let people have too much freedom without the structure.
What is your long-term vision for the business?
I don’t know if we have any expectations. We definitely want to grow, because there’s opportunity. We all like that challenge. It’s super exciting opening up stores in new markets and becoming part of new communities. That’s definitely something that we’re going to want to do. One thing that we’re working on right now is making sure that those systems and processes are in place so that if we do expand, it happens the right way. We’re all on the same page there with my family.
When you enter a new market, how do show people that you’re not just another pizza place?
Because our locations are so close, one thing that’s kind of crucial is the brand identity. We’ve been able to carry over strong brand identity from our one store to our second to our third. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I was actually pretty surprised at how much support we’ve had in the new communities right away. What my dad established from the get-go is how you treat people. If you look at how you do business with your employees and with your customers, it really comes down to how you’re making them feel in the transaction. That to me is easy for people to see.
Pizza is pizza. You can have a better quality pizza, but that can always be duplicated. Someone can copy the way we make pizzas or somebody can copy the way we make pasta. People can copy the way we decorate or the music we play. The thing that’s hard to duplicate is how you make people feel. That’s something my parents established right away. We talk about that a lot. And that’s one of the big challenges. How do you get everyone to start thinking that way? When my dad started, it was him doing it. It was him staying open a little later if a table came in at closing time and they wanted to eat. It was him who would leave the ovens on. It was him who would walk our waitstaff girls out to their car at night just so they felt comfortable walking to the back alley. Little things like that I think he did probably without even really knowing he was doing it. He really showed people that he cared about them on a personal level.
How do you teach that mentality?
It is definitely hard. I think people who have been successful spend a lot of time at that part of it. Culver’s is a popular burger franchise in Wisconsin here that’s growing throughout the country. I know they put a lot of emphasis in the people they let run of their franchises. Chick-fil-A is another example. They don’t let just anyone run a Chick-fil-A.
I think that is crucial. You have to find people who have a natural heart for serving other people and a natural heart for wanting to make people feel a certain way. There are so many things that happen throughout the course of the day in the restaurant business. If you don’t have that right mindset, then every situation is going to be different. It really comes down to who’s the leader in your restaurant, and how are they going to handle those situations the right way. I think a lot of people would agree that is the challenge with growing. The people who are successful find good ways to train and educate so that they’re always teaching that philosophy.
You own two locations and you’re leasing one. Tell me about the differences. And what do you think you’ll do going forward?
If you are going into locations that you might be unsure of but you have a gut feeling it might work, you could lease for a couple of years with the option to buy. That’s what we did with one of our stores, and it was great. It gave us a lot of security going in to say, “Well, let’s see how it works for a couple years. Let’s see what business is like.” Really, I don’t think you ever do know. You can always have a good idea, but you could open a store in a location that wasn’t busy before you got there and you could realize, “Holy cow, that’s why this place isn’t busy.” The lease-to-own is always a nice option because it gives a lot of security. From a funding standpoint, a bank loves to see that you have a successful business for a couple years before they’re going to give you a lot of money.
The store that we leased, it’s been nice to have a little less worries and a little less upkeep as far as you have someone plowing your driveway and stuff like that for you. But I think the smarter business move is always try to own the dirt that you’re doing business on. Owning from a business standpoint is always better. But from a security standpoint, being able to lease and not having that huge commitment is always a good option too, maybe even just to get started.
What advice do you have about lease agreements?
The big thing with lease negotiations is that they’re negotiable. One thing I learned from my dad is that everything’s negotiable. Don’t just look at the lease on the wall and say, “Okay, that’s what I’m going to pay. That’s what I’m going to do.” Really try and make it what’s good for your business going into it, because the last thing anyone wants is for you to get into something that’s not good and you are not able to make it work.
In our one location, signage has been an issue. It’s something that you can overlook in the whole process. It’s something I overlooked. It’s the lack of good signage from the road and that’s kind of been a struggle. Consider who pays for what in a lease agreement. If the furnace goes out on the top of the roof, who’s going to pay to fix that? Once you get into it, you really understand the importance of that kind of stuff. You want to be thorough and ask the dumb questions if you have to so that you understand.
Finding a balance
How do you find the balance between looking forward to new locations, but also paying attention to your existing locations?
Our philosophy is that we want to be a blessing to other people and we actually do care about how you feel. I don’t think we ever take that for granted. I think as long as your philosophy is right and you keep that on the forefront of why you’re doing what you’re doing, that’s important. If I get complaints from our first store I’m not going to take that for granted just because it’s been there or just because they’ve had our great established business there. I think it comes down to truly caring about the people. That’s our philosophy. It’s just who we are. I think we care equally about all those things, so that’s how we’ve dealt with that.
But it is hard. It’ll be interesting to see how the future goes because it’s hard to let go. One of the things that is hard to let go of is those relationships that you create with your employees and the customers. Making sure that those things stay intact is a challenge. At the same time, you do want to grow and you want to do better. I guess we’re going to have to see how that goes. If we can keep our mindset right on why we’re doing what we’re doing, I think we can manage that whole process the right way.
How do you attract new customers and try to win them over as regulars?
I think the most effective way is word of mouth. It’s spending time with the customers you do have and making sure that their experience is good. It’s amazing when you get to a different level with your customers as far as more of an emotional experience than just a food experience.
Everyone says that it’s the best form of marketing. But, no one really tells you how to do it. For us it’s been creating those relationships with people on a more personal level and showing them that we do care genuinely about them as people through their dining experience. It can be just showing them that you care when an order gets screwed up, or making sure that they have a condiment they need, just any little thing in recognizing people’s needs. I’ve personally seen how that just changes people’s impression of you and your business. It’s amazing how you can go from just being another restaurant to being the greatest restaurant of all time when people have those experiences in your store.
Other than that, we’ll do some events with the community. Fundraisers are good for everybody. If you can help a local charity raise some money and draw people into your store to help raise money, that’s probably one of the best ways. Maybe not even so much for getting new people in your store on that specific day. But it goes towards creating the relationship with the people that are with that organization, and showing them that you care, that you’re going to maybe give 10 percent of your profits that night to a certain charity. That really means a lot to the people who are running these local organizations. Then they obviously go and talk about that.
That’s what makes this business exciting. If you can teach your employees to look for those opportunities, to go to that next level and show people that you care about them, it makes you as a person feel good doing it for them. It’s something we talk about a lot with our employees. It’s harder for some people than others. A lot of people, they still don’t get it. It’s a funny joke that we have. I just had a conversation with some of our staff the other day. I’m like, “You can give away whatever you want if you need to make someone happy. I’ll yell at you after the fact.” (Laughs.) You have the freedom and confidence to do whatever you think you need to do to make sure that that person understands that we care about them. It’s not a natural thing for a lot of people. To get people to think outside the box, to go that extra mile for people, it’s interesting and challenging. But when you see it happen, it’s a good feeling for everybody.
Treat other people how you’d want to be treated. It really is a simple but profound business philosophy that works every time. It requires reminding people, “Would you really want to be treated like that?” It’s a simple concept that is very overlooked, especially in today’s society.
Are there any books that you would recommend for people getting into the restaurant business?
Setting the Table by Danny Meyer is an awesome book, and is helpful not only for the restaurant business but for business in general. And speaking of Chick-fil-A, Truett Cathy (Chic-fil-A’s founder) has written a lot of books. Any book that he’s written has been really good.
Start with Why by Simon Sinek goes along with that same philosophy of why do you do what you do. Everyone knows what they do, but not always why. He uses a lot of examples of the companies that really understand their why, and it’s clear that they’re running a superior business to the companies that don’t understand their why. Those three books, those three authors, have been good.
Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.