I had the pleasure of speaking recently with Pete Taylor as his Wood-fired Pizza and Wine Bar closes in on two years of operation on June 27. I am pleased to report that Peter is having the time of his life and is loving what he is doing. In fact, as can be seen at his website at http://wood-firedpizza.com/default.aspx
, he will soon be opening a second location in downtown St. Petersburg with a new name Pete’s Wood Fired Pizza. If things go well, there may be future expansion of his business and, in this vein, he has been conducting discussions with potential investors with this goal in mind. When I asked him if it was about the money, he said no--it was not about improving his financial condition. He would like to do something that others have not done before. So, he is in a building and collaborative frame of mind but at the same time he wants to have fun and help others to succeed as he succeeds and to give back to the community. He is not interested in a “man and his oven” business model along the lines of a Dom DeMarco or Anthony Mangieri. He respects what they do, but that is not what he wants to do. Peter also mentioned that his best friend, who recenty lost both his wife and his dog, is moving to Florida to help Peter "climb the mountain".
One of the things I have wondered is what he has learned from his almost two years of operation. We spoke at length about this. He said that finding and hiring and retaining good workers has been an ongoing challenge. I thought that he might have talked about the pizza and its critical role in the business. But what most surprised me is that he said that pizza was just a small part of the business. It is an important element, to be sure, but it is not the most important part, at least not in his business. He mentioned that seventy five percent of diners are OK with OK food quality but they will not tolerate poor service or being poorly treated. That was an eye-opener for him. So, Peter has worked very hard on the service and hospitality parts of the business. For example, Peter has set up procedures such that as soon as someone opens the door to his place they are greeted within thirty seconds. Upon seating, drink orders are taken and within thirty seconds to a minute, drinks are on the table, whether it is just water or a $150 bottle of wine. Food is targeted to be on the table within thirty minutes for lunch and forty-five minutes for dinner. Everyone is trained to have this mindset.
Peter also stressed the importance of all of the things that surround the pizza menu. He said that for what he is trying to do it is important to have “killer” appetizers, great homemade desserts and, in his case, good wines and craft beers. He was told by one customer recently that his place has the most comfortable seating of any eating establishment he had ever eaten at. Peter told the customer that he was not trying to turn tables. He wants his customers to be so satisfied with the food and service and enjoy the dining experience that they will want to return to his place over and over again as a destination restaurant. And Peter has not spared the effort on food quality. He makes his own dough (and mostly hand kneaded), based on a natural leavening system (a local species) and long room temperature fermentation, which he believes produces the best tasting crust possible. He also has a farmer who grows a certain type of organic San Marzano tomatoes for him. The basil and oregano are also organic. Peter and his staff make their own mozzarella cheese (they do not use bufala). In many respects, he is doing the sorts of things that Chris Bianco had been doing for years with Pizzeria Bianco.
Peter’s staff, which now numbers eleven people (including two chefs with culinary training but cannot find jobs), fully understand what Peter is trying to do and what he expects of them. There is a lot of cross training. Four of his staff know how to work with the natural starters and there are four staff members who know how to make the dough. The staff also knows how to make the fresh mozzarella cheese. All of this not only allows Peter to focus on the bigger issues of running the business but also ensures that there will not be problems in those areas. One thing they are not allowed to do is to make any changes in the dough or how the pizzas are made. That part is sacred. To paraphrase Peter, his pizzas are one part Neapolitan, one part New York and one part Peter Taylor. They are inseparable. For those who are interested, his Raquel oven has worked out very well.
As one might expect, all of the effort that Peter and his staff have put into the business has not gone unnoticed. The restaurant has been very well received by the community and it gets high marks in reviews by the local media.
Before composing this post, I asked Peter if he minded if I updated the members on his progress. I mentioned that the forum has many members who have developed their pizza making skills to the point where they are so good that they may be on the cusp of opening their own pizza places and might find it helpful to know some of the challenges of opening and running a successful pizza business. He said that he was not expecting that but would be honored if I did that.