June 19, 2023

Edwin Huete’s Winding Path To Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

by Joe Bonadio

It has been nearly five years since we started the Seven Ovens blog, and in that  time I’ve had the chance to interview over a dozen of the major players on the Tony’s Pizza Napoletana staff. From bartenders to pizza makers, from servers to  managers and more, in these pages I’ve explored the stories behind some of the  most talented people working in the service industry today.

I really enjoy conducting these staff interviews, because they give readers a closer, more personal look at the work that underpins a category-defining  restaurant like Tony’s. The skill, the dedication, the sheer commitment of energy  is always inspiring to me, and that resonates with our readers. Perhaps best of all, in the process of writing these articles I’ve gotten to know the staff very well  indeed.

This time around, we’ll be talking to Tony’s Manager Edwin Huete. Part of the Tony’s managerial team since 2019, Edwin is one of the most familiar faces on the floor at Tony’s, and I’ve known him since his first days here. Suffice to say, this interview is a long time in coming. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: I’ve never asked you where you’re from.  

Edwin Huete: Nicaragua. I went through the revolution in Nicaragua fighting for the Sandinistas. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

JB: Sure.

EH: So I went to the fields, and started fighting [former Nicaraguan President Anastasio] Somoza. And I ended up in jail.

JB: How did that happen?

EH: After the end of the revolution, they kicked out the Somoza government. And I didn’t like the situation, what they were telling us. From what my boss was telling me, I wasn’t going to be happy with the country that we were becoming.

Everything changed. But not the way I expected. I grew up with my grandmother and grandfather, and they had a lot of money. A lot of property, like 400 acres, and a lot of livestock. When the Sandinistas won, they took all that my family  had. They thought it was connected to Somoza, that’s what they said.

And I was still in the military, working for the Sandinistas. I fought in the mountains for two and a half years—and that’s not what I fought for. So I left, and I started working with the organization that formed from the families that were unhappy with the situation—the Contras.

Edwin Huete in front of Tony's Pizza

Edwin Huete in front of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, his home of four years. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: How old were you when you started fighting for the Sandinistas?

EH: Sixteen years old.

JB: Wow. So did they put you in jail for working with the Contras? 

EH: Yes.

JB: You were a political prisoner.

EH: Yes. I was a political prisoner for seven years. The sentence was fourteen years, but they ended up counting the time night and day.

JB: Seven years of your life.

EH: I was 18 years old when I went in, and I was almost 26 when I got out. And after I was released, I found out that the Sandinistas were looking for me—to put me back in jail.

So I came to the United States.

JB: You didn’t really have a choice.

EH: Yeah. So I came up through Texas. They arrested me at the border, and they held me for 24 hours. They asked me “What do you have?” I had my letters, and I gave them to the officer. Big, tall guy, military guy. I said “Here are my papers,  and this is who I am.”

JB: Your papers showed that you were military, too.

EH: Right. So he asked me why I came to the United States. And I told him I was looking for protection, to get away from the Sandinistas.

He looked at my papers, and he said “Okay. Good.” And they gave me political asylum in the United States.

A fifteen-year-old Edwin

A fifteen-year-old Edwin at his grandparents’ home in Nicaragua. | Photo Courtesy of Edwin Huete

JB: That same day?

EH: The same day. They let me go, and said You can go wherever you want to go in the United States of America.

JB: That’s fantastic! That’s not usually how things go down. 

EH: At the border? Are you kidding me? [Laughter] 

JB: You must have done something really good in a past life. Okay, so now you’re in Texas. How did you get into the restaurant business?

EH: Well, first I came straight to San Francisco.

JB: Why San Francisco?

EH: Because the person who helped me to come to the U.S., I owed her $1,500. And she lived here. She was very close with my grandparents.

So when I got here, I went to the Social Security Department, and said I’m looking for a job. They said Yes, let me help you.

But you know, it was a difficult time to be speaking only Spanish. San Francisco is a beautiful city, the people are beautiful, just lovely people.

JB: But it’s difficult if you can’t speak the language.

EH: Correct. So I went down to the Social Security office at Mission and Cesar Chavez. I went in, and they said ‘We have a job right here. They need a dishwasher.” Down in Fisherman’s Wharf. I was like, What’s Fisherman’s Wharf? 

That was a TGI Friday’s. That was right when they opened, at the end of Powell Street. And I met a guy named Doug Blosser, the General Manager. American guy. He led me into the kitchen, and he did this [Makes dishwashing motions with his hands]. 

And I said, Okay. And I started working there from 7:30 AM to Midnight. I did it seven days a week for the first three weeks. And I loved it. The kitchen staff at that time was African Americans and whites, no Latinos. I was the only Latino.

$2.37 an hour. Damn good money! [Laughs]

JB: Want to hear something funny? My first job was dishwasher. I made $2.75!

EH: Wow, that’s a lot!

JB: So how long were you at Friday’s?

EH: I worked there for over a year and a half. But while I was there, the GM not only trained me, but he told me to bring in a second person. And one day a big tall guy came in, and I told him, I have a job for you. So now I’m recruiting. I taught him—and now we had two Latinos in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the Director of Operations for TGI Friday’s was a woman named Maureen Tramontana. She had a sister named Susan who worked as a  bartender. These were the two people who helped me to grow in the business. They taught me so many things about the kitchen. Prepping, cooking, everything  you need to know in a restaurant.

Then one day, they were gone. When I got back home, I received a call from Maureen. I had a little more English at this point, and I asked her where she  went. She told me Red Robin. She asked me to meet her at a location over in  San Bruno: “I’ll see you there at 3:00 on Friday.”

And I said, Okay.

JB: And you followed her.

EH: Yes. I left TGI Friday’s, and I started working for her at Red Robin. And I was  there for over seventeen years.

JB: Seventeen years! What were you doing for them?

EH: I started cooking, and I learned all the basics, and all the things I didn’t already know. In a year and a half, I was Supervisor in the kitchen. Two years  later, I was Kitchen Manager.

JB: And these are very big restaurants. What, 200 seats?

EH: Yes, about 200. Pretty soon they put me to work on controlling costs, and fixing problems in the kitchen. The franchise owner had seven restaurants, and I would help the other locations sometimes.

One day, Red Robin International came in for an inspection. Out of hundreds of stores, I ended up earning the highest ratings in the company. I did that three years in a row. So when it came time for Red Robin to choose one restaurant as the training center for the company, they picked my location.

JB: That’s a game changer.

EH: Yes. They took good care of me—and I trained a lot of managers. Anywhere in the United States, I can find someone who used to work for me, someone that I trained.

So I learned a lot from them. But after seventeen years, the franchise sold. You know who bought it? Red Robin International—they bought it back. At that point, I was the Regional Kitchen Manager for fourteen restaurants.

Maureen Tramontano came to me then, and said Edwin, it’s time to go.

JB: Wow, she still had your back. So how did you finally end up with Tony?

EH: Well, at that time, I realized that I knew what I was doing. I was working for a few years at California Pizza Kitchen. I took a couple of months off, and found that I was starting to get bored doing nothing. So I put my resumé online, and I went down to see my mom in Nicaragua.

When I got back I checked my email, and I’ve got a bunch of responses. The first one is from a Buffalo Wings place. The second is from Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. And there was one from Buca di Beppo.

Now I’m coming from the world of wings and burgers, so I knew that would be an easy step. But I wanted to learn more about Italian food. I ended up interviewing at Buca Di Beppo, and they hired me. So I was off to San Mateo.

I learned a lot there. I learned how to make pizza, everything about the dough. I worked there for a year and half—and I loved it. But I wanted to do something better, and I was tired of living in San Mateo. I’d been in the Bay Area for 30 years! I needed to be in the city.

Edwin enjoying a moment at Tony's

Edwin enjoying a moment with the sailors at Tony’s during a recent Fleet Week celebration. | Photo Courtesy of Edwin Huete

JB: So that’s where Tony’s comes in.

EH: Yes. First I spoke with Bill (Ginsburg, VP of Operations at Slice House by Tony Gemignani). He brought me in to meet with Natale (Cardamone, Tony’s GM), and we spoke for 20 or 30 minutes.

Natale said “I’m looking for someone to help me keep this thing together.” He  told me he was brand-new, and that he liked that I had a lot of experience dealing with customers and fixing problems. He asked me lots of questions about my other positions, and told me they’d let me know the next day.

Before I left, I explained to him that Buca di Beppo was pushing me to stay, but that I really wanted something in the city. Finally, I told Natale I wanted a position that I could retire from.

He said, I think this is your position. Twelve hours later, he called me back and said “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

JB: So that was four and a half years ago. As someone who has been in the restaurant industry for a long time, let me ask you: What do you think makes Tony’s different?

EH: Well, I can answer this way. One of the things that made me decide to work here was Tony himself. I saw this guy in an apron with flour all over it, wearing  kitchen shoes. And I thought: you’re the owner?

Let me tell you something. A restaurant is a hard place to work, and when I see this guy working as hard as anybody, that’s all it took—that was the guy I  wanted to work for.