May 21, 2014

Respecting the Craft: Opening Day

Three restaurants opening within 10 days — How am I going to do it?

I am literally 10 days away from opening two new restaurants in Northern California at a casino called Graton. This is one of the biggest tribal casinos in the U.S. and we were selected to be there. There we will be an 8,200 square-foot Tony’s of North Beach and a 1,000 square-foot Slice House.

It was crazy — Pizza Rock was near 12 weeks delayed and the two new places were practically a week early. Ideally, we wanted them spread out by three months but that wasn’t the case. With delays in Vegas, that’s when it caught up to us. I had a total of almost 250 new employees and I had to get them trained for some giant openings. Two months prior to the Graton project, I hired my kitchen management, GM and AGM who were training at one of my existing locations. It is important to train your core group before hiring your entire staff and everyone begins training.

At the beginning of Pizza Rock Vegas’ orientation I had a team that was part of a guerilla hiring program for the entire Graton staff. So after three-day introduction in Vegas, I spent the next three days at Graton doing it all over again with three to five days of training. This all happened quickly before our first practice mock opening.

Not only were my team hiring nearly 125 employees at the casino, the casino itself and other restaurants had a combined 2,200 jobs in a town that couldn’t support it (more on that in next month’s column).

In the month of October, my partner George and I were on a plane 17 times. As I was gone from Las Vegas back to Graton and then vice versa, I had a core group of trainers dedicated for each line, covering pantry, pastry and pasta, wood fire, NY slice, dough, sausage-link production, and Romana-, Sicilian- and classic American-style pizzas. My front of the house was handled by our new GM and AGM and a territory manager who was a previous GM from Pizza Rock Sacramento. I had my mixologist from SF and bar manager flown in to handle the bar and my wine specialist assisting the wine program, which were very different and select from each location. I even had Bar Rescue’s Bartending extraordinaire Russell Davis come in for some amazing cocktails and a pre-training party. This thrilled the staff and was another part of the marketing campaign.

Everyone had a specific duty and were specialists in their own areas. This kept from stretching George and myself too thin and saved me money in the end. Always have more than enough trainers and help to support the new crew. The family feel of owners who can lead by example and their team is important for morale and camaraderie. Sure there was some confusion, as operations differed at each location, but remembering everyone’s names was the hardest.

The official opening of the new Graton casino was pretty amazing with nearly 40,000 people on day one. We did weekly numbers that I thought were impossible to achieve especially with an unseasoned new team. I treated it like a festival and for seven days straight it was. Several other restaurants ran out of food and had to close early. We did not. At Slice House alone we sold over 2,000 slices on opening day. It was a mad house and I loved it.

During openings, I typically take 30 percent of my seating out so we can handle it. It’s always better to make sure that 100 percent of the customers feel happy and served plus our team builds confidence both in the back of the house and front. Once we establish that our crew can handle the business and we strengthen our systems and flow, we add 5 percent seating each week until we reach our max. This also helps if a launch happens to be slow. It always better to be full than half full. Having a host can help a lot to hold the door and seating which will assist our staff when keeping up with a rush.

When somebody says: “do you think we will pull it off?” I say: “We aren’t just going to pull it off. We are going to kill it.” We did,   and all three openings were giant successes.

RESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento.  Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.