Pizzeria Owner Turned Book Author Dishes on His Success

by Kristine Hansen

5 min read

Nick’s Pizza & Pub is more than just a restaurant for owner Nick Sarillo (pictured), who started the small business in Crystal Lake, Ill., in 1995 and opened a second location in Elgin a decade later. Beyond making delicious pizzas, his goal has been to create a rustic, family-oriented atmosphere that’s inviting and fun.

In his new book, A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business, Sarillo offers tips for cultivating a work environment that engages employees and rising above the competition to gain national attention and recognition. For starters, the company’s values — such as fostering work-life balance and treating people with respect — are clearly outlined on its website. In lieu of traditional advertising, Sarillo gives back to the community, which helps spread the word about his restaurant.

“Instead of an ad budget of 3 to 4 percent, our budget is 5 percent of net sales per restaurant in giving back to the communities [they’re] in,” Sarillo explains. “One example is the benefit we just did with the literacy program for the elementary schools in Crystal Lake, in which we raised over $3,000.”

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently caught up with Sarillo, who was in the throes of his book launch, to dish about his success.

ISBB: What is it about today’s economic climate that makes it a good time to launch a food-related business, whether it’s a restaurant or a product?

Sarillo: There is no disputing the fact that Americans have made “eating out” a regular routine in their lives. Just like in any market, there is always opportunity if you can find a way to be unique. I don’t know if everyone would say it’s a good time now, but I do think there are far fewer barriers to entry now. It’s not about your MBA qualifications — it’s about being creative. The funny thing is, we managed to take something simple, and what could be considered mundane, and make it unique.

What were some of your challenges — and how did you overcome them?

The challenge in a land where everything seems to be overdone is to be creative at every level. It can’t just be the “what”; you must connect with the “why” for yourself, your people, and [your] customers. I think it is a matter of having a strong will and the discipline to stay focused and to overcome all the distractions in today’s world.

When growing a small business, what qualities should you hold onto, so that the initial focus or charm is not lost in the shuffle?

The qualities that define who you, the company, are — your purpose and values — or the qualities that define the culture you want to have. Just as important is to let go of the elements of the culture you don’t want, which sometimes could be a longtime employee. The other really important thing is strong financial discipline: Be clear of the daily/weekly/period metrics that are agreed upon to be held as non-negotiable, and maintain a healthy balance sheet.

Pizzerias are a dime a dozen, especially in Chicago, but yours managed to capture the attention of many people. What is it about Nick’s Pizza & Pub that made a good national story and earned you so much press?

That is true: Pizzerias and restaurants are in plentiful supply. Just like in any market for just about any business in America today, what you make or do can become a commodity. We must find a way to differentiate ourselves.

I never sought out any of the press we have received over the years, and yet we have received a lot of national attention for a small local company. I truly believe it is the result of being so clear about who we are and how we are different from the average restaurant company.

Our purpose is specific and written in present tense, a real connection to “why” we exist [as a company]. There is nothing about “what” we do. Our values are the same — clear, specific, and [written] in present-tense, the “how” we do what we do. My team owns these things, and we use and communicate these things in everything we do, so much so that the purpose and values define our culture. I believe in the people I work with and support them to succeed. This belief and our strong positive culture have resulted in some amazing things. That really is what it’s all about. No spin, no advertising, no super-human tricks — just real, everyday people “on purpose.”

Many small-business owners find outside advice to be very helpful when growing their business. What do you recommend in terms of seeking that out?

Like many entrepreneurs, I am skeptical of consultants, but I realize there might be a time and a place for them. The right consultant, as an outside observer, can take you and your company to the next level or get you unstuck.

The important thing to remember is that the “right” consultant needs to be a fit for the company. From my own experiences with consultants, I’ve learned the best fits are the ones who are more like guides, supporting you and the company with what fits for you and also has skin in the game in some way. It can be very useful for an outside observer to give you constructive feedback. Just be aware of those who only want to sell you their cookie-cutter product.

In growing your business, you gave your employees ample tools to succeed. Can empowering employees lead to higher retention and better job performance?

Yes, yes, yes! Providing employees with not only the tools for their jobs, but also life skills, supports each of them to be empowered. As leaders, we must make sure our team members feel accepted and supported and set up to be successful — and then get out of the way, because they will outperform our wildest dreams.

In your book, you talk about tracking metrics. What are some examples?

First there are the typical financial metrics tied to daily/weekly/period sales and costs. We have sales goals for each of those time frames, and we have food, beverage, and labor goals for each of those as well. In many companies, they hold the financial metrics as the only metrics of success.

What is different for us is that we also track behavior metrics that support our purpose, which I call “The Nick’s Experience.” For example, we track how many times the guest requests a server or bartender, reinforcing connections. Another example is with our carryout cashiers: Talking with the guest and starting conversations is actually tracked.

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