Students Get A Taste Of The Restaurant Business
On Wednesday, Feb. 17, four fast-casual restaurant entrepreneurs spoke to Georgetown University students in Fisher Colloquium. The panelists included Co-founder of &Pizza, Michael Lastoria, Chief Executive of Cava Group, Inc., Brett Schulman, CEO of Nando’s Peri-Peri USA, Burton Heiss, and Co-owner of Taylor Gourmet Handcrafted Hoagies, Casey Patten.
The restaurateurs began their talk by emphasizing the importance of creativity and perseverance in the “fast casual dining” industry, a booming presence in Washington, D.C.
“You have to stay fresh and stay relevant within the culture that you build and the menu you create. Local ingredients, seasonality – that all helps with marketing and reengagement with customers,” Patten said.
Schulman agreed, noting how restaurant competition often lies within the business itself, saying, “We are our biggest competition. If we want to do better tomorrow, then we have to ask ourselves what we are doing today.”
By creating a unique consumer brand, as well as a cultural identity, businesses are able to embrace their creative side and further engage with the customer.
“Be fearlessly weird with your ideas,” Lastoria said. “The brand architecture of &Pizza lends itself to doing things differently and outside of the box. We are constantly trying new things – not being afraid is the key to innovation and long-term success.”
Due the fast-paced nature of the restaurant business, many startups try to add unrealistic initiatives or divert from the core values of their business, the panelists said. More often than not, this added level of commitment pulls time away from innovation. Therefore, the group advocated for staying nimble and fresh to the general public.
“If you are constantly chasing something, you’ll never get there,” Heiss advised. “Running a restaurant is about patience and consistency. Be true to your business.”
Being true to the business also means dedicating time and money to invest in the brand culture – as well as the employees.
“We want positive people in our organization who are passionate about food and hospitality. The types of people you bring into your organization are going to reflect the voice and the values of your business,” Schulman said.
Lastoria added, “We looked to hire people who we felt represented the neighborhood and the community verses people who were just efficient at making pizzas. At times, that hurt us because we were slower. Even today, we might not have Chipotle-level efficiency, but we do have people who embody the brand and embrace what it means to be part of the ‘& family.’”
After discussing some of the key ingredients that make their restaurants tick, the panelists offered some advice for the hungry student entrepreneurs in the audience.
“Get uncomfortable being consistently uncomfortable,” Lastoria joked. “It’s a long journey. But aspire to be original and create a product the world needs. Then, if you fail, you fail knowing you tried something different and you gave it your all.”
Although he noted that the majority of start-ups fail, Heiss had one final point of advice to the next generation of restaurateurs: “Success is not what you have to do, it’s who you have to be.”