Independent Operator of the Year: Pizza Shuttle
MILWAUKEE — Closing manager's log, Friday, Dec. 15, Pizza Shuttle: "Mark, Lou: Last night, we got slammed with a lot of people in a short time. I had security lock front door — to control flow. The groups waiting outside started fighting (on sidewalk & in parking area. Most of them went across the street to George Webb (a diner). Police were called. Big fight at George Webb. Police were called again. Police came and people were running all over. One customer was removed from here. But other than that, everything was good in our store — no problems. — Billy."
 
It's Saturday morning, Dec. 16, and Pizza Shuttle co-owner Mark Gold laughs as he reads the manager's note.
 
"It's always crazy on Fridays, crazy as hell," he says.
Pizza Shuttle owners
Pizza Shuttle owners Louie Siecinski and Mark Gold.
    All photos by Steve Coomes
But his smile fades as he reviews yesterday's take: 1,100 orders totaling sales of nearly $21,000. "I know that's a lot of sales, but that's only moderately busy for a Friday for us."
 
A moderately busy day at Pizza Shuttle is a strong week in an above-average pizzeria. But Pizza Shuttle is well beyond above average; its 2006 sales were a stratospherically high $5.5 million.
 
Gold's not ungrateful for the slower-than-usual night, he's just realistic. The mild December weather has trimmed delivery orders, which make up 70 percent of Pizza Shuttle's business. A good Friday is more like $23,000 in sales.
 
"When we had a snowstorm a couple of weeks ago, I had 18 drivers on that night — and I could have used five more," Gold said. "When we have a cold spell, that really keeps people in. We did $25,000 in one day recently."
 
To the launch pad
 
Pizza Shuttle wasn't always so busy. Gold and co-owner Louie Siecinski founded the business 21 years ago dreaming they'd create an easily duplicable model like Domino's Pizza, where Gold learned the trade. In 19 months, the pair had three stores — none of which was a star performer. Realizing they were stretched too thin, the owners closed two stores to focus on one in 1989.
 
Business stayed steady, but it didn't skyrocket like the pair hoped. Gold worked around the clock while his wife worked to cover their household expenses; Siecinski's wife did the same, while he took a second job to keep his own domicile afloat. Though the owners refueled Pizza Shuttle with every penny they made, it remained on the launch pad.
 
For some time, Siecinski, a former cook in an Italian restaurant, urged Gold to broaden the pizzeria's menu to draw more customers. He believed doing so would help differentiate it from the competition. Gold wanted to keep things simple and resisted for some time. But in 1994, he relented and let his friend have his way.
 
Fried fish and chicken came alongside subs and fresh custard (a Milwaukee favorite even in the winter) and sales started roaring. In 1995, a relocation to a high-foot-traffic urban location helped Pizza Shuttle crack the $1 million sales mark, and the very next year, sales doubled.
 
"I didn't wanna expand the menu, but Louie was right," Gold said. "We don't always agree on everything, but he was right on that."
 
Imperfectly perfect pair
 
Siecinski agreed he and Gold don't always see eye to eye, but he believes their offsetting personalities help keep Pizza Shuttle on course.
 
"His works well for some things around here and mine works for other things," Siecinski said, smiling. "I'm more the interior management part who likes Pizza Shuttle Makelineto have the open office to talk to employees. He's great with promotions and ideas."
 
Irene Schulz, a retired factory employee who makes quality assurance calls to Pizza Shuttle delivery customers, puts it another way: "My bosses are nice people. Mark keeps me laughing. ... You can get the shirt off Mark's back."
 
To which Gold quips, "Yeah, that's why we've got Louie: so we stay in business."
 
Siecinski and Gold are a rare breed among business co-owners. Each works opposite days and racks up only 45 hours a week. Though they communicate well about each day's events, Siecinski said, "If we had to work together, it probably wouldn't work out."
 
Siecinski said employees like knowing an owner is on premises nearly all the time.
 
"It's important for the employees to know that we're in this war with them," he said. "But it's also why we have key people here. We can delegate to them. We don't have to be here when we open or close anymore. That took a lot of time and work to find the right people."
 
Employee longevity
 
Compared to its peers, Pizza Shuttle isn't plagued by turnover so common to the industry, especially among its managers. Shift manager Brian Benjamin started as a driver in 1985, and he now handles the pizza production area. Akef Allwashah, who oversees the bustling delivery dispatch area, started as a driver in 1991. Shahrin Juahmad has been a shift manager for four years, floating between stations as business warrants.
 
Siecinski believes the combination of good hires and a good work environment is essential to the team's longevity.
 
"I can't make people happy, but I can do my best to make this business enjoyable while they're here," he said. "I tell new employees to come here and use their hearts. I don't ask for 100 percent; we believe in a little leniency. You don't have to be perfect."
 
During most shifts, three managers oversee operations: one in delivery, one in the kitchen and one floater. Such focused leadership ensures everyone stays on task, Siecinski said, and despite the high labor cost — typically 29 percent of sales — he believes it's worth it.
 
"Some franchises say you have to have 18 percent labor ... but we want our managers to have as little stress as possible," he said. "When they're relaxed, they do the best job. That 29 is not that big a deal because of the volume. ... To do what we do, everyone has to be doing their jobs, so it's worth it."
 
Gold said balancing the needs of a staff of 120 with the high demands of a huge business takes a lot of skills in employee relations. He once hired a manager who accomplished every goal the owners set for him, but when they learned the employees thought him a mean taskmaster, they had to fire him.
 
 
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Perks work, too, Gold said. The company shares its corporate tickets for Milwaukee Brewers' games with employees, gives them holiday cash bonuses and gifts and often loans them money — to be paid back through payroll deductions — when they're short on cash.
 
"The owners are both great bosses," said Eric Schauwitzer, who has worked in multiple positions since 1998. "Any aspect of my life I need help with ... financially, they'll help me with money. If I'm having a bad day they'll talk to me. They're real people."
 
The maddening crowd
 
Schauwitzer called
Pizza SHuttle crowd shot
At midnight, the second rush of the day begins. A third rush will start sometime after 2 a.m.
the Pizza Shuttle crowd "a colorful bunch," but Gold said that's putting it mildly.
 
"There are so many crazy stories that I black out on most of those," he said. "Coming in here late on a Friday night is like an episode of 'E.R.' Crazy people are screaming ... you expect to see blood everywhere. But (the staff) is taking care of business like it's normal. There's a funny vibe about this place. People love to come here."
 
Schauwitzer recalled the time an unstable man came to the pizza counter bearing a wrench. "He started grabbing all the toppings off the pizzas and wiping them onto his face." He's also had "drunk or high" customers jump the counter and throw pizzas at employees. Crowd control is such an issue on busy nights that two armed security guards patrol the premises.
 
Pizza Shuttle's urban location near four colleges and an economically depressed area of town is both a blessing and a curse, Gold said. While it makes for great business, the diverse crowd it draws stirs social anxieties. "You'll see it at about 2 a.m. on a Friday night, the dining room's crowded, people have been out drinking all night and one person bumps another and a fight starts."
 
Pizza Shuttle's recently remodeled the dining room — seating doubled to 100, not including 30 outdoor seats ready for summer — will add some elbow room between patrons and hopefully diffuse some of the tension. Additionally, 2007 will see the kitchen and storage area expanded by 2,000 square feet to increase output capacity and turn tables dramatically faster.
 
Remodeling is a headache, Gold said, but the problems that come with it are welcome when it benefits the business.
 
"We think all this will help make the place a little easier to manage," Gold said, adding he expects the business will gross $6 million this year. "But what'll probably happen is it'll all just fill up again and we'll be back in the same situation. The people we have to lock the doors on to keep out will get in now!"

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