A Slice of the Pie


Running a restaurant is believed to be one of the most businesses to maintain. So, imagine managing two restaurants during turbulent economic times. Against the advice of his financial advisors, Nick Sarillo, owner of the popular Nick's Pizza in suburban Chicago, does just that.

In his book, A Slice of the Pie, Sarillo takes a deep dive into building a business culture that is so clear and strong, his infectious enthusiasm spreads to Sarillo's employees and brings customers back again and again.

Because of his innate business sense, his two restaurants gross six times the revenue of a comparable pizza restaurant, with an annual employee turnover rate of less than 20 percent.

Sarillo's background, however, never would have suggested such success.

The former carpenter decided to open his first family restaurant with no traditional business training. His father had owned a pizzeria, but mistrusted his employees and had a traditional top-down management style.

The younger Sarillo watched and learned that employees respond better when their opinions are valued and they become part of the business' planning and growth process.

Even when his father chided him for not building this restaurant on the cheap and for asking employees for their feedback, Sarillo remained focused on creating a customer experience that would be superior to his competitors.

Feedback from his employees was a deciding factor in Sarillo's tracking and rewarding metrics. The employee feedback allowed for various personalities within a well-understood value system.

Adding a second Nick's Pizza location provides a good case study for business owners contemplating a similar move. In his book, Sarillo outlines the managerial systems and metrics that made this expansion happen successfully.

Despite the rigors of managing two large family restaurants, Sarillo maintained the ability to step back and analyze his operation. This ability to "work on the business, not in the business" included improving efficiencies, engaging in self-improvement, and (for the most part) not micromanaging his people.

Sarillo acknowledges his weaknesses. His lack of financial understanding, the economic upheaval of 2008, and a planned expansion underway pushed Nick's Pizza to the brink of bankruptcy.

The summary of these events is the most compelling part of the book. Not many business owners would be as frank and forthcoming, but Sarillo bares his soul, describing his own shortcomings when he is forced to face the ultimate question: How can I save my company and the employees that have made it so special?

The exact details of how Sarillo responds and defeats the odds are a fascinating business case study. Ultimately, Nick's Pizza survives.

Sarillo's ability to endure has just as much to do with the management and culture shared by his employees as it does with the ability to build a business that the local community loves. That community support played a large part in saving Nick's Pizza during its time of despair.

A Slice of the Pie is an interesting read, although one has to wade through some later chapters are bogged down by ideas that were explained earlier.

The book's foreword is written by Bo Burlingham, author of the book Small Giants. Forewords are usually gratuitous preambles, but Burlingham eloquently explains why Nick's Pizza should be added the list of businesses that choose to be great rather than big.

Chris Wendel is a consultant and lender with Northern Initiatives in Traverse City. Northern Initiatives is a community development organization based in Marquette that provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, information, and new markets.