In honor of small business month this May, we sat down with small business owner Joe Fugere of Tutta Bella, the first (and best) Neapolitan pizza chain in the Pacific Northwest, to document his experience running a business in America, how he’s growing under the current economic climate, and how he plans to be successful in the future.
Why did you start Tutta Bella as opposed to transforming an existing pizza chain?
There was an abandoned building available in a neighborhood close to where I grew up. In the 50’s and 60’s, there were large Italian and Irish immigrant populations that lived within a 5 mile radius. I longed for a return of authentic Italian cuisine to this community. My grandmother, Carolina Costanza, had lamented often about how Seattle didn’t really have REAL Italian pizza (she was from Calabria, near Naples, the birthplace of pizza).
How many people does Tutta Bella currently employ?
Currently we employ about 200 hourly staff and 20 salaried managers.
What is the biggest challenge in running your businesses?
Building and maintaining a cohesive team while respecting individual styles. We are a business dedicated to promoting personal and professional growth while maintaining a business known for world class food and service. At times, it can be a difficult challenge to balance.
What motivates you to go to work at Tutta Bella every morning?
Our stated purpose is “To nourish lives by sharing traditions, authentic food and love.” Seeing my employees live this motivates me on a daily basis. I can hardly wait to get to work every day. Besides, we have some of the best Italian espresso pulled from a Victoria Arduino lever machine, so there is an additional reason to get out of bed!
Did you offer insurance to your employees before Obamacare mandated that you do so? If yes, how has providing insurance positively impacted your business?
Tutta Bella has provided health insurance to salaried managers since 2004, when I opened the business. We began offering these benefits to hourly employees (Medical, dental, vision) in 2008, before Obama entered office. My only regret is that I didn’t do this sooner, because the unexpected consequences have been unbelievably positive. I learned that nothing trumps employee health and happiness. Our turnover is way below industry average, and it’s so great to see employees getting regular check-ups and displaying big bright smiles. General physical health also leads to more job satisfaction and a positive outlook that extends to the customer in a meaningful way. By the way, we already exceed the requirements of the ACA, so I would advocate for even better coverage!
What do you think is the biggest threat to the success of small businesses in America today?
The failure of our elected officials to understand that small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. It is estimated that small businesses create at least 80% of jobs in the US. It only makes sense that legislators be focused on supporting the needs of the foundation of this country’s economic force.
How do you compete with larger restaurant chains to get customers in the doors of your restaurants?
Honestly, even though we track the industry we do not worry about what the large chains are doing. Instead we listen to what our customers are telling us from data we gather through an annual survey and comments made to us via or social media channels. Even though we have 4 locations, we do not think of ourselves as a chain. Rather, we are a family of neighborhood restaurants postured to receive feedback directly from our guests and react immediately to please them.
Tutta Bella has to use VPN certified ingredients to maintain its status as official Neapolitan pizza. How do you discover the special ingredients you need to keep your pizza up to par?
In the beginning, when I was studying in Naples, I judiciously kept track of each ingredient and piece of equipment or hardware that I used in the pizza making process. My notes included snapshots of brands, labels, ingredients and recipes. Ingredients like tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius, tipo “00” flour, extra virgin olive oil from Sicily, and fresh beer yeast. When I returned to Seattle, I almost had to beg an importer to bring some of these ingredients in for Tutta Bella. Today, it’s a bit easier; we have a procurement manager dedicated to sourcing the best ingredients on the planet. We even have a private-label canned tomato so that we can control quality from field to table.
Once you’ve found a supplier (for anything from mozzarella di bufala to napkins) that you like, how open are you to switching suppliers? What would catch your attention from a competing vendor?
We are extremely loyal to our suppliers. We pay every invoice on time, conduct annual performance reviews of quality and service, and hold them accountable to our high standards. If they live up to these expectations, we offer vendors a dedicated relationship that they can count on for years to come.