Economy and Real Estate & Retail

Former rocker rolling along in pizza business: Puccini's founder has 13 locations and counting

October 20, 2008

For much of his adult life, Don Main was a rocker rather than a restaurateur. But fate-along with a pressing need to find a more profitable line of work-drove him to seek his fortune in a kitchen rather than onstage.

Main, president and co-owner of Puccini's Smiling Teeth, began his peculiar career change back in 1990, after a decadeand-a-half stint as a professional-but not very well-paid-musician. At age 36, the bassist and lead vocalist for the band The Late Show was at a crossroads. He and his wife, Tommi, wanted to start a family, but were in no position to support one.

"I didn't wake up one morning and have my wife say, 'Honey, we're ready to start having kids, so I want you to become a restaurateur,'" Main said. "But she did say, 'Honey, I'm not saying you have to quit being a musician, but you have to start making more money."

At roughly the same time, his brother Tom and his current business partner (and company vice president) Brooks Powers also were casting around for something new to do. The restaurant business floated to the top of the list. After toying with such various concepts, they settled on pizza.

With the help of an investor (whom they bought out in 1994), they debuted Puccini's Smiling Teeth in 1991. The first store opened at West 86th Street and Ditch Road, followed six months later by an outlet at East 82nd Street and Dean Road.

"We didn't really have any experience in a retail business, but we were so ignorant about it that we weren't going to do anything too stupid," Main said. "It was very basic. I literally went to the library and got a book on restaurant management. I read it and took notes."

Still, they could have picked an easier market. The $37-billion-a-year pizza niche is by far the most crowded and cutthroat corner of the restaurant industry, with some 70,000 pizzerias in the United States.

But they lucked out with the conditions at Puccini's 82nd and Dean location during the long-ago year of 1991. Today, it's a labyrinth of competing dining options. Back then, it was a culinary ghost town.

"There was literally nothing there," Main said. "Café Santa Fe opened up, then we opened a couple of weeks later. That was it. A ton of stuff has come and gone since then, but at the time there was nothing."

That breathing space gave the company time to formulate a winning strategy: Emphasize customer service and make most of the food in-house, avoiding things like pre-made crusts and canned sauces.

This approach is the key to thriving in the pizza niche, said Jeremy White, editor of Pizza Today magazine, a trade journal.

"If you focus on quality, then you're probably going to be OK," White said. "Because there's an awful lot of people in this niche who don't do that-to their detriment."

In 2007, Puccini's posted $10.4 million in revenue, and this year is on track to hit $11.7 million. Those figures place it in the top tier of independent chains nationally, with only a handful of operations (most with far more stores) posting richer figures.

That revenue stream allows the company to grow on its own terms, financing new stores with its own funds. There now are 13 locations: six in the Indianapolis area; two in Bloomington; one in West Lafayette; three in Lexington, Ky.; one in Louisville.

Because of a conflict with a Bloomington eatery that calls itself Puccini's, Main's restaurants there are called Bucetto's Smiling Teeth.

Slow and steady

The company plans to continue its goslow approach to growth.

"Over the next three years, I expect to add two more stores in Louisville and add one, probably two stores in Indianapolis," Main said. "In the near term, that's about all I've got."

He could grow much faster through franchising, but Puccini's isn't interested. Main admits he looked into the concept, but the potential legal and organizational hassles, coupled with fears that food quality would suffer, turned him away. Plus, he's watched too many franchising attempts collapse when the people behind them worried more about financing than food and proper staffing.

"The idea that you're going to have all these units is a bill of goods that franchisers sell to franchisees, so that they think this is an easy thing to do," Main said. "But once you've been in this, and you realize how many good people you need to actually deliver a quality product every single day, it's no joke."

He reckons he needs about 28 of those good people to staff each of his locations. Those employees have to execute a complicated, rather lengthy menu of scratchmade entrees, from signature pizzas like Shrimp Santori and BLT to calzones to chicken marsala. Getting those items to taste the same in Bloomington, Lexington and Indianapolis is a headache.

"I've tasted things in our restaurants before and said, 'What is this? What have you done here?'" Main said. "And someone will look at me earnestly and say, 'Well I just like it with a little more of this.' You just have to say, 'That's nice. When you open your own restaurant, you can do that. But for now, follow the recipe.'"

In spite of this, the company has been successful at retaining key employees. Main attributes it to a special company perk: If you do your job well, you don't get hassled.

"Some people [in the restaurant business] believe in riding you. We don't," he said.

"If you are doing what you're supposed to be doing, and that enables you between lunch and dinner to sit down and do a crossword puzzle and drink coffee and call your wife, then bless your heart. I'm happy for you."

Harder times ahead?

But there's always the risk that hardpressed customers will stop coming in, or come in less often.

When he wants to raise his blood pressure, Main contemplates how the use of credit cards has expanded during his years in the business, a sign customers could be overextending themselves. In the early days, less than 20 percent of customers used credit; today, it's 85 percent.

Main may be positioned to weather a tough economy better than he realizes, an industry expert said.

Pizza is by far the toughest, most overpopulated restaurant category, but it's also the most recession-proof, said Steve Delaney, former owner of seven Noble Roman's locations who now is a principal in Sitehawk Retail Real Estate.

"In tough times people trade down, and pizza becomes more popular," he said.

He said the trick is to set yourself apart.

"Some do it with price, by discounting," Delaney said. "Others do it with better product."

Main chose the latter. He also likes to keep down unnecessary expenses. For instance, Main works out of his home rather than pay for a pricy headquarters.

"I'm cheap," he said. "I don't believe in spending money when I don't have to. I still don't even have a business card."
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