Get Great Pizza – and a Career – at Nick’s Pizza

By Patrick Butler
Photos by Gene Schulter

Schuler Foundation President Gene Schutler, Nick’s Pizza owner Nick Sarillo and Northcenter Chamber Executive Director Lindsay Eanet.

When Nick Sarillo opened his first pizzeria out in the suburbs, he found he couldn’t stop there and hope to survive.So before opening two more pizza parlors – a second suburban eatery and his latest at 2434 W. Montrose Ave – Sarillo devised a unique training program for his more than 200 employees at all levels, wrote a book – A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business (Portfolio, 2012). Not stopping there, Sarillo opened Nick’s University to teach his methods to other business owners.The “values” Nick Sarillo and his employees live by are spelled out where everyone from the newest rookie to groups of visitors like the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce can see them.

The gist of the message is that Nick’s Pizzas and Pubs are places where employees themselves set their professional goals and can see in a glance how they’re doing, Sarillo said, pointing to a progress chart not seen in many of the more conventional businesses

.“Rookies are marked on a public chart by tan dots and wear tan baseball caps on the job. Those promoted to ‘pros” wear red caps. Three more dots and you’re an expert, entitled to wear a black hat,” Sarillo explained.

“And there’s a $1.25 an hour raise with each promotion,” he added.

“So everyone knows who’s making how much.” More importantly, Sarillo added, is that employees are encouraged to find ways of solving problems without always running to management.

“It’s not about getting permission. It’s about performance,” he said, adding that in a performance-based environment, “people create their own raises.”

Those wanting to move up further up the ladder can go to the leadership training class, which makes them eligible for profit sharing, Sarillo explained.

Everyone, of course, learns to apply the “Grandma Test” any time there are doubts about what to do. “Would you feed it to your grandma. And if you wouldn’t wear it in front of your grandma, say it in front of your grandma, or do it in front of your grandma, don’t do it here,” he smiled.

Sarillo agreed this kind of “culture” can take some getting used to. “It’s not normal. We have to beak some old habits.” Perhaps even more remarkable, Sarillo said, is that most of the employees – including some supervisors – are under 25. But as far as Nick Sarillo is concerned, that’s old enough for the managers and staff to keep tabs on how many guests ask for a specific server. Or what dishes are most frequently ordered.

“Again, it’s a case of everyone from the waitstaff to the chefs knowing what they’re doing right,” Sarillo said.

“These aren’t things you’re going to learn in high school or college. But you get to learn them here.”

According to Sarillo, the differences between Nick’s establishments and other eateries don’t stop at the kitchen door.

One of the first things the more observant guests will notice in any of Nick Sarillo’s restaurants is that the only place you’ll find TV sets is in the front bar.

“The idea is to have the dining areas free of such distractions so people – especially families – to be able to talk,” said Sarillo, himself the father of three who has always seen a need for more family friendly restaurants.
Which is why Nick Sarillo doesn’t plan to stop with three.

“Yes, I would like to bring in more restaurants to other communities. I do have a vision of opening 10 restaurants. And I want to share this business model with others,” he said.

“After all, that’s how we make a positive difference in society. That’s what capitalism was supposed to have been all about when it started, wasn’t it?” Nick Sarillo asked.

As he sees it, part of his job is to get back to the “original 15th century meaning of restaurateur” – someone whose job was to help “restore” the guests.

“When you get right down to it, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Sarillo said.

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