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Escaping The Rat Race

A Steel This Magazine exclusive with restaurateur, Fiore Moletz.

By: John Dubosky

For our third installment of this series, we sat down with Fiore Moletz, a restaurateur from Pittsburgh who’s launched several spots in Western PA. The first of these was built with less than $1,000, zero financial backing from outsiders, and not so much as a driver’s license to his name. It’s a gritty story and we wanted to share it with you.

Moletz, founder of restaurants, Della Terra, and, Burghers, has seen every nook and cranny of the restaurant business. From washing dishes in Mt. Lebanon, to working his way through the kitchens of Manhattan, to taking the final leap and starting his first restaurant, he’s been through a lot. But so have a lot of people. What makes Moletz interesting is how he made that jump. The leap from employed chef to a self-employed restaurant owner isn’t an easy one to make when you’ve got a budget of roughly $750, zero investors, and not so much as a driver’s license. Nevertheless, here he stands, after more than a decade in business, with two restaurants under his belt, consulting on the opening of a second Burghers location in Lawrenceville.

Before we let Moletz tell his story, he cautioned that we give some quick pointers:

– Perspective: You’re going to most likely be putting in far more hours at your new job than the last one you had. When you’re the driving force of a new company, there’s no calling in sick.

– Stress: The buck stops here. The person making the decisions on pricing, staffing, purchasing, and maintaining and managing your place is you. Be ready for a lot of sleepless nights.

– Open-mindedness: You need to be able to adapt quickly, learn from others, and succeed where others have failed. If you can’t take criticism and listen to your customers and others in the industry, this isn’t the path for you.

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation with Moletz, who laid out his journey for us. We thought hearing the basics of his experience would put this operation into better perspective for our readers.

From the horse’s mouth: The Fiore Moletz Story.

So, first off, I started in this industry as a dishwasher. I worked my way up from there to the hot app station. That’s the most basic, unskilled part of the food world. I did that for some time. Then I decided to leave the space I was in and went to work in a real kitchen doing their hot app station at Lydia’s in the Strip District. I worked there for five years. In that time I became Pasta Chef and I was in charge of all pasta production. Then, I left Lydia’s and worked around different places under the same company ownership in New York City.

By 2004, I thought that maybe I’d get out of this business because of the hours. Before the kitchen, my entire life I was in construction. I did electrical, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning. I was working in the kitchen at night and during the day I was working on construction projects I had picked up. So, I took about two years off and focused on a business I had started called Pittsburgh Healthy Homes, an eco-friendly remodeling and cleaning company that was quite successful. I’ve always been entrepreneurial, so it was easier for me than most to bounce between things and keep myself busy. Using places like Construction Junction we were able to do this eco-friendly, very high-end remodeling. But ultimately it was too much to sustain forever. The whole time I was working nights picking up gigs in restaurants. But I hated it. I hated every single day of it.

I needed to get out, needed to. So, I went back to Pittsburgh to work at Lydia’s in the Strip. It wasn’t in the shape it was when I had left, and I wanted to work somewhere that I fit in. So, I applied at Il Pizzaiolo. I had trouble finding a job. It took like six months for them to call me back. Finally, we hooked up and I was there helping them produce their pasta. I was a big part of their fresh pasta production, and I was still doing a bit of remodeling on the side for some extra cash.

I was hustling so I could get this restaurant going that I had been dreaming about since the first time I was in New York as a young chef. My joy was just eating at all of these restaurants that they have. It’s some of the best variety in the world and I wanted to bring that to Pittsburgh, but I still didn’t know enough about running a restaurant, I just wasn’t ready.Fiore-Moletzweb

Eventually, I worked my way up to sous chef at Il Pizzaiolo. I did it within about a year’s time. The owner actually had some amazing conversations with me about my love for good food and burgers. He told me I should probably open up my own burger restaurant, which, at the time, wasn’t really happening in Pittsburgh. I was looking for a space in Lawrenceville but everything was getting crazy expensive at the time. Multiple let-downs led me to my then brother-in-law. He knew someone in Zelienople who had a restaurant business in one of his spaces in a plaza that was failing, and the restaurant owner needed to get out of his lease. The landlord, being the nice guy he was, helped him by finding someone to take over his lease for basically nothing. I talked to the owner of the business but he was unreasonable. The conversation didn’t go well, but before I talked to him I had already spoken with a bunch of other landlords and learned something very important. As it turns out, there are a ton of people who think they’re restaurateurs: opening spaces, spending upwards of hundreds of thousands, and in no time find they can’t do it. Lots of times, those guys need to get out as fast as they can.

So, I learned there were a lot of people in the restaurant business that were going under, and there are a lot of landlords desperate for rentals. What I then realized was you can use someone’s misfortune and create something for yourself for a very reasonable investment. It sucks when things don’t work out for people; nobody gets that more than me. But, if you have very little cash and you want to get into this business, there are a lot of opportunities. But it won’t work if each time somebody has an idea, they need to update a rental space, and then spend a fortune furnishing it with new kitchen equipment. The opportunities you get in this business look like negotiating free rent for six months, or using the existing equipment and making due with what you have available to you. This is the time people need to really focus on the bottom line, and if you’re a good negotiator, you can do a lot of damage here.

Now, before you try to open your own place, I would say you need at least ten years in the industry. You need to see it all. The skills I picked up during my time in construction came in very handily; I was able to do my own plumbing, electrical work, but one of the most important skills I had under my belt was negotiation. There are other people that capitalize on this, the “used restaurant people.” I got a ton of cheap stuff, I had a lot of friends and family donate old equipment, anything I could do to save money and update my space, I’d do it. Starting out, I literally stole stuff out of people’s recycling. To this day, the best fryer I’ve ever used I got for free.

If you’re not the kind of person who can deal with problems in an optimistic way, this is going to be a long battle for you. Every day it’s stress. Every day you have to have confidence and you have to be 100% confident about your product. Zelionople, where my first restaurant was and still is, is a conservative small town. Charging $7.99 for local organic meat on a sandwich meant a lot of people would complain about the price. You could get the whole Pizza Hut buffet for five bucks across the street. But, we stayed true to what we believed in, stayed consistent with our product, treated our employees and friends well, and we didn’t take, “no” for an answer, that’s for damn sure.

So, if you’ve put your time in and you’re ready to branch out, find a space and talk with as many landlords as possible. A good relationship there is crucial if you’re out of cash when you’re starting. They want it to work as much as you do. It’s easy to make a deal with a landlord. Many want a deposit but it’s impossible for a new business owner to come up with something like $7,000 (that’s what it was for me for a deposit with all of the equipment.) I negotiated that to a six-month period of payback so there was zero money up front.

If you’re in your space, your kitchen is up to code, and you’ve got your product figured out, I’d highly suggest giving something away for free. The public has no clue who you are. You may have something new they haven’t tried before; I know we did. So, on our opening day we gave out free food and it was gone in no time. It created a buzz for us and helped us with advertising.

Two major takeaways:

– First, and most importantly, this is not for everyone. It’s less than one percent of the population. Personally, I don’t think I’m successful yet. This is just the work I do. I’ll be successful when I achieve a much larger mission, but the point is I love it! I love where I’m at right now. You either love it, or you should forget about it, it’s not gonna work.

– Secondly, it is so doable. So many people could do this who instead spend their entire lives working for someone. I have told people this before, “you’re already working, just do it. You’re going to be miserable if you don’t try your idea and keep working. You’ve got to do it. That’s all there is to, it you have to.”