One of the things Tony Russo is most proud of is establishing a franchise operation that still manages to provide quality and consistency across all of their stores. That hasn't been an easy road. Russo started out as many restaurateurs do: in a tiny little eight-seat restaurant preparing his family's recipes as we learned in part one of our chef chat. .
The difference between Russo and most restaurant owners, though, is that he developed his concepts and products into something that, with the right training and support, is repeatable by other restaurant owners.
The effort paid off. Russo's New York Pizzeria has gone international, with locations as far away as Dubai. In part 2 of our chef chat, we'll learn about Russo's strong preferences when it comes to Italian ingredients and how the company has evolved to provide a complete support system to franchisees.
EOW: So, Russo's makes its own dough in-house?
AR: We make our own dough in-house, the salad dressings, the pastas-- all made in-house.
EOW: I noticed something else while I've been here. It's not just pizzas.
AR: Right. It's pastas, salads and sandwiches. At a typical pizzeria in New York they had a little bit of pasta, a little bit of pizza, calzones and salads. It's usually a very small menu And that's what I developed here. I call it the Little Italy experience. You get a slice of pizza, you get pastas, gnocchi, lasagnas--you have choices.
EOW: After your first franchisee, how did Russo's continue to grow and take off?
AR: I wanted to make sure they were very successful. To me, it's all about quality. They did really well at the Beechnut location and I used it as validation. When I got new people interested, I said, "Go talk to Thomas at Beechnut." That helped me build the concept. Investors would listen to the franchisees tell the story. Once they tasted the food, they were sold. They could see the quality.
My dad always said, "if it's not fresh, don't serve it," and he's right. If it's not fresh, don't serve it to your customers.
EOW: That's a good methodology. What about your ingredients? What's important to you?
AR: I source everything personally. It's very important. I don't rely on my distributor to tell me, "Use this cheese. Use this flour." I just stick to what I knew best growing up. I know what kind of flour and mozzarella to use. I negotiate directly with the manufacturer and then my distributor carries my product. We use fresh-packed tomatoes on our pizzas, which are hard to find. No additives; no preservatives. When you smell our tomatoes, you can smell the aroma because it's fresh. It's good quality stuff.
We use Prosciutto di Parma from Italy. There is domestic prosciutto, but I don't care for it. When we make a salad dressing with balsamic, I'm going to make sure it's been aged for at least 18 months and it's from Modena, Italy. If it's not from Modena, I don't want it! (laughs)
Parmesan has to be real Parmesan and if it's pecorino, it has to be Pecorino Romano. There's a domestic Pecorino, but it's not made with sheep's milk--it's made with cow's.
EOW: I notice you have desserts, too.
AR: We make our own tiramisu and cannoli. The cheesecakes are made in New York at a place called Rocco's Bakery in Little Italy and shipped here.
EOW: Have you ever been disappointed with any of your franchisees? Have you ever had to deal with one who wasn't doing it the way that you taught them?
AR: Yeah, at the beginning we had some issues with quality control. I was expanding and they were busy with their operations. Sometimes, they needed a little guidance. I was building my infrastructure and hiring more staff to assist with additional training. So, that was challenging. When you're building your franchise, you need to think about that, too-- the support team.
Every one [of the franchisees] were very happy. When they start complaining about it is when they're not making money. Since they were busy making money, they understood it was a growing company. Most of those folks are still on board today.
EOW: What was your first out-of-state location?
AR: Germantown, Tennessee.
EOW: How long ago was that?
AR: Nine years ago.
EOW: How many locations, total, are there now?
AR: 41 locations open today. We have locations in Florida, Tennessee and Oklahoma. We recently opened up a location in Hawaii and we have four locations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East.
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EOW: My goodness. You're international!
AR: International, that's right, and we have a total of 28 new restaurants opening over the next three years.
EOW: So, the pace of your expansion is going faster now.
AR: Yes. That's right. It is.
EOW: Why do you think that is?
AR: The economy is better today than it used to be a few years ago. The banks are now loaning money to businesses. Plus, a lot of people want to open up their own business. In recent years, there's been a lot of interest in owning your own restaurants.
EOW: The location we're sitting in now (20900 Katy Freeway in Katy, Texas)--how long has this been open?
AR: This one opened up eight years ago and was recently remodeled. When its anniversary came up in January, we decided to bring in the new Russo's look and colors.
EOW: You're just one man. I'm sure you're a very busy guy. How do you stay on top of all of these locations and make sure they're staying true to what you want them to be doing?
AR: We invest in our staff and we have great people working for us. We have great chefs now. I call them "chefs" because they've been cooking with me side-by-side for 10 years. There's a really great team at the Westheimer store. The menu and the recipes all get developed at Westheimer. We train for six to eight weeks at the Westheimer location. We have a staff for training, advertising, marketing-- we have a whole department now that focuses only on supporting franchisees. That's how were growing our concept.
EOW: Since you source your own ingredients, I suppose that helps in keeping things consistent across all of the stores.
AR: Absolutely. I have spice pack mixes that I created. It's all Russo's recipes, so it's easy for the operator. Say they want to make meatballs. Here's Russo's meatball mix. They buy fresh ground beef and garlic and add the spice mix to it. Everything in the kitchen is simplified as far as making these recipes. As long as what you use is fresh, you're going to get a quality product at the end of the day.
EOW:You make your own pastas, too?
AR: Yeah, from scratch! We make our own gnocchi from scratch, we make cannelloni pasta and we make lasagna. These recipes go back to my grandparents' days In the 1960s.
EOW: How does it make your family feel to know some of their home recipes are being sold all over the world?
AR: They're very happy. They're very proud of the hard work that took place. It was not easy to put that together.
EOW: When you think is the most challenging part of being a franchisor?
AR: Trying to visit everybody is challenging. You do your best. I make a point of calling all of my franchisees at least once every two weeks. I either visit the store or keep communication open. For me, it's more like fun. I enjoy it. I don't even see it as a challenge. If I don't do it, I feel like I'm missing out. We're a partnership. It's a team. We work together to build a good base.
EOW: What do you think is the toughest thing is about being in the restaurant business?
AR: If you don't have the experience, and you're not buying a franchise, you have to start from scratch. That's difficult. You have no idea what's going to work for you. It's very challenging. You don't know what advertising is going to work and what food is going to sell and not sell.
The advantage of owning a franchise is it's proven. All of the mistakes happened years ago. It saves you money on cost of goods, promoting, advertising, overhead expense.
EOW: You've developed the entrepreneur's dream--a working concept that one can replicate. You've come up with the methodology, the formula, the recipes and the ingredients so anyone could replicate that success.
AR: That's right. Fifty percent of the success is already there. The other 50 percent is you managing, so your responsibility is mostly customer service, making sure the cooks are making the food right and making sure the food is presented right. It's a lot easier when you're running a franchise instead of starting from scratch.
When I opened my first store, I had ups and downs, too. That's what's going to happen when you have your own restaurant. It's hard.
EOW: What was the most challenging recipe you ever developed?
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AR: Osso bucco. Veal shank. When we make it at home, that's different than making it in a restaurant, but I figured out how we could do it in a restaurant. We run it as a special. I braise the veal and marinated it in red wine with celery, carrots and fresh bay leaves for about 24 hours. Then, I sear it and make it with a sauce. It's about a six-hour process. It's a beautiful dish when it's done. It's tender and excellent. That's one of my favorite things to make.
EOW: What else would you like people to know about you or your restaurants?
AR: At Russo's, it's fresh. We use healthy, fresh ingredients. We cook everything with extra virgin olive oil, even when we sauté. There's no trans fat. The menu is broad and you have good choices. I can get a slice of pizza if I want or I can get a whole pizza to share with the family or I can have an Italian experience with the pasta selections. You can have a dine-in experience if you want or we have free delivery for the entire menu.
Every Wednesday, we have half-price wines at all locations. We have a great appetizer menu, too. We have prosciutto. arancini, fried calamari--really good appetizers. You can eat light.