Dino Autiello

This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Dino Autiello, a local politician in Rhode Island, and lifelong restaurant employee turned owner.

I grew up in the restaurant business.

My parents owned a restaurant so I learned the ropes at a very young age. I’ve worn all the hats – from busboy, to barback, to server. Wearing the hat of restaurant owner, well, that’s a different story. Every job I’ve had, whether it was a busboy or a barback, I treated the place like it was my place. I worked hard, I learned the skills, and I hustled to adapt to the fast-pace.

Which is why it’s hard for me, as an owner, to wrap my head around the challenges that come with staff and management in the restaurant industry.

I’m a politician. That’s my full-time job. But I always wanted to open my own restaurant. I didn’t know I wanted to own a pizza place, though. Actually, when I was working at Venda Bar in Providence, that’s when I really learned the ins and outs of this business. That’s when I really became passionate about owning my own bar or lounge.

Then I bought a pizza joint.

Some people tried to talk me out of it. It was risky. I was heavily invested in my political responsibilities. All that kind of opposition.

It’s hard for me, as an owner, to wrap my head around the challenges that come with staff and management in the restaurant industry.

And ya know what, maybe some of that was warranted. Now, as we open our second location, I’ve come to see pretty clearly that if you can’t be in the restaurant every day, if you can’t spend face time with your staff, well then it’s pretty damn hard to get things done.

When I express my frustrations over hiring and training my staff, I’m always told by everyone… “you have to understand these kids don’t own the place”. But that’s not the way I was raised in this industry.

I didn’t quit my “day job” when I opened the first Tomato City location. And some might say that’s the real lesson here.

I have another job. But if I could be in the restaurant all the time, I would be. I knew I wanted to do this, and I knew what I was getting into, but it’s not a joke when they tell you owning a restaurant is a full-time job.

You need a strong presence in the store to make it work, that’s something I’ve learned. You need to devote a lot of time to hiring, training and retaining the right staff. That’s something I’ve made some mistakes with.

Being in politics I always hear that there’s no jobs, no jobs. But there are jobs, it’s just that there are jobs people don’t want or know how to do – either they don’t have the soft skills needed, or they don’t want to have them. And without proper management and an in-store presence, how can you observe these weaknesses and coach your staff?

You need a strong presence in the store to make it work, that’s something I’ve learned. You need to devote a lot of time to hiring, training and retaining the right staff. That’s something I’ve made some mistakes with.

Staffing and management are not something you can “wing”. Every time I am at the restaurant on a shift it runs so much better. My accountant busts my chops all the time and says “you guys are a fluke”. He said restaurants just don’t tend work if the owner is not in the place. And ours works, but at what cost?

Sometimes, I find myself in a situation where I feel like I’m bound to my employees and you shouldn’t feel that way. And sometimes, because I can’t be in the store all the time, I make the wrong calls.

I have a college degree worth 100 grand, but I’ve learned more in 4 years of owning a restaurant than I ever did in school.

We had a manager, she did a good job, but we didn’t think it was good enough. We went our separate ways in June of last year. The restaurant has not been the same since she left. Goes to show that when you have someone you have to try and hold on to them. But if you’re not there all the time, how can you fill in the gaps and truly know?

That’s part of why I wanted to take the chance and open the second location, despite some naysayers. My partner is 100% able to be in that location. And ya know what, it’s already run more efficient.

A lot of people were against the expansion of the business. I’m not a huge risk-taker but I’m not against trying something if I believe in it.

It’s easy to get comfortable and back down from change. I could have kept one location and been comfortable. But, I figured why not try and grow it?

I am fascinated by the workforce. And as an owner of two restaurants, that’s a challenge I’ve come to accept as my new reality.

When I bought the first location it was because I actually really, really believed in the product. I truly believe that I have one of the best pizzas in the state and that’s it. I bring the pizza everywhere I go. People go crazy over it. I just think the product sells itself.

The only thing that sets us apart is the quality of our product. And that’s what I believed in when we expanded the business.

And so far it’s working out pretty well for us.

It’s been the best experience of my life. I’ve gotten an education in this business. Everyone should own a business at some point in their life because you learn so much about your patience, yourself, your management of skills, time… money. What’s important. What’s not important.

I have a college degree worth 100 grand, but I’ve learned more in 4 years of owning a restaurant than I ever did in school.

It’s a tough place though. I am fascinated by the workforce. And as an owner of two restaurants, that’s a challenge I’ve come to accept as my new reality.

 

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Dino Autiello is the North Providence Town Council President and owner of Tomato City Pizza. A lifelong restaurant industry vet, always on the hunt for the best slice of pizza, owning his own pizza place was the most obvious step he had to take.