Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: NH entrepreneur has his hand in pizza, books and new homes
HARVARD UNIVERSITY recently posted a video on YouTube that features a conversation between its two most famous dropouts.
In the tongue-in-cheek chat, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asks for advice about his upcoming commencement speech from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who was tapped to address the graduating class 10 years ago.
"They actually give you a degree," Gates tells his fellow billionaire buddy. "You just put that degree on your resume, and it looks great."
Maybe Steve Salis will get his hands on one of those honorary diplomas someday at the University of New Hampshire, where he studied economics and business administration for two years before moving to New York. Salis struggled to find work for several months before getting a job as a bouncer at a trendy night club, but the Nashua native has had a pretty good run since then.
He's already looking at his first big win in the rearview mirror. In 2012, at age 27, Salis co-founded &pizza, a gourmet quick-serve restaurant chain that has grown to 21 locations, mostly in the Washington, D.C., area.
Salis served as CEO but stepped down in 2015 shortly after the company received a $10 million investment, leaving the daily operation of the business to co-founder Michael Lastoria. Salis still has an ownership stake and spent much of our 45-minute phone conversation last week talking about the origins of &pizza and its plans, which include opening a location in Boston at Harvard Square later this year. Boston also happens to be home to Avalt, a private equity fund that put $25 million into the venture in September to help it expand into other markets.
'Sense of disruption'
Salis says the inspiration for opening a chain of pizza restaurants was simple: He and his partner figured they could do it better.
"&pizza was birthed from just growing tired of listening to how great everyone felt New York pizza was," Salis said. "Don't get me wrong. Probably the upper echelon of New York pizza - the 2 to 3 to 4 percentile out of many, many offerings - is very good. You could argue it stands with the best of them, not just nationally but internationally.
"But I saw an industry that was very bastardized. It was stale. It lacked innovation, and I felt that there was an opportunity to bring a sense of disruption and reinvigoration to that industry."
The challenge: how to bring a homespun vibe to a quick-serve concept.
"I wanted to find a way to bring the speed, efficiency and convenience of a by-the-slice pizza shop but with no pre-made product and bring a semblance of quality and sophistication that you would get in a more finer dining restaurant," Salis said.
While New York pizza was the one to beat, Salis and his partner ultimately decided to start their venture in a less developed market, visiting smaller cities with young populations, like Denver and Austin, before deciding on Washington.
The menu items at &pizza suggest it would fit in just fine next door to a Chipotle, featuring organic dough that is made fresh and some exotic pies. While &pizza's OG is simply mozzarella, tomato, olive oil and basil, the Moonstruck includes such ingredients as mushroom truffle, garlic ricotta, goat cheese and fig balsamic. Customers can also pick ingredients to create their own varieties.
"Our brand is definitely skewed toward the younger progressive consumer base," Salis said. "A lot of the things we do from a brand perspective and a positioning perspective clearly would indicate that we're going after more of a millennial consumer but never at the expense of ostracizing anyone."
These days, Salis, 33, is busy operating his holding company, which employs 22 people, and investing in other businesses, such as Kramerbooks & Afterwoods Cafe, an independent bookstore he recently acquired that was founded several years before he was born. Shortly after Salis acquired the business last year, the original management team quit over conflicts about the store's new direction.
"My role right now as an owner and as a leader of this company is to make sure that we don't adopt the status quo because I do believe it's a collision course in time," Salis said. "We do need to make changes in order to live another 40 years. My duty to this brand is to make sure those things happen. And I understand change is tough. We all have our ways."
Salis also is testing a fast way to build homes in D.C. using robotics, adapting from a German concept he hopes to expand nationally. Oh, and there's Federalist Pig, the D.C. barbecue joint he co-founded in December with a popular local chef. He's also engaged to be married in three months to his long-time girlfriend.
"Entrepreneurs have a madness to them. We always think we have the best ideas," said Salis, who went to UNH on a basketball scholarship. "Everything we do is the best. But I think the tone that I usually take is though I think I have strong ideas and strong positions on things, I always bring the method to the madness."
Salis hopes &pizza will make its way to New Hampshire. The company already has expanded to Baltimore and Philadelphia - and plans to open in late spring in New York City.
Let the slice wars begin.
Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 668-4321, ext. 324.