The goal of the Behind the Pizza Peel series is to reveal the warm--and sometimes wild--personalities that create America's favorite food on a daily basis.
Who are the people behind the pizzas, and what made them choose a pizza peel over a briefcase? What's their inspiration and what keeps them going? We find out in this ongoing series.
Behind the Pizza Peel: Dennis Sheil
Pizzeria: Rio Vista Pizza Factory, Rio Vista, California
Years in Pizza Biz: 13
Favorite Hobbies outside of Pizza: Art--both painting and collecting, traveling, and spending time with family.
The Pizza Insider: Why did you choose to go into the pizza business?
Dennis Sheil: We went into the business on a whim! My parents owned a restaurant when I was a teenager and I always thought it was cool that they did. Later in life, they wanted to move from Iowa to California, so along with my wife, sister, and brother-in-law, we found them a house in a retirement community in the town of Rio Vista, about 30 minutes from where we live.
After we were committed to the house, we realized that my parents had been going out for pizza every Friday night for about 50 years, and we didn’t know if there was a pizza place in town.
As soon as we realized this fact, we headed to Rio Vista to see what they had to offer.
As it turned out, there was a local Pizza Factory restaurant, which had been there for almost 15 years. With our first bite of the pizza we fell in love with the food. We couldn’t wait to share this gem with our parents when they got moved out here. We ended up driving to Rio Vista for pizza with my parents every weekend, and eventually became friends with the restaurant owners. Of course we talked about my parents having a restaurant years earlier, and talked about the pizza business on many occasions.
One evening when we were there, the owners came out to our table, as they usually did, but said they had something they wanted to talk to us about. They said they always enjoyed talking with us about the restaurant business and they appreciated how interested we were in the pizza business. They then asked if we were interested in buying a pizza restaurant–specifically their pizza restaurant! They went on to explain that they were retiring, and thought we would be the perfect people to take over the business. Being the only pizza restaurant in town, and having 15 years of detailed financial records made it easy to perform our due diligence. After discussing it, my wife, sister, brother-in-law, and I decided to go for it.
The Pizza Insider: What do you enjoy most about the pizza business?
Dennis Sheil: As for what I enjoy most about it, hands down, it has to be the people. I love interacting with people, and they are especially friendly when enjoying a slice of pizza and a cold refreshing beverage.
The Pizza Insider: Looking back on your original pizza goals, how do they match, or differ from, where you are today?
Dennis Sheil: Overall my goals align fairly closely with where we are today. The restaurant is thriving, the employees are happy, customers love the food, and we live the lifestyle we want to live.
The Pizza Insider: In your opinion, what separates a good pizza maker from a great pizza maker?
Dennis Sheil: It’s always great to experiment, but consistency is the key. I also believe that part of being a great pizza maker is being a great business person. Customers expect a certain standard, and it takes a great pizza maker to ensure those standards. If your dough is dense one day and airy another, customers will notice. If your sauce is sweet one day but spicy the next, customers will notice. If you’re using high-quality toppings then switch to more “budget-friendly” toppings, customers will notice. Another aspect of being a great pizza maker is understanding the intricacies of your products. For example, if your dough is blowing up or not rising enough, you have to know how to make the proper adjustments.
The Pizza Insider: Do you have a favorite memory associated with pizza?
Dennis Sheil: Without a doubt it’s the wonderful memories I have of my young son enjoying Friday evening eating pizza with my parents who have now passed away.
The Pizza Insider: When you eat at other pizzerias, what type of pizza do you order and why?
Dennis Sheil: I always order a sausage, mushroom, and onion pizza when we try a new place. I order this same pizza everywhere so I can try the different sausage flavors at different places, and also so I’m always comparing “apples to apples” at each place.
The Pizza Insider: Who are your role models or mentors?
Dennis Sheil: I’ve always been a huge fan of Big Dave Ostrander and have turned to him for advice on more than one occasion. Recently I was introduced to an incredible gentleman named Tom Frank. Tom’s business card lists him as a “Cultural Engineer” and it does not take long around him to see that the term is appropriate. His insight is remarkable, and I love the philosophy that works on the premise that by getting employees to buy into your culture, they share your values, are much more self-sufficient, more proactive, and require fewer rules and regulations because of it.
The Pizza Insider: What’s the best advice you ever received?
Dennis Sheil: I have received more great advice over the years than imaginable. Unfortunately, often times you don’t know it was good advice until it’s too late. I’ll have to go with a quote from the late, great, Dr. Suess, "Be who you are and say what you mean. Because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind!"
|Dennis with PMQ's seal of the Great Meal of the USA.|
Dennis Sheil: I have a couple words of advice for new operators…
Communicate! Most people are not mind readers, and they don’t know what we want unless we tell them. We get so caught up in our own world that we sometimes forget to share information with those around us, and often times they are the ones who need the information most.
Train, train, then cross-train. It goes without saying that having people really know their job makes it easier for everyone. What makes it even better is to have them know everyone’s job. After an employee is trained and very proficient at the position they were hired for, we start cross-training them in the other positions. This really helps when you get slammed and need someone to lend a hand or fill in somewhere other than their “normal” job.
Delegate. I know this is hard. Everyone wants to have full control of their business, but the fact is, you can’t be as effective or efficient when you try to do everything yourself. Start small with simple tasks, and gradually work up to the point where you can hand off larger tasks.
Make it fun. Make it fun for you, make it fun for your management, and make it fun for your employees. We encourage our employees to joke around, pull innocent pranks, and do the things that make them want to come to work. This is pretty easy once everyone understands “the rules,” and the rules are very simple; never say or do anything offensive to (or around) another employee or customer. Know where the line is between professionalism and being unprofessional, and never cross that line. Understand that you still have to get your work done properly and in a timely manner. Employees must self-police, not letting any other employee cross the line with anything they say or do.
Don’t underestimate the plethora of incredibly valuable information in the PMQ Think Tank. After all these years in business, we still turn to the PMQ Think Tank when something unusual pops up. Chances are, if you have a problem, someone else has had the same issue and has addressed it in the Think Tank.
The Pizza Insider: Can you name one thing that you feel will have the biggest impact on the pizza industry in the next five years?
Dennis Sheil: I believe fresh, local, sustainable ingredients are the way of the future. I think the generation coming up is more environmentally conscious than generations past, and I think their concerns for the planet will translate to the pizza industry in multiple ways.
The Pizza Insider: If someone wrote a book about your life, what would it be called?
Dennis Sheil: The Wild, Wonderful, Wacky World of Dennis Sheil