Meet Your Merchant: Serving up pizza with a side of community service
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; From the outside, they may appear to be simple, ski-bum-style pizza restaurants.
But things aren’t always what they seem, and on the inside of these fusion-flavored parlors, giving back to the community is the most important ingredient.
“When I started here as a dishwasher, I never thought in a million years I would be as involved with community service as I am today,” said Danny Scott, general manager of Fireside Pizza Company in Squaw Valley. “I definitely feel like Tahoe is my home now and I want to make it a better place, and Ray is right in line with that vision of giving back and#8212; he’s been an incredible mentor for me.”
Since 2009, Fireside Pizza and Rubicon Pizza Company at Northstar California have raised thousands of dollars for local nonprofits through spaghetti dinners, fundraising events and donations from customers, but owner Ray Villaman said he can’t take the credit.
“It was really our former general manager, Wrenn (Johns), who brought the idea to me and took fundraising to the next level,” Villaman said in between bites of Rubicon’s signature Thai pizza. “Since then, we’ve really tried to hire staff that has a service heart so we can continue to give back to the community.”
Johns parted with the pizza company amicably, but her passion for community service has remained an integral part of the business model.
In 2009, Fireside brought in a coin jar to raise funds for Adventure Risk Challenge, and through spare change, as well as the first annual Fall Feast Fundraiser, the restaurant raked in $4,000 for the local organization, inspiring Villaman to pursue additional charitable efforts.
In 2010, Wrenn and Villaman introduced informational table tents on each table in the restaurant, highlighting a specific nonprofit and giving customers the opportunity to add a $1 donation to their bill.
Through generous donations made by customers combined with the second annual Fall Feast, $7,800 was donated to Tahoe Safe Alliance that year.
With so many employees on board with the program, Fireside was able to raise a whopping $10,000 in 2011 for the Family Resource Center in Truckee and#8212; an organization close to Villaman’s heart.
“For me, it’s all about giving back to children, women and families,” Villaman and#8212; a husband and father-of-two and#8212; said. “Any of us can work in a restaurant, but you have to look at the bigger picture and really ask yourself what you can do for this community.”
The staff at both Rubicon and Fireside emulate that model of community service, but it’s also the level of integrity Villaman instills that makes his business successful.
Villaman has been climbing the restaurant ladder since the 1980s when he opened dozens of California Pizza Kitchen restaurants throughout the country before moving on to the Boston Market chain and later working at the helm of San Francisco-based World Wrapps.
When the opportunity to launch his own business presented itself in 2002, Villaman relocated to North Lake Tahoe and never looked back.
“With Fireside, we wanted that small-business feel, but behind the scenes, I wanted to run it similar to chains where there are systems in place to maintain accountability and keep that level of professionalism,” Villaman said.
However, keeping the business running like a well-oiled machine involves more than just checklists and contemporary software. It’s about creating a team atmosphere, making sure employees are content in their positions and building relationships with guests so they not only come in for the food, but for the service, atmosphere and above-average quality.
“Everything we do is about the guest; they are number one. But we have also have a different view where we say invest in your people, train them well, be in touch with what’s going on in their lives because you can only crack the whip so much, and if you’re motivating with the stick, your staff is going to lose that positive energy and that will show to your customer,” Villaman said.
Villaman also strives to cultivate long-lasting partnerships with his management team by offering shares of the business when his key players reach the top of their game.
“I tell all my managers, if you’re going to be here for an extended period of time, think about making a commitment and I’ll give you a piece of the restaurant,” Villaman said. “I think they appreciate that opportunity because not many owners would give you a part of their restaurant, but it’s selfish too and#8212; I get this great person that’s going to stay with me and help this business grow.”
With both businesses operating efficiently in North Tahoe, Villaman now has his sights set on South Lake, where he plans to open Base Camp Pizza Company in the village at Heavenly Mountain Resort this month.
“The reason I work as hard as I do is all for my family and my family is my immediate family but also my employees,” Villaman said. “Everybody loves pizza and#8212; it hits that family sweet spot, and at the end of the day, family is the most important thing.”