In this series, I want to open up about how we are approaching the reality of operating a hospitality business in 2020. In an industry that is notoriously private, I hope to spark more public conversations about how hard life is for food entrepreneurs, and what we can do to help each other by sharing the story of Big Mozz’s Big Pivot as a place to begin the conversation – Matt Gallira, Founder Big Mozz
Greetings from month 6 of the pandemic…
… a time when all of us in the food & beverage industry are grappling with some form of the question “What do I do now?” State and federal stimulus has come and gone, and if you are anything like me, this time has imparted a lasting sense of listlessness and dis-ease as we await some good news. These are not good feelings when your life up to March 2020 was about making command decisions in your restaurant, or steering your consumer brand confidently along a meticulous growth strategy.
Three months in – Big Mozz’s Big Pivot begins
Big Mozz was hit hard this year, as we all were, and we were forced to make gut-wrenching choices that are not going to heal any time soon. One bright spot is that in May, we launched an at-home version of our Mozzarella Making Classes, which have been quite popular among remote teams and startups. During one class, an attendee congratulated us on our successful pivot. Which was nice! But I had to ask the question… was this actually a pivot?
As entrepreneurs, we are really comfortable with the idea of a pivot. The Pivot is what capital-E Entrepreneurs do, so by the power of Greylock, when things get tough I’ll pivot too! But that clashes with the reality of the hospitality business, which rewards concepts that bend to meet customer needs, but in reality cannot accommodate major alterations to their method of operating. Our margins are just too thin, and remaking a restaurant costs too much to guess-and-test. We have to be flexible, but rarely can afford a hard turn toward a new business model. Especially with the future of the industry as opaque as it is today.
The comfortable place to start answering this question sounds like What activity should we pivot toward? Unfortunately, starting there can lead to a shallow answer backed up by a lot of guesswork. A worthy first attempt at an answer will lead to the second question, as it did for me, of Where do we make our next buck so we can keep the lights on?
Money is not the core reason of why we do this: it is the happy result of doing it well.
The problem with that approach is that exactly none of us went off chasing fame & fortune, just to find ourselves, of all places, in the hospitality business. If you have experienced any success in this industry, a hunch of mine is that you could have found more than a few other ways to make a few dollars someplace else. Money is not the core reason of why we do this: it is the happy result of doing it well.
Additionally, beginning your journey with the Revenue Question is to start from a disadvantage, because it implies you have some insider knowledge of how the industry will look in 6-12 months… knowledge which absolutely no one has right now. Back in March and April, while we weathered the shock of the early pandemic with some teeth still left to grit here at Big Mozz, we got absolutely every prediction wrong. Snippets from my April meeting notes include gems like “In times of catastrophe, it is relatively easy to cut cash burn.” [Cue a Ron Howard voiceover: “It isn’t.”] Each mis-read led us deeper into the paralyzing self-doubt so many of us felt in the Spring and Summer. My bigheadedness set us up for a very grim June and July, with no clear direction or clue as to what we should be doing with our hands at any given time.
What are we pivoting around?
We are in the hospitality business, though. Doesn’t a business need to make money? Sure, but for this exercise, there is a more Zen place to start that may lead to a better outcome:
Rather than beginning with the question of What are we pivoting toward, try starting from What are we pivoting around? We need to have a fulcrum to work, steer, pry our businesses in the right direction.
The fulcrum of Big Mozz’s Big Pivot
For me, it started with the question of “What actually is Big Mozz?” We launched in 2015 as a cute Smorgasburg concept based around made-to-order fresh mozzarella. Early on, we chased every carrot: corporate catering, wood-fired pizza, an Art Basel popup. We refocused in 2017 on making the best party food in the world, and in 2019 we served almost ½ million pounds of Mozz Sticks to revelers at music festivals and events around the country. We inked a partnership with the New York Yankees, and we expanded our horizons to become the food & beverage operator at Celebrate Brooklyn!, one of New York City’s largest outdoor concert venues, while growing the team up to around 150 people in our peak season.
In 2019 we served almost ½ million pounds of Mozz Sticks to revelers at music festivals and events around the country.
We also opened our first counter-service restaurant at Chelsea Market. It meant we finally had a home for our zany outdoor-focused brand, and it morphed into something of a flagship. Mozzarella Making Classes were sold out for months in advance, and always featured a round of drinks through our signature porron, a vessel with a narrow spout through which guests are meant to pour wine into their (and their friends’) mouths. [This is probably something we will not continue postpandemic.]
So to begin answering the question of What are we pivoting around?, I focused on defining what a trip to Big Mozz actually feels like across all of these unique venues. What do our customers love about the experience of Big Mozz? To us, it is the warm, welcoming feeling of hospitality; the storytelling and expertise that encourages participation; and most importantly, when you find Big Mozz, it’s at a party. I wrote more notes about what Big Mozz feels like: the physical experience of colors and sounds; the types of feelings we get from a successful service; how our guests feel after interacting with us.
When you find Big Mozz, it’s a party.
As entrepreneurs, we talk a lot about Mission & Values, but those core principles are often obscured by the daily reality of Operations and the dogged pursuit of Strategy. Before we say anything about a pivot, which is a Strategy decision, we must define our Mission & Values. They are our north star. I know that whatever we choose to do with our time and resources, if it reflects those values, it will feel like Big Mozz. So I wrote the following statement:
Big Mozz exists to bring people closer together through the shared experience of eating, drinking, and learning. We do that through five unshakeable values:
- Participation: Food is not something you eat; it is a culture we can share with others.
- Transparency: We know our product, and shout about it.
- Hospitality: Every interaction is special and represents an opportunity.
- Quality: We are proud of the food we serve, and our picky customers.
- Communication: We win with an open playbook and the free flow of ideas.
A reasonable question to ask is, “Matt, do you always do all of those things?” My response would be, “Lol no, but we try.” And – say this with me – right now, defining your values and following them as closely as you can is good enough.
The hospitality industry is pretty weird! To succeed, we must have a laser focused, borderline-miserly approach to managing our numbers and directing our teams; but it’s all for the end goal of helping people splurge on a night out, or party all night long at a music festival. We can often feel alone in the struggle, but in reality there are thousands of other restaurant owners and food entrepreneurs dealing with the same issues.