By Alex Koons
I opened Hot Tongue Pizza in Los Angeles in February 2022. The past year has been filled with highs and lows, each with its own valuable lesson to offer. Owning and operating a brand-new pizza shop is challenging, to say the least, but highly rewarding, especially if you have learned to love the struggle. Here are a few important lessons I learned in the past year:
1) Keep your menu simple.
I’m typically guilty of doing too much. I used to add things to my menus with very little thought, just because I could, but I discovered that it’s a recipe for disaster. Just because I can make something doesn’t mean every member of my team can be trained effortlessly to execute it the way I want. Two days before Hot Tongue opened, I cut the sandwiches and pastas out of the menu, leaving only the pizzas and a few apps. Looking back, it was the best decision I could have made. It removed the distractions of unnecessarily complicated training and allowed us to focus on what mattered most: the pizza. We finally introduced pastas six months later, and they have been a huge success. But without allowing ourselves that time to get our act together, I believe it would have been a disaster. In the past year, we’ve added only one pizza to the menu. By exercising restraint with the menu, we have been able to make small tweaks to improve on what we’re already killer at.
2) Less is more when staffing.
In the first few weeks after opening, people were crowding the restaurant to get in and try the food. We were super-busy, and I thought we were understaffed. We were constantly changing the schedule to fit the demand and trying to figure out how many employees we needed and how many hours we had available. Then, that initial hype wore off, and reality set in. The days slowed down, and orders decreased. It was scary, but it turned out to be a huge blessing, because we ended up with just enough hours to go around for our staff after the dust settled. Staffing a restaurant blindly was a pretty big hurdle that, luckily, we got over. In hindsight, I recommend hiring fewer people than you anticipate needing in the beginning, just to ensure that, when the novelty wears off, no one’s hours are drastically reduced.
3) Budget time and money for a marketing plan.
We didn’t have a budget for PR, but we were lucky enough to wind up in a couple of prime publications around Los Angeles. These write-ups boosted our visibility, which helped sales and business, but the benefits always trickled away after a couple of days. To get people in the door, we take advantage of tools like Google Business, Yelp, Instagram, flyers and community outreach. But after a full year in business, many people still don’t know we exist. If I could go back, I would have found the money for some kind of PR launch.
Related: Alex Koons’ 4 steps for interviewing potential pizzeria employees
4) Customer experience is the taste before the bite.
I spent the last seven years with my face in a pizza oven or glued to a screen or a book. I gave so much of myself to the food and the team that I forgot about the importance of connecting with the people eating the food and enjoying the restaurant. Since opening Hot Tongue, I’ve been forced to get in front of those customers who come from all over the city—and the globe. In the last year, I’ve made more friends than I’d made in the last two decades. I underestimated the power of the customer experience and highly recommend making sure you and your staff treat every guest like a best friend. It’s the first impression people get and the most important factor that influences a guest before they even try that first slice. The food brings them in, but the service keeps them coming back.
5) Your team is everything!
Without the insanely talented team at Hot Tongue, it just wouldn’t function—especially my two managers, Michael and Andrew. They create authentic customer experiences that shape the way the food tastes even before someone has taken a bite. It’s the energy that everyone who works here brings to every shift. Hiring the right people makes a lot of things feel easier. Take your time to hire people that you trust and know will kick butt.
I once thought I had a lot of the restaurant business figured out. Opening Hot Tongue from absolutely nothing has shown me, day after day, that I still have a lot to learn. Being open-minded has helped me grow 10 times more than I would have. I will try anything once. No idea is stupid. Say yes, and take every meeting. That attitude has helped this restaurant evolve into what it is today. Don’t put up any walls. Don’t pretend to know it all. Stay open to everything. That’s one year down. Here’s to 20 more!
Alex Koons is an industry consultant and the owner of Hot Tongue Pizza, an all-vegan pizzeria, and Purgatory Pizza in Los Angeles.