By Alex Koons

Editor’s Note: Alex Koons, owner of Hot Tongue Pizza and co-owner of Purgatory Pizza in Los Angeles, will be a featured presenter at PMQ’s upcoming Pizza Power Forum, taking place September 4-5 in Atlanta. He will be the sole speaker in a session titled, “Culture Is King: Attracting/Retaining Employees by Being Cooler Than the Competition.” Click here to learn more about the Pizza Power Forum.

Can you describe the culture of your restaurant in one sentence? What would your team members say about your culture? When I started working at Purgatory Pizza, which I now own, the culture was basically, “I don’t give a s— about anything.” Now, as rock and roll as that might be, it was a huge problem in creating a successful business. When I did anything more than the bare minimum, co-workers said, “What are you doing? Relax. Find your Purgatory zen.”

When I started running the store, people complained about every new policy. There was no scheduling—just a calendar on the wall on which people would write their name to work. It was chaos. This kind of attitude plagued my hiring process, too, because your pizzeria’s culture will attract a certain kind of person.

Read more about Alex Koons: Meet the marketing madman behind Hot Tongue Pizza

This was the culture I inherited, not the one I created. Getting rid of it took a couple of years. I had to finally cycle through the last employee who remembered what it was like “back in the day.” It was a struggle, and there was push-back along the way, because I changed things slowly instead of ripping the whole curtain back and cleaning house. On reflection, I should have done the latter.

I want to share how I created a culture in my Los Angeles restaurants, Hot Tongue Pizza and Purgatory Pizza, that our staff is excited to be a part of—and that actually sells more pizza.

A disciplined but positive culture makes Hot Tongue Pizza employees like Andrea Rodriquez happy to come to work. Photo by Miriam Brummell

Culture and Values

I define culture as a living set of values. Like at Purgatory Pizza circa 2014, if values aren’t intentionally put in place, the staff will naturally create their own culture, and it could be one of laziness, resentment and disdain. This is what I call anti-culture, and it can be a nightmare for any shop.

Many business owners don’t invest in their culture. They don’t think it’s important. But the reality is: Your values are one of the biggest factors in your bottom line. Anyone can write a bunch of feel-good stuff on a piece of paper and call it their “culture.” But, like anything, it takes a lot of work to uphold your values and beliefs every single day. It’s something that needs to be practiced, talked about and refined constantly. Identifying my core values took some time, but once I implemented them, they attracted the kind of people I wanted working at my restaurant. I promise you: Your retention, productivity and sales will go up.

I build my culture on five core values. These are the qualities I look for in employees (and the people in my life), and I strive to live them myself every day.

  • Honesty. Without your word, you’re nothing. Find the facts, avoid gossip, and always tell the truth.
  • Hard work. Nothing is free. Everything we want is obtainable through this one value: hard work.
  • Courage. Be brave in the questions you ask, the conversations you have, the mistakes you make, and the problems you solve.
  • Perseverance. Overcome the worst days to enjoy the best ones.
  • Empathy. Understand that emotion is part of life. Help when needed, listen when you can, and care for one another.

this photo shows Alex Koons with three of his team members in a chummy pose

Photo by Miriam Brummel

Communication and Leadership

Before writing this article, I asked my Hot Tongue Pizza team what they thought our culture was. Their responses:

  • Fun, and a place where I never have to drag my feet.
  • Our own.
  • A place to grow.
  • Friendly together.
  • I don’t feel depressed when I’m here.
  • Fun and creative.

You might look at this list of somewhat abstract concepts and ask, “But how the heck do I implement these in my restaurant?” The answer is probably simpler than you think: It comes down to communication and leadership.

Related: A Q&A with Alex Koons: “Your food is a kind of song”

Communication: Constantly check in with your team and management. I sit down and go through these values with each new employee to lay out a road map of what success looks like here and what’s expected from them as team members. We hold meetings and monthly touch-bases with the entire organization to make sure everyone is happy. These meetings provide great opportunities to get feedback, course correct, and hear out any employee who needs to get something off their chest.

Leadership: Your managers can take your culture in the right or wrong direction. Make sure they understand and follow these three guidelines:

  • Lead, don’t boss. Leading is much different than bossing around or micromanaging.
  • You don’t know everything. Approach everything with curiosity. Assuming or jumping to conclusions is deadly.
  • Always look for ways to improve and grow. You’re never done growing.

Finally, be proud of your values and the people you want to provide opportunities for. In return, you will have a healthy, happy work family rather than a pack of passive-aggressive, burnt-out, gossiping, resentful humans—and a culture that your staff is excited to be a part of.  

Alex Koons is an industry consultant and the owner of Hot Tongue Pizza, an all-vegan pizzeria, and Purgatory Pizza in Los Angeles.