By Alexandra Mortati, Women In Pizza

While Cristina Aceves Smith’s first job was at a pizzeria in the Bay Area called Pizza My Heart, she didn’t think pizza would become such a large part of her life. That was where she met her future husband (and business partner), Lars Smith, and today they own State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria, with locations in Los Altos and Redwood City, California, and State of Mind Slice House in Palo Alto.

Smith left Pizza My Heart after about a year and moved to full-service restaurants. She worked for national chains, local restaurant groups, independently owned restaurants, and a Michelin starred restaurant. And she did it all—she worked the front-of-house, back-of-house and management. “Most of my experience has been behind the scenes doing finances and everything that comes with running our own business,” she says.

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After years in the restaurant industry, Cristina started to feel burnt out, so she went to work in the accounting department for a company that imported strawberries to Japan and was owned by Lars’ uncle. One of the perks of living in her area of California is the quality of local produce and meats, so working in the agriculture field showed Cristina a whole different perspective of the food industry. “I spent a lot of time on location at the ranches getting to know the farmers and witnessing the amount of work that goes into picking strawberries,” she says. “Before, I was like, ‘$8 a pint for strawberries is insane,’ but today I think it should be $20!”

Understanding where food comes from, how it’s made, and who makes it is the kind of knowledge Cristina hopes to pass on to her children. And it’s knowledge that she senses can be lacking outside the restaurant industry. “In the restaurant industry, you have a higher appreciation for food, so I think that disconnect in society is sad.”

Cristina remembers one of the first times she truly became aware of what she was eating, and it’s a memory that has shaped the way she approaches food within her own family and restaurant. One of Cristina’s favorite resources is a local farm that educated the community on sustainable agriculture. They offer programs for people of all ages to learn more about wilderness and farming, including a summer camp for kids. “We strive to keep 80% to 90% of our menu local and from California,” she notes. “We support small and local craft breweries and small wineries as well.”

Working in agriculture didn’t just enhance Cristina’s appreciation for food; it also opened her eyes to her love for paperwork. “It’s very stressful, but it’s something I’m very good at. I don’t deal with a lot of the front-of-the-house stuff. I don’t manage or hire, but I do everything else: all the payroll, bookkeeping, all the behind-the-scenes stuff.” It’s a big undertaking that is crucial to managing the success of the business. “The financial side of the business for most people is dull and boring,” she says. “Restaurant owners want to talk about their food because that is what makes peoples’ mouths water.”

The restaurant industry has a reputation for being cutthroat. But, somehow, the pizza industry has transcended this sense of ruthlessness and instead fostered friendly camaraderie. “When it comes to anything that’s financially related, everyone usually guards it. ‘What we have is ours, and we can’t share it. It’s a secret.’ It’s eye-opening to see this not be the case in the pizza industry. It’s been amazing to get to know so many people in the pizza industry. Everyone is so open to helping and teaching other.”

This photo shows Cristina's gloved hand as she makes a competition pizza.

State of Mind / Instagram

The last few years have seen Smith step out of her comfort zone. “I’ve gotten in the kitchen a bit and started competing at Pizza Expo, the Caputo Cup and (the World Pizza Championship) in Parma. There is definitely a level of excitement and definitely anxiety. It’s a great opportunity to push myself. In the U.S., there’s growth amongst women in the pizza industry, being business owners and being at the forefront of the restaurant business. But, around the world, it’s still primarily a male-dominated industry. It’s important to showcase what women can do.” And Cristina did just that. At the most recent World Pizza Championship, she received the top score for a U.S. pizza maker in the Classica Category!

Cristina and Lars run State of Mind with Lars’ dad, brother and business partner. “It’s nice to run a business with people you trust, that have your back and support you,” she says. But running a business with family can be tricky as it blurs the boundaries between personal and professional. As a family they have all evolved and learned together. “We were bound to have bumps, but we balance each other out and give each other the space to learn.”

The State of Mind staff have also become the Smiths’ family. “One of the reasons why we became so successful and have very loyal employees is that we approach things with a family mindset, and we want to make sure every one of our staff can make a living. We want them to not have that be a constant stressor, to really enjoy working with us, and to also buy into what we do. If you have an employee that doesn’t believe in what you are doing, your customers will feel that, and it will provide a different experience. They are the ones that really have the interactions, and we owe a lot of our success to them!”

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Cristina also has to balance her career with being a mom. “I’m still working on finding the balance and figuring it out,” she says. It seems like her kids are inheriting their parents’ love of pizza and may end up in the business one day, too. “Our son loves pizza and the pizza industry. From day one he’s wanted to come and start working. On days when it’s slow enough he’ll come and start helping. All the managers and staff know him and let him help. Our daughter loves eating the food. She’s still not into caring about what goes on, but she tells everyone we own a restaurant. She has that pride in her. Tyler says he’s going to work here when he gets older. He told his teachers that he wanted to be like his dad and be a restaurateur when he grows up.”

Creating a very casual and family-friendly environment has been an important goal for Cristina. “Tyler was born with special needs. We want to make sure whatever we do is always family-friendly and very open and welcoming to all. Whether they mean to or not, families of kids with special needs can’t always go out to eat and feel comfortable. People don’t always know how to act around then. We have always made a point to make sure everyone always feels welcome.”

This photo shows Cristina in a black shirt with a trophy standing next to her husband, Lars, in a white t-shirt, also holding a trophy.

State of Mind / Instagram

Cristina, Lars and their family work hard to be a part of their community. “Whether you’re a small mom-and-pop or a large corporation, when you take the time to become a part of the community you are in, that is how you are going to survive. The outpouring of support we had during the pandemic was incredible and humbling. Being a part of the community and supporting local programs was always a part of our plan. We wanted to be financially stable enough to give back to schools and organizations doing good in our community. In order to have a voice in your community you have to immerse yourself in it and have their respect as a business so have you their support.”

The support of their community and their incredible adaptability helped Cristina and the State of Mind team survive the pandemic. “California and Santa Clara County always had strict rules and guidelines, which we all agreed with, but it made things more difficult for business. We had to change our business plan, but in my opinion, it has made us stronger and better owners.” Some of these changes include adjusting the layout of the restaurant from communal seating to assigned tables, adding online ordering, hiring a hostess, and adding a waitlist to keep an even flow.

Staff and customers have expressed their appreciation for the changes as well. “The biggest surprise was that community support. Everyone was feeling the pandemic—that scramble in the first six months to one year of changes—so having everyone support us by ordering, spreading the word and asking if we were okay made such a difference. On the flip side, our loyal regular customers really appreciated the steps we took to keep the doors open and keep them and ourselves safe.”

Everything the Smiths did was with their community and their staff in mind. “We just had to do what we had to do. Our primary goal was keeping the doors open while keeping all of our staff who rely on us safe and employed.”

In the future, Cristina hopes that the appreciation people had for the service industry continues. “My biggest hope is that the amount of grace and respect that people started having for the restaurant industry and workers during the beginning of the pandemic continues. As a society, restaurant workers are looked at as ‘the help’ and are treated as such. I hope this new level of respect and empathy and understanding continues. It should be a requirement for everyone to work in a restaurant. There are so many life lessons you learn, and there’s a work ethic that you don’t get in other industries.”

For others out there finding their way, Cristina’s advice is to “just keep trying.” It sounds simple, but it’s another thing to put it into practice, something Cristina does every day. “It’s really easy to give up on yourself, especially if you are trying to open your own business,” she says. “No one is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself first.”

Feeling confident in your ability is imperative to success, Cristina believes. “No one is going to give it to you. What you want, you have to work for, so don’t let your failures define you. I’m still learning as an individual, and I’ve seen it with Lars. With the amount of time and frustration, he could have very easily given up, but he believed in himself and what he was doing. I don’t cook pizza every day, and it’s a lot to put myself out there and compete. There’s a part of me that thinks, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t because I don’t cook pizzas every day, that’s not my job.’ But I enjoy cooking, and it gives me a confidence boost. It helped me come out of my shell.”

Like all of us, Cristina can get intimidated, because, as she points out, “There are some amazing badass women in this industry.” Cristina is definitely one of them. Deliberate, bold, wise, conscientious, and persevering, Cristina is proof that we can do anything we can put our minds to. She empowers everyone around her to be curious, open minded, and brave. State of Mind is an extension of Cristina, Lars and their family. As soon as you walk in, you’re home.

Alexandra Mortati is the marketing director for Orlando Foods and founder of Women In Pizza, a not-for-profit organization that empowers women in the pizza industry to share their stories, display their talents, inspire innovations, and connect with one another and the world. This article originally appeared on the Instagram account for Women In Pizza. Click here to learn more about the organization.



Marketing, Pizzerias