How would you go about starting a brand new pizza business from the ground up? Most of us in the pizza business follow a formula, a pattern or simply repeat our success in a new location.
However, two seasoned pizza entrepreneurs decided to re-invent the pizza wheel, so-to-speak, to create a new beginning for themselves and the surrounding community.
Going against conventional wisdom, Stephen Duncombe and Jeremy Wladis entrusted their business futures into the hands of an architect with a vision.
Duncombe said he and Wladis decided to work with the Shook team after seeing some of their past work.
We saw an article in The Charlotte Observer about a Harris Teeter (grocery store) that Shook designed, Duncombe said.
Kevin Kelley, co-founder of the Shook Design Group, said the Fuel Pizza Cafe concept came about after an exhaustive search for just the right idea.
The owners were looking at old buildings and new shopping center sites, Kelley said. There was a big debate between an urban and suburban site.
One day, Kelley was driving home when he saw an old gas station in a broken-down part of town. He said he just knew this was the right site for the pizzeria, but he wasn't the one who needed convincing.
The owners had a (real estate) broker who said it would never work, Kelley said. But I have a lot of experience with working with a blight area and having it turn around. I really believed in the gas station idea. I can't say that I was completely confident, but I had a hunch.
According to Kelley, Duncombe and Wladis were interested in the prospective idea of turning an old gas station into a pizza store but needed to evaluate their alternatives to please their broker.
The owners believed in the idea, but their broker wanted them to travel down a more traditional road like locating in a suburban mall, Kelley said.
However, Kelley was determined to change their minds. Finally, he told them the more conventional way will not work. You're going to get lost out there. In the end, it all came down to a confidence factor. I was very confident that we could make this idea come to life and so were the owners.
Duncombe said the idea of selling pizza in this old gas station was an exciting concept to him and Wladis. It was an idea that gave them the confidence to agree with Kelley about locating their business venture at this site.
Kevin put us on to this area, Duncombe said. There was no place to have dinner around here, but the building was what really inspired the concept-the sheer nature of a gas station.
Confidences aside, there were some very big risks involved. The owners and I had some very big risks tied up in this project, Kelley said. I don't own a piece of the cafe, but my payment was at risk and so was my reputation. Obviously, the owners had a lot to consider.
Kelley also admits that locating the project in this urban setting, in an old structure, was not without numerous problems.
The neighborhood had a funky, bohemian and extremely alternative element-complete with tattoo parlors and punk rock shops. Never mind the building codes, building violations and the design flaws of the 1,200 square-foot gas station.
There were all kinds of problems from parking to the intricacies of the building, Kelley said. You could go out and build a building without all these problems, but you wouldn't get the character of the older building. We turned that layered look, the uneven floors, the cracking on the walls and ceiling and made these things work for us instead of against us. These things added the character to this site that was needed for it to successfully work.
Kelley said he believed the project came together and worked because everyone involved developed a passion for the idea as well as for the project itself.
I would have to say that this project was a collaborative effort by the owners, architects and the contractor, Kelley said. We each played a role in bringing this idea together. We all became passionate about this project. Had this been a suburban site, I don't think I would have been as passionate to get this job done.
Ideas were welcomed from everyone. Kelley said he wanted those involved in the project to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts because he has found that some of the best ideas come from unanticipated places.
The key is getting ideas from everybody, Kelley said. Everyone has valid ideas. Some of the best ideas we have come up with was from someone's grandmother or someone sitting on the sidelines.
The name of the restaurant, for example, came from a conversation with Lincoln Clark, the project's contractor. Lincoln was talking about fuel one day, Kelley said. When we heard this, we all got excited. Food is fuel also and the whole motif came from that. Every project has that moment of brilliance and that moment in this project was when Lincoln said the word fuel. Because, for this project, the word fuel, no matter how you slice and dice it, it always makes sense.
Kelley said the project was still two separate ideas until Clark provided them with a name that would bridge the ideas into one combined effort.
We were searching for brilliance, Kelley said. We had this situation where we had two seemingly different ideas. The idea of selling pizza and a gas station. The word fuel totally cemented the two ideas into one. It made it perfect and from there, we took the motif very far.
One look at the cafe and it is obviously alive with a lot of bright, vibrant color. Kelley said the reason for that was practical.
We do a lot of color theory, Kelley said. There is actually two things we recommend to our clients who want to make a change but have very little money. If you have no money, focus on lighting and color.
The difference between the two is simple. Lighting will make you feel good and add romance, Kelley said. Color will set the tone.
Kelley said the colors used in the restaurant were vital to the overall concept. The colors were key. There wasn't a whole lot of money so we had to make the most out of graphics, lighting and color. We started studying gas stations of that era. We really wanted to pick those colors that were indicative of that era.
Kelley's attraction to the old gas station as an ideal place for the site is better understood when his representation of old gas stations is explained.
Old gas stations used to represent service, Kelley said. When you drove in, the attendant would come out to your car. We've lost that. Now, we pay at the pump and we do not have that contact anymore. We can all remember gas stations like that. And Kelley added that the 1950s-inspired slogans chosen for the cafe were selected for their dual meaning.
The slogans on the building-Free Water and Air; Body Alignment; and Tune-Up are all things we think we need after a long day of work. The menu was designed to look like an old road map from the 1950s and the drinks are listed as lubricants.
According to Kelley, the formula for the success of The Fuel Pizza Cafe lies in that something extra the cafe provides its customers.
When people come into the Fuel Cafe, they instantly enter into the concept that has been created, Kelley said. When people are looking for food these days, they want more than just the food. In the old days, the quality equaled the price. If you wanted quality food, you just paid a lot for it. Today, the whole formula of the food equation has changed. Now, quality equals price, convenience, change, variety and entertainment. You used to have to pay for entertainment, now you get it for free.
Fuel's appeal seems to be ageless. The cafe has been very successful marketing itself to the older crowd, the baby-boom generation and children.
As we go on in time, different periods become nostalgic, Duncombe said. So we knew this place would appeal to adults, but it's also a child-friendly place. Little boys love cars and playing with the gas pumps.
Kelley agreed with Duncombe about the overall acceptance for the cafe, regardless of age.
They (the older crowd) love it, Kelley said, and the kids who visit the cafe have a great time playing with the gas pumps and it always amazes me how many stories you will hear when you go there. It is all about gathering and reaching in and pulling apart a pizza that you are all sharing.
Kelley said it was as if everyone was thinking, we are all getting into this and having fun.
Nevertheless, there were some very tense days leading up to the grand opening of the cafe.
The real test was what kind of customers would this place attract, Kelley said. Would it be a place where kids on skateboards, bikers and the dangerous element would hang out? Because there was that kind of crowd in the neighborhood before we started. We weren't sure. Much to our amazement and delight, it is all family. From day one, there was a family atmosphere. It really does have a very strong appeal to those people who want to gather around and share a meal.
Duncombe said the first day was a stress-filled day, but it was soon apparent that the cafe was going to be a hit.
The first day, we sold 45 pizzas and it just never stopped, Duncombe said. We broke even within the first month. Two months ago, we were selling 12,000 slices a month and now, we're selling 14,000 slices a month.
Due to the success of The Fuel Pizza Cafe, other family-oriented restaurants are moving to this once deteriorating neighborhood creating a direct effect on the real estate of the community.
It has totally changed the real estate direction, Kelley said. It was going down and it is now going back up and three or four restaurants are located over there and picking up on the concept of letting your hair down. Every district needs a beacon. You need something everyone can rally around and get proud about. This project became just such a beacon for this area. The neighborhood is very safe now and the area has just turned around so much. The surrounding community really believes the cafe changed the whole face of the area.
Duncombe's, Wladis' and Kelley's initial risks have now been rewarded. Kelley said he has received numerous telephone calls concerning other possible sights in that same area.
Once we proved that market, my other restaurant clients called me, Kelley said. They asked me if there were any other sites in that area that I liked.
This suits Kelley. He said he and his firm are always looking to do something different from the expected and bring a little spark to the place.
We are looking for that magic that the owner and the location have, Kelley said.
Since opening its doors in March of 1998, Duncombe, Wladis and Clark, who is now a partner, have opened a second store in Rochchester, NY and a third store in downtown Charlotte.