- The owner of 550 Pizzeria in Laredo, Texas, believes in treating employees and customers alike with kindness and respect—and expects the same in return.
- After manifesting her childhood dream of owning a pizzeria, she is already thinking about expansion—and how she can make a real difference in the lives of others.
Janet Zapata’s love of the pizza business is as infectious as her winning smile. As owner of 550 Pizzeria in Laredo, Texas, Zapata, unlike so many of our readers, wasn’t raised in a family of pizza makers. She didn’t inherit the business from her parents or grandparents. She had to make it happen all on her own, albeit with guidance and encouragement from Jeff Trevino, her mentor and former employer from her days with Laredo Pizza Factory.
To make things more challenging, Zapata opened 550 Pizzeria in the midst of the pandemic. But her faith, although wavering occasionally, never waned. This summer, readers of her local newspaper, the Laredo Morning Times, named 550 Pizzeria the city’s best restaurant and honored Zapata as Laredo’s best chef. She has, in her own words, “manifested” her dream of being a successful pizzaiola while winning hearts and minds—and bellies—in the town she deeply loves.
As a supplement to our August 2022 cover story, here’s more of our interview with Zapata, with a focus on cultivating strong employee relations by being a straight shooter, why she’s hesitant to offer delivery right now and what the future holds for her and her restaurant.
PMQ: Long before you opened 550 Pizzeria, you worked at Laredo Pizza Factory for Jeff Trevino, who became your mentor. He singled you out from his other employees because customers liked you so much, and he encouraged you to open your own restaurant one day. How did you become such a customer favorite at Laredo Pizza Factory?
Zapata: I always remember you have to treat people with love and respect. Yeah, there are some customers that are rude. And I’ve had those customers, but you have to be good to them unless they’re going at you hard—then obviously you’re gonna defend yourself. And it’s like I tell my employees: “I will always defend you because the customer is not always right.” You know what I mean? I tell them, “I’ll always defend you, just be honest with me.” Or I say, “You messed up. It’s okay.”
PMQ: Your employees seem to genuinely love you. You have a great rapport with them. Tell us about that relationship.
Zapata: I’ve had about 18 employees, and only three of them left. They left to go to college or they moved to another city. But I still have a lot of them. I tell, them, “Don’t lie to me. If you’re gonna call in because you’re doing something with your family and you don’t wanna go to work, just find somebody to cover for you. But don’t lie to me and tell me that you’re sick or whatever. Just tell me, ‘Hey, my family’s here.’” OK, perfect, just find someone to cover for you. If you’re gonna be late, just let me know. But don’t just come in late thinking it’s OK, because we open at a certain time, and the person waiting for you [from the previous shift] is tired.
I also tell them, “You know what it’s like to be treated badly, right? So you’re not gonna do that to our customers, right?” Other people come in here and they’re pissed off, they’re hungry, and you have to treat them with respect. Offer them a water. It’s frickin’ hot out there. “Would you like a Coke on me?” Once you do that, they’re gonna be like, “Oh, OK, thank you. I’m just so hungry.” Always be good, be kind to one another because you don’t know if they’re having a bad day or what.
You also don’t know what your co-worker is going through. I suffer from anxiety. I have really bad anxiety, and two of my other employees do too. And sometimes they come and they cry to me, and we cry to each other. That’s the thing I tell them: “You see, you guys didn’t know I have anxiety before. And you also don’t know what the customer might be going through.” Or maybe you’re in a pissed-off mood. I get it when you’re mad, but don’t come in here with that. Or at least say, “Hey, you know what? Right now I’m having a bad morning. Give me some time, guys.”
PMQ: What about those busy times when the pressure is on?
Zapata: A dinner rush can be crazy. It can be chaotic. I will tell everybody, “Hey, everyone, stop what you’re doing.” And I might have a line of customers waiting, but I gather everyone together, we count one, two, three, and we all take a deep breath, and then I’m, like, “OK!” And we start back to work again. I get it. I’d been an employee for many years, so I know what it feels like to feel belittled by your employer. And if I have to get after them, of course, I’m gonna do it. But I know this sounds too good to be true, but it’s very rare that I get after them because they don’t wanna disrespect me either. They think, “Man, I’ve gotta be here because she’s good to us.” And if they have to leave because they’re gonna go study out of town, I’m like, “Go, dude, you have to finish your career.”
PMQ: 550 Pizzeria doesn’t offer delivery. Why is that?
Zapata: I don’t offer delivery because, at the moment, I feel like it hasn’t been an issue. We’ve looked at the insurance, and we’re, like, uggh. And then if you buy a car, it’s, like, uggh. And, man, these [employees] are young, and even if they’re older, my anxiety kicks in and I start thinking of bad or weird scenarios. You know what I mean?
So I’ve thought about third parties. Before I opened, I looked at Food4U and Uber Eats. There were, like, four different [delivery providers] here, and I had them deliver Sbarros from the mall to me. It’s two miles away from my house, and only one person delivered a pretty pizza. You know what I mean? So that’s my fear. When you pick it up, we’ll give you the pizza round and beautiful. Once you get home, if it’s, like, all on one side of the box, that’s on you. I really want people to try it out here. It’s so different when you eat it at the restaurant versus getting it at home.
PMQ: Do you get a lot of people asking you, “Why don’t you deliver?”
Zapata: Yes and no. I guess they’re already accustomed to picking it up. Sometimes I will get calls like, “Hey, do you deliver? No? Why not?” And I’m like, “Oh, we’re working on it” or “Maybe later in the future.” And they’re like, “Oh, OK, I’m still gonna pick it up because we love your pizza.” It’s never been a big issue. Sometimes people ask me to personally deliver a large order for a special event, and I will do that.
PMQ: Have you given any thought to expanding and opening another 550 Pizzeria location?
Zapata: Yes, actually, that’s something I get a lot of questions about: “You should open one on the south side, open one on the south side.” A lot of my customers, especially on Sundays, I notice, always tell me, like, “We came from the south side. It’s like a little city out here, and it’s growing. Open on the south side.” And I’m just, like, “Maybe.”
My dream is to have a location in the Bishop Arts area of Dallas. But that’s a dream that I’ll put up there somewhere in my mind [and see] if I’m able to do it. Yes, I want a second location, but right now I’m expanding our current location. We seat 33 people now, and plans are being drawn for a bigger place. We plan to get a beer and wine license—that’s also in the works. I need a second oven, too, which is something I never thought I would need!
PMQ: What’s the future hold for you over the long term?
Zapata: I tell everybody, like, “Dude, do what you love. Do what you wanna do.” I never went to college myself. But I was able to pay for a semester of college for one of my employees, and just seeing her face, I was, like, “Dude, one day I’m gonna do this for my daughter’s entire graduating class. I know I am, I know I am gonna do it.”
I tell God that my goals for my future are: I want to die when I’m in my 90s—that’s one I hope God will provide for me—and I will be healed in my mind, and I will be a millionaire or billionaire and be able to pay for other people’s college, just like the owner of Snapchat did.
Note: This article has been edited since it was originally published to reflect the change of Janet’s last name to Zapata.