Giovanni Labbate believes in motivating and incentivizing his employees to keep the wood fires burning at Billy Bricks.

Billy Bricks Wood Fired Pizza

Tips From the Team: Giovanni Labbate and Billy Bricks’ Road Map for Success in 2020

Labbate explains how Billy Bricks Wood Fired Pizza staged a COVID-19 comeback after closing down one of its stores.

In this time of uncertainty, we are all looking for a new normal, a set of variables that we can control. Fortunately, there are numerous adaptations that can help you keep things running smoothly in your pizza operation. U.S. Pizza Team member Giovanni Labbate and the crew at Billy Bricks Wood Fired Pizza, located in Mount Prospect, Illinois, have successfully adapted to the changes in the current market. From building a winning team to new avenues of distribution—and a little mix of the old and new—Labbate and Billy Bricks were able to create a road map that works for them and could work for you.

Hernandez: What were some of the first changes you had to make during the pandemic? 

Labbate: Unfortunately, one of the first changes we had to do was to close a location we had inside a local hockey arena. But we took the focus to one of our other locations in Oak Park. It wasn’t doing gangbusters at the time but soon became one of our best stores. You just have to focus your energy on what you can control and succeed at, while taking all the pitfalls in stride.

Related: The secrets of great restaurant kitchen design

Hernandez: What kinds of changes did you make to your locations that have remained open?

Labbate: First, we told our managers to watch what they order, keep staff minimal, and keep an eye on the inventory. Since we are a restaurant group and have several concepts, we also launched some virtual kitchens in the Oak Park store. This allowed us to have several different concepts out of one location and retain as many employees as possible. Virtual kitchens have been trending lately, but they are more important than ever right now for independent operations. Minimum contact, multiple concepts, mass employment—that’s the trifecta. 

One of the more popular pizzas on the menu is the Prosciutto and Baby Spinach.

Hernandez: How were you compensating your employees before the pandemic?

Labbate: Well, compensating and incentivizing go hand in hand. But we look at it as, incentivization is the “carrot,” and compensation is when you finally get that carrot! Do not dangle that carrot if you have no intention of giving it to them. First off, offer a good wage. That will get applicants in the door. We pay our staff very well. Scheduling is also a good one for us. We are not open very late, so that’s enticing to employees, but we are flexible on hours anyway, as long as the shops are staffed. We also offer a shared-tip program. All the tips that come in get split in-house. That’s a big incentive, since it can raise anyone’s hourly wage by a couple bucks. Another great incentive we have is our pizza trucks. Everyone works toward getting picked for truck duty. There is an opportunity to earn more money and tips on these separately scheduled events. It’s hot, crowded and chaotic, but the end compensation is well worth it. That’s why that one tends to be a merit-based incentive. But you have to be fair to your employees. Let them know clearly what you expect and what your standards are, then make sure they adhere to them. But the most important thing is to make your staff feel appreciated and necessary. That gives them some ownership and pride in the operation. Nothing is a better motivator than pride in your work. 

Hernandez: Were there many changes in food-truck regulations that you had to deal with? 

Labbate: Surprisingly not. Food trucks themselves tend to be heavily regulated to begin with. But there were some changes at the sites we would serve. We definitely set up the social-distancing cues for our food truck customers. I guess the biggest change would be the addition of wearing masks all the time. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s the very least we can do, and it makes the customers feel safe. But if you follow the rules to begin with, you shouldn’t have to make many adjustments.

Related: How leading pizza chains handle delivery and carryout 

Hernandez: What benefit does a food truck offer during these times? 

Labbate: A food truck lets you reach the customer base that might not be familiar with you. It also helps that it’s an open-air operation, so people who are more concerned about the spread of germs will be more comfortable. Plus, it’s mobile! Unlike your brick-and-mortar location, which relies on your customer base coming in to see you on a regular schedule, you can move your mobile units around town daily or weekly to hit the best trafficked spots for your product.

Working on Billy Bricks’ food trucks—called Wheels and Wheels II—lets employees make more money and tips. In addition to appearing at events and festivals around the region, the trucks can be booked for private parties, weddings and corporate lunches.

Hernandez: If someone has to shut down a location temporarily, what should they focus on when planning to reopen?

Labbate: For us, it was mainly employee retention and getting back to “normal.” We were closed for a few months and lost some employees. They had to look for other income, and we understand that. But, for the most part, we were able to retain most of our employees with some creative rescheduling between locations and duties, and now we’re back up and running. I would say there are a lot of people looking for jobs out there now, and a lot of them are quality people, unemployed through no fault of their own. 

Hernandez: What is one of your best tips for compensating employees in any situation?

Labbate: Do not be afraid to recognize and reward someone who deserves it. Don’t be afraid to make sure they are recognized and feel validated. Whichever way you do it, be it personally buying them a free meal or getting them a plaque, that nurtures the best in your staff and will make other employees strive for that goal as well. Public recognition is key to motivating them. 

Hernandez: What’s your best tip for success with a mobile unit right now? 

Labbate: It’s definitely more work than a brick-and-mortar, but the rewards can also be greater. They are two different animals. I would suggest having a restaurant before you get a mobile unit. In that case, you have recipes and procedures worked out ahead of time. Just because you can do one does not mean you can succeed at the other.  

To see the entire interview, visit PMQ.com/labbate.