Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with The Place 2 Be Co-Owner Gina Luari about her experience as a woman entrepreneur and her efforts to make her startup restaurant the place to be in Hartford.
NAN PRICE: Have you always had an entrepreneurial drive?
GINA LUARI: My parents are both entrepreneurs. They own a diner, so I grew up in the restaurant industry. I love people. I can’t imagine myself working in a space where I couldn’t interact with them. That’s what really pushed me into entrepreneurship.
I couldn’t really fathom being at a desk and not creating in the sense of seeing people’s reactions. When I create a dish or change something on our menu, I can immediately see customers’ reactions—whether they like it, or they sent it back to the kitchen because they want to change something about it. I love that process and I think working in corporate America kind of takes away from that, because your consumer is not right in front of you.
NAN: Tell us about the evolution of The Place 2 Be.
GINA: The Place To Be Restaurant had been closed. I remember driving by when I lived in Hartford and thinking: This would be a great place. I felt like there was nowhere to go for breakfast or brunch in Hartford. Everything downtown was closed on the weekends.
And nothing was really suiting the demographic coming downtown. a lot of young professionals are moving into apartments in Hartford and there’s nothing catered to them specifically. Also, I thought about this community. So many people live in a square block and there wasn’t any place to go for breakfast.
My parents and I bought the restaurant and completely redid it. Our grand opening was April 15, 2016.
We came up with a different concept and thought about renaming the restaurant. But, during the construction process, I kept referring to it as “the place to be,” because that was the location. And then, as we got closer to opening, it kind of clicked: What I’m trying to do for the space and Hartford in general is to create a place to be and convince people that Hartford is a destination and a place for them to come eat. The name kind of fit, we just updated it to make more of a statement.
NAN: What do you think differentiates the restaurant and makes it innovative?
GINA: I always felt diner food was for everyone. It’s the most diverse kind of cuisine. I took inspiration from diner-type menus and reinvented the recipes to made them more modern.
I think we’ve really reinvented the diner scene. We’re a place for everyone. Our clientele is so diverse. That’s what you find in diners and what makes them so popular. So, I think that was the innovative aspect of it. We wanted to create a place where you feel comfortable whether you’re a teenager, you’re retired, you’re enjoying a birthday brunch, or you’re celebrating a milestone event. Everyone is here.
The diversity of the crowd is amazing. And for it to be in Hartford is even more amazing.
NAN: Why Hartford?
GINA: I’m an idealist! I think Hartford has so much potential—and so many people are striving for it. You don’t find that kind of energy everywhere. There’s so much passion in Hartford and there’s so much diversity. In one mile you can find 10 different cuisines, 10 different churches, 10 different community centers.
I want to shine a light on Hartford. That’s really why I chose this location on Franklin Avenue. I kind of want to bring back its glory and celebrate what it is.
NAN: How has your background shaped your entrepreneurial journey?
GINA: I majored in business at Central Connecticut State University. I had an encouraging professor, Drew Harris, who is passionate about entrepreneurship and did a lot with the entrepreneurship program.
We collaborated with different colleges and worked with teams to develop business ideas. We learned about funding, developed business plans, pitched our businesses, and used the techniques we had learned to see if our business concept was feasible. That really put a fire under me for entrepreneurship.
NAN: Do you feel like your business major has helped you?
GINA: I do. Especially my Organizational Theory class. Had I not taken that class and read Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance by Louis Gerstner, I don’t think I would be a successful entrepreneur.
That class really changed my perspective from your business being about your product to it being about your system. You can have the right menu, but without the right system your restaurant won’t work. You might be successful for a year or two, but you’ll be a trend. You won’t be something that’s going to sustain itself for decades through changing environments and trends.
If you don’t have a system in place, if you don’t create a culture and make sure people are following that culture, your business will be useless no matter how great your product is. Because you cannot predict the outcome. You cannot predict how you come across. You cannot keep up. You need people who are buying into your vision, otherwise you’re not going to get anywhere. It’s like rowing a boat in circles.
Prior to opening this restaurant, I worked for the Rocky Hill Chamber of Commerce. I learned about the different tools you can use to be more than a business. I don’t think a lot of businesses take advantage of them. I certainly did when we opened. For example, you can have a ribbon-cutting, which cost nothing. It helps people recognize your presence and that you care about being a business in the community.
Also, I met so many great people when I was working at the Rocky Hill Chamber, including Rich Brown, Vice President of Investor Relations at the MetroHartford Alliance. I went different seminars and connected with the Department of Economic Development Economic Development (DECD), which has many different programs and incentives.
With small business you can feel helpless, like you’re going it alone. It was helpful to see the DECD devoting time to helping small businesses be successful and making sure businesses stay in Connecticut. It gives you hope as a small business owner—for me it gave me a feeling of: Okay, I can do this.
NAN: What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
GINA: People don’t understand the logistics that go into business ownership. It’s things you don’t even think about, things entrepreneurs endure while people are constantly telling them their idea is not going to work. Pulling through that and becoming successful is the most incredible feeling. Being able to push through every “no,” and push through the doubts and failures and still be there.
NAN: Aside from funding, what kinds of challenges have you faced as a startup?
GINA: One of the most difficult things is staffing—finding people to work for your business who have the same vision and work well with a team. It’s a cultural thing. Your employees are the face of your business. One person can really throw it all off. You can’t control peoples’ interactions with customers. That’s something I’ve to learn as an entrepreneur, how to find the right people and grow with them.
Many businesses struggle with time management. I found it with myself too. Even knowing those resources are out there, getting to them can be difficult because you’re on a time crunch. It’s hard to figure out what to do first.
NAN: How do you deal with that challenge?
GINA: I try to break it down and figure out what’s going to be the most detrimental if I don’t do it. In business, everything matters. If you don’t do inventory you lose there. If you don’t get funding you lose there.
Competition is another challenge. The restaurant industry is always changing. You can’t patent a dish. You have to be innovative. You have to differentiate yourself. You have to make people want to come to your restaurant as opposed to someone else’s.
That’s really difficult because you have to constantly keep on top of your social media. That wasn’t even a thing in the restaurant industry until recently. Now you have to great at marketing. And on top of that, you have the best food and the best service. You have to be great at human resources. You have to be great at product development.
NAN: Entrepreneurs wear a lot of hats. That ties into the challenge of time management.
GINA: Right. For me, I focus on everything other than the cooking—developing the menu, marketing, human resources, payroll. My mom is actively here. That’s how we’ve been able to partner. She’s been here managing, and I have chefs, but I do everything outside of that. To be one person doing all those things is difficult because you cannot be everywhere at the same time.
It goes back to the challenge of hiring the right people. Trying to put together a team that will help you maintain all those aspects of having a successful and good place. That’s the most important thing, I want this restaurant to be really good. But without the right team, that’s borderline impossible.
NAN: How do you remain innovative so you can remain “The Place To Be?”
GINA: I think it’s really listening to our customers. I take everything to heart. Attention to detail is key in success. So, I’m religious when it comes to our Instagram posts. I read all the comments and take them into consideration. I say: How can I do this better? How I make sure I never have that comment again? Really, it’s: How do I get people to say what I want them to say, post what I want them to post, and get across what I want them to get across to whoever is seeing their posts?
I’m a big believer of checking out what’s around you—seeing what everyone else is doing better, what’s working for them, why it’s worked for them, and how it can be applied to us. Again, I think just caring about your customer really helps you stay in the game. It won’t guarantee success, but it will help.
What we learned in marketing day one: Know your demographic. Your customer is everything. Then have focus groups. For us, Instagram is our focus group Our customers’ reviews are our focus group.
NAN: What’s next?
GINA: I am opening a rustic pizza bar called The Pie Factory. My goal is to have 100 varieties of toppings. The plan is to open in June.