Krust Pizza Bar co-owners Rich Garcia (pictured right) and Kevin Wirtes (pictured left) met while working at The Hartford. Their passions for cooking and bourbon—combined with job changes—encouraged them to explore their dream of owning a restaurant. The busy entrepreneurs met with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price to discuss how they launched their startup and some challenges to running a business.
NAN PRICE: Do either of you recall thinking: I want to own a business or, I really think I’m an entrepreneur?
KEVIN WIRTES: Personally, I’ve always known. I was the kid who had tag sales and shoveled driveways. I’ve always known I wanted to make money for myself and have a business. I guess I never knew how it would come to me. I don’t know how you feel about entrepreneurship, Rich?
RICH GARCIA: It was kind of the same journey for me. I did all those things as a child too. I was always looking to get money more than my allowance.
NAN: You both had project management jobs at The Hartford. How have you taken those skills and applied them to running a restaurant?
RICH: It’s exactly like a restaurant.
KEVIN: We took a much more macro management approach. We ask for a lot of data back from our employees so we know what to do with it.
We try to run the business as if everyone wants to be here. We’re all trying to work together. We are the rudders that steer the ship in the slow movements towards the gulf and we expect them to make the faster movements when we are not here.
RICH: We instill a lot of trust in our staff. We had a really big transition about eight months ago. Kevin and I kind of pulled back from our day-to-day operations. From day one, I was cooking and Kevin was bartending every single day. So we started trying to pull that back a little so we could focus on growing the business and managing.
KEVIN: There’s no way to see the big picture if you’re a cog. We decided we really needed to remove ourselves. It was tough. And sometimes I feel like it wasn’t the right thing because we are the face of this place. People come to see Rich cooking and me making drinks. He developed the food menu. I developed the cocktail menu. But it was a business decision. It was the right one because we can now see the forest through the trees.
RICH: But with cooking and bartending, in the beginning it was really important to us to be on our feet because we’ve never done this before. This is our first business venture together.
NAN: You opened in 2013. Since then, you’ve doubled in size. How are you getting the word out?
KEVIN: Social media. I once told Rich: If this was 15 years ago, I don’t know how we’d be doing this because we reach so many people through social media. Facebook is a great platform. We have more than 10,000 Facebook followers.
RICH: We put most of our money into Facebook because we see immediate results.
NAN: How are you collaborating with the local community and other restaurants?
RICH: We use Hartford Baking Company for their brioche buns. We also use Liuzzi Angeloni Cheese, which is out of Hamden, CT. We use ton of local farms. It’s very important to us.
KEVIN: We also support a lot of Connecticut breweries. The brewery scene in Connecticut is blowing up. The beer is really good. It’s not just that is from Connecticut, it’s actually really good beer. So we’re definitely big on supporting Connecticut locally. That’s what we are. We are a small business in Connecticut. And Connecticut is evolving and changing. I think it’s pretty awesome. I really feel like there’s a heartbeat going on in Connecticut.
RICH: I feel like there’s a lot of younger entrepreneurs in Connecticut too. I never saw that before. Before, if I thought of someone opening a business I tended to think of somebody older. But there’s a lot of young people starting companies—look at Adam. It’s nice to see that for sure. It’s good seeing young energy.
KEVIN: Which is one of the reasons we want to be involved with Hartford at some point—because we think Hartford’s got this resurgence going on I know I want to be tapped into. I would love to see Hartford be this destination city.
We definitely have dreams of owning multiple Krust and multiple other types of restaurants. We’re focusing on Bristol next. But Hartford has been on our list a few.
RICH: I’d like to have some sort of presence in Hartford.
NAN: Do you have any advice for people starting out?
KEVIN: It’s possible. It doesn’t take as much as you think. We had a lot of people tell us in the beginning: You need like half $1 million to open a business. We sat down we did the numbers and realized that wasn’t necessarily true.
RICH: We could’ve easily spent half $1 million.
KEVIN: But we saved a lot by being our own general contractors. As far as entrepreneurs who are thinking about doing something like this, I mean…
RICH: Do it with a partner you trust.
KEVIN: Definitely do it with a partner you trust, but I say go for it. Especially if you’re younger, you have plenty of time to fail and pick yourself back up.
RICH: Our mantra was: What do we have to lose?
KEVIN: We really believed in ourselves and we knew that we had something to offer. Good atmosphere, good prices, good food. You have all these things to choose from. Are you going to hit all of them? Some of them? We see some places open up, they put the open sign on and expect people to come running. It’s not like that at all. We spent a lot of time drumming up business and getting people excited about what we were doing before we were even open.
RICH: Proper planning is important. And you have to be passionate about what you’re doing.
NAN: I hear that word a lot.
RICH: I think it comes through with the product. You got to show people you’re passionate.
KEVIN: Then there’s that customer service fine line of standing by your products and bending toward them, that’s something we’re learning along the way. We want everyone to leave happy, but you can’t make everyone happy. It’s impossible.
RICH: So it’s more important to have a little bit of a tough skin?