Krust Pizza Bar co-owners Rich Garcia and Kevin Wirtes 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, some challenges to running a business, and their recent StartUP Bristol award.
PRICE: Do either of you recall thinking: I want to own a business or, I really think I’m an entrepreneur?
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?
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.
PRICE: You both had project management jobs at The Hartford. How have you taken those skills and applied them to running a restaurant?
GARCIA: It’s exactly like a restaurant.
WIRTES: 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.
GARCIA: 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.
WIRTES: 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.
GARCIA: 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.
PRICE: You opened in 2013. Since then, you’ve doubled in size. How are you getting the word out?
WIRTES: 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.
GARCIA: We put most of our money into Facebook because we see immediate results.
PRICE: How are you collaborating with the local community and other restaurants?
GARCIA: 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.
WIRTES: 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.
PRICE: Let’s talk about StartUP Bristol. You recently received a $22,500 award—congratulations. How did you become involved?
GARCIA: We’re good friends with Adam von Gootkin, Co-Founder of Onyx Spirits. He lives in Bristol and is on the StartUP Bristol committee. Adam had befriended Justin Malley, the Economic Development Executive Director in Bristol who created the StartUP Bristol campaign and committee.
Adam introduced us to StartUP Bristol. We knew the town, but we didn’t really know what was going on there. We got excited talking to Adam and Justin because they’re really passionate about Bristol and making it a better place to do business. Justin encouraged us to join the program and we started researching it.
WIRTES: It felt like the right fit. It feels like a town that’s embracing us. In a way it’s kind of exciting for us to go to Bristol because there’s no scene.
PRICE: So you can make a scene, so to speak.
WIRTES: Right, which is fun. It’s good because we want that big neighborhood vibe, getting people attached to us.
PRICE: So does this mean you’re planning to open another restaurant?
WIRTES: Yes. We are looking at a location, I think part of this grant from StartUP Bristol is that we do operate a business in the town.
PRICE: That’s exciting.
WIRTES: We are excited. We’re kind of treating this one like “Krust light” in that we want to be able to manage both restaurants successfully.
GARCIA: We don’t want to overextend ourselves.
WIRTES: Some places go bigger on their second restaurant. We plan to go smaller, make it more manageable, and implement some of the efficiencies we’ve learned here in Middletown. This place took a while to become efficient probably because we were learning along the way. At one point, we actually started tapping into our corporate life as far as the processes and procedures we learned. All that stuff does have a place, we just don’t want to have 10 meetings a day about it.
We’re happy. We’re hungry for the next space. I hope down the road we can be involved with helping entrepreneurs—kind of like what Adam is doing, be on a board where we’re handing money out. That would be awesome.
PRICE: I’ve heard that a lot before. People who receive mentoring want to give it back.
WIRTES: Connecticut is evolving and changing. I think it’s pretty awesome. I really feel like there’s a heartbeat going on in Connecticut.
GARCIA: 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.
WIRTES: 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.
GARCIA: I’d like to have some sort of presence in Hartford.
PRICE: Do you have any advice for people starting out?
WIRTES: 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.
GARCIA: We could’ve easily spent half $1 million.
WIRTES: 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…
GARCIA: Do it with a partner you trust.
WIRTES: 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.
GARCIA: Our mantra was: What do we have to lose?
WIRTES: 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.
GARCIA: Proper planning is important. And you have to be passionate about what you’re doing.
PRICE: I hear that word a lot.
GARCIA: I think it comes through with the product. You got to show people you’re passionate.
WIRTES: 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.
PRICE: So it’s more important to have a little bit of a tough skin?
For Krust Pizza Bar menu, hours, and location, visit www.krustpizzabar.com.