With a little more than a year under their belts, Present Company Founders Tom Gale and Jeff Lizotte are enjoying a taste of startup success.
The two met through Marwan Idris, who was Tom’s manager at Bricco Trattoria and general manager at ON20, where Tom later became house manager and Jeff had been executive chef.
Working together and sharing their ideas about the industry, Jeff and Tom quickly connected and recognized they had a symbiotic working relationship—and an entrepreneurial spirit.
This summer, the two sat down with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price to chat about the process of opening their restaurant and their future plans.
NAN PRICE: At what point did the idea to open your own restaurant start to gel?
JEFF LIZOTTE: Tom and I both had an end goal of having our own little places. He wanted his place. I wanted my place. When we worked together at ON20, we forged a professional relationship and achieved some goals I never thought were possible. We quickly realized that when we’re both going after something together, we are a force to be reckoned with! From there, we decided we can do this, we can do it together, and this can be great.
NP: So, you were almost able to test your partnership beforehand. How did you become aware of the restaurant space?
JL: Exactly. The owners of The Mill at 2T approached both of us individually. Originally, they spoke to Tom and said they were looking at relocating and wanted to sell the restaurant, but they wanted to sell it to the right person.
Tom told me I should go after it. At first, I thought it was a little too close for home for me. I grew up practically down the street. I never imagined coming back to this space as I was trying to go after my dream restaurant. I couldn’t visualize it at the time.
But I gave it some consideration. I began talking with the owners and we started a formal negotiation process. Tom knew I was pursuing the opportunity. He had been in the background coaching me and acting as a soundboard. About a month or two into that process, he said: I want to be your partner.
From then on it really felt real. I knew I could operate a restaurant from the back of the house perspective as a chef, but I needed a partner. I needed someone up front. And I didn’t have that. When he said he was on board, I realized I could really do this.
TOM GALE: I connected most to Jeff’s work ethic and with the friendship. Because, in this business if you don’t have love for your partner, you’re going to have issues. If you’re in it together it’s easier.
NP: In terms of opening a business, who has more of the business background?
JL: From a business standpoint, I think Tom has the best education from the school of hard knocks. He learned from a very successful restaurant group and he learned from the ground up.
As far as I’m concerned, in this business you can go to any program or school and get any formal-style education, but the best education is the business of working and experience, logging those hours. And that’s what Tom had done well.
TG: That said, when it came to opening Jeff spearheaded the business. I’m used to juggling a lot of things with business, but I didn’t necessarily have the background to develop a business plan. That’s where Jeff really shined.
Most people in his position don’t. He didn’t go to culinary school, he went to Cornell and studied management. And he learned business. So, when it comes to business, he thinks like a businessman. I saw that right away. Jeff was great at spelling out our vision, defining it, and communicating it. He did his homework.
NP: Let’s talk about funding. Did you have to tap into any resources?
TG: Funding came mostly from ourselves and family. We don’t owe an institution any money.
We worked a pretty good deal for ourselves by taking our time. My advice is to say no a lot. You only get your best deal once, so you have to make sure it’s your best deal. That’s something we learned.
JL: We won the negotiation with The Mill at 2T. And we pulled it off with just our financial resources—that amount was appropriate for us. If we put in any more, it would’ve been a different situation. We would have had to look at bringing in another partner or getting some other capital.
It was a turnkey deal. We bought the restaurant. We bought the right to the name. We bought the essence—everything from the dishwasher to the leftover inventory and linen.
NP: Tom, you offered some advice as far as taking your time and saying no. Any other startup lessons learned?
TG: Yes. I would say the biggest thing we learned as new business owners was regarding cash flow. It was hard to get a good grasp because we started a little undercapitalized.
Learning about and understanding cash flow from day one would have helped us. From the business side, that’s where we could’ve been better in the beginning. It was a new concept. Sometimes when you start a new restaurant, you’re so blinded by the daily work when you first open. You’re busy from day one.
JL: Another challenge from a startup perspective was starting a business and being chiefs but also being soldiers. We aren’t owners who are sitting in an office directing things. We are in the trenches every day. We have had this dualistic role, which can be a challenge. We’re getting better at it every day.
NP: Regarding innovation, you were coming into something that already existed. How did you differentiate from The Mill at 2T so it became Present Company?
JL: We looked at it as inheriting a gem. And our duty was to not only to preserve it, but to polish it up and make it shine brighter. We fine-tuned and we trained and prepared to open the doors to the same physical space—but with a higher level of energy, creativity, attitude. So, you would be in the same space, but with an entirely new experience.
TG: Energy is the biggest one. You’re selling energy in any type of business—positive energy.
NP: How did you get the word out when you first opened?
TG: What was helpful was that we didn’t open a new thing. Because of the history and reputation from The Mill at 2T, we knew the space would take a life of its own right away. When they closed, we put up a “coming soon” sign.
A good business defines who you are and what you do. Well, we’re Jeff Lizette and Tom Gale opening a restaurant in the old 2T building. So, it wasn’t hard for us to define ourselves, it spoke for itself.
We didn’t have to do much marketing. We relied on viral marketing, word-of-mouth, and The Mill at 2T’s email list, which we inherited. We also had a nice feature write up in the Hartford Courant, which helped us a lot.
NP: Tariffville is a little “off the beaten path.” How does the location factor into your business?
JL: I like to think that we’re a perfect mix of escape and convenience. We draw a lot of clientele from the Hartford/West Hartford market. It’s just enough to make you feel like you’re getting out of town, but it’s not so far where it’s destination and it’s a special-occasion only.
Tariffville is a neighborhood in Simsbury, CT, which is where I’m from. The family and social base I have here was a huge plus. And it’s such an encouraging community—people were supportive of a younger guy coming back home to open a business. The Chamber of Commerce was knocking on our door offering to do a ribbon cutting ceremony for us. It was great to have that warm reception.
NP: What does being an entrepreneur mean to each of you?
JL: To me, an entrepreneur is someone who is willing to take a risk for a reward. This is definitely a risky business. Being a chef is risky, but it’s incredibly rewarding.
You have to use all the resources you have—your intuition, your training—gather that together and form a package. That entrepreneurial package is what gives you the artillery to go out there and fight for what you want.
And what we want is a restaurant. And we want to have a high-level of food and service, share some great things, and make a lot of people happy.
The entrepreneurial spirit from my side, is exactly that. It’s all my training, my aspirations, my dream of having my own place and working for myself—and having a great partner in crime. It all came together.
TG: I think the most important part of being an entrepreneur is also humility. You go into something thinking you’re doing one thing and life happens. Business happens. It’s about being able to adjust. You must be able to pivot. And you must humble yourself over and over. Pride and ego can get in the way. And you have to balance that humility with confidence—knowing I can do this.
NP: Present Company is a year old. How has the evolution been?
TG: The biggest thing for us was to prove ourselves in this room. This room is only 49 seats. Anyone who owns a business can do the math. You can only do so much in this room. Right now, our focus is: What can we do without using our brick and mortar? The answer is catering.
We’ve been catering offsite events. That’s where we can prove our brand elsewhere. Jeff uses the term “brand equity.” You can’t touch or count those assets, but there is a value. And we’ve done a good job of creating that.
So, we’re using our brand equity right now toward catering, which may lead to other things. We have ultimate goals, but right now the goal is to be really good every day. If we lose sight of that, we’ll be in big trouble.