By Eric Wright

In Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Steve Jobs, he likened the late Apple founder to two other individuals he had written biographies on — Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. It wasn’t because Jobs compared in intellectual prowess; rather like Jobs, Franklin and Einstein were able to combine art with science and aesthetics with engineering. Chris Conneen’s popular restaurant at The Avenue Viera is both an expression of his business entrepreneurialism and his keen artistic senses for which he credits his mother, a nationally recognized watercolorist. Pizza Gallery & Grill isn’t just a clever play on words; Chris believes he sells more artwork out of his establishment than many of the galleries in the county. Of course, most of the art he sells is edible but for him, business is also an art.

SCB: Entrepreneurialism is often more like a fortunate virus you catch rather than a goal you pursue. When and how did the entrepreneurial journey begin for you?

CC: My inspiration was really my father; he was very entrepreneurial himself, a general contractor, an art gallery owner, an accountant, with an incredible work ethic. The switch sort of flipped for me — what I call my ‘entrepreneurial seizure’ — when I was working for Domino’s Pizza. I was moving up through the ranks and going through its franchising schools. Then I asked myself, ‘Why am I giving Domino’s my profits when I could keep those profits for myself?’ Of course, I wish it was that easy, but having my mom’s artistic genes, that creativity didn’t mesh well with a regimented corporate chain. I learned a lot at Domino’s, but the monotony of making the same type of pizzas over and over didn’t fit my personality.

SCB: That was when?  

CC: 1989. I opened my first Pizza Gallery & Grill in downtown Melbourne.

SCB: What was the most lasting lesson of that period?

CC: Probably hiring the right people. To do that you have systems, but you also have to rely on your ability to interpret the intangibles — your tuning fork or intuition. The problem is when the wrong person is on the bus it is hard to get them off and they can suck the life out of the culture.

 

SCB: How do you match people to the culture you are trying to produce?

CC: All industries are different, but in the hospitality industry it is about serving people and therefore you have to find people who can put other people’s interests before their own. You ask, ‘Are they just looking for a job or do they want to be a part of a team that is here for a purpose?’  We aren’t necessarily a long-term career option; we realize people are passing through, but collectively, we have a mission; we have values and a purpose.

SCB: Can it be taught or is it found?

CC: Our purpose is to enrich our community and provide people with an incredible dining experience. We measure people based on their skills or abilities and their effectiveness in living that purpose with every customer. One is performance and the other is purpose. Some have both; some are strong on one and weak in another. It is easier to teach performance than it is purpose.

SCB: Did you have a mentor?

CC: Initially, it was books and in many ways it still is. But the older I get the more I recognize the need for mentors versus thinking I have outgrown that need. We regularly hire consultants; I send our people to conferences and attend summits like The Great Game of Business. I have several mentors, financially, spiritually and physically. The school of hard knocks is good, but learning from others is better.

SCB: From where and how did the concept for Pizza Gallery come?

CC: It was in that entrepreneurial seizure. Realizing I wanted to do pizza, but I didn’t want it to be like Domino’s. I wanted something creative, to combine food with an artistic experience, not just in dining, but visually. It is a link between the two. We actually have a curator for our art and have opening shows. We even name our pizzas after artists and spend a lot of time thinking through that connection.

SCB: You have grown during a time when the markets are tough and discretionary income has shrunk. What were the keys to that growth?

CC: I honestly have to thank God, but we got lean and refined our processes, strengthening our foundation. Also, during the recession we advertised more; while businesses were cutting their marketing budgets we increased ours so that as consumers were being more careful with their budgets we were in front of them more.

In addition, our commitment to community involvement, which we do in a number of different ways, has put our brand and our values out in front of the community. That, by the way, is primary to us; our purpose statement is: ‘We enrich our community and we provide an incredible dining experience.’ Community enrichment is a first, which has brought more positive attention to our restaurant than anything else. It’s a cliché, but ‘it is the right thing to do.’

SCB: Capital funding and money management is always an issue with any entrepreneurial venture. How did you fund your enterprises?

CC: I used private investors almost every time, though Dana Kilborne with Prime Bank, now Florida Bank of Commerce, did take a calculated risk when we moved to The Avenue. Banks generally won’t even give you an appointment; they wouldn’t loan me $20 much less $20,000, which was what I needed to open my first business.  I found two personal friends who received a nice return.

At my second location, on Post Road, it was similar; we needed a $30,000 capital investment, which again we raised through private investors. We were at that location nine years. Then, with that history, I wanted to build something that reflected my dream, but I couldn’t get any banks to go along. We moved across from [the Melbourne campus of] Brevard Community College, which took about $1.5 million, all from private investors and equipment leases. That was the big jump – from 40 seats to 160 seats and 4,500 square feet. At that point we had been in business 15 years and every single year had increased sales and profitability. Then, when The Avenue property became available, we were approached by the developers, who were friends and customers. This was a $2.5 million jump, but the banks still were hesitant. Florida Bank of Commerce became a strong partner. I have about a dozen silent partners and they made this location possible.

Today, we are debt free, which is an incredible feeling (smiling).

SCB: What is your five-year plan or vision as you move forward?

CC: We call it our 20/20 vision. Simply stated, it is to have 20 businesses by 2020 — to operate 20 businesses under our holding company; to find like-minded individuals with our core values, who are passionate about the business plan they have and to help move them through the development process.

SCB: So you don’t mean 20 Pizza Gallery restaurants?

CC: Not necessarily. We look at these three elements: 1) Do they have a sound business plan? 2) Do they share our core values? And 3) are they passionate enough to see it through to completion? Of course, they have to generate cash; I want to support entrepreneurialism, but not as a philanthropist. I want entrepreneurialism to support our philanthropy.

SCB: How has that vision evolved?

CC: My dream used to be to create a thousand Pizza Galleries all over the country, like Tom Monaghan did with Domino’s, and  then sell it for a billion dollars. Today, it is to be more creative and more diverse. I think we will build more Pizza Galleries, but not like a franchise chain.

SCB: What is the key element in that process?

CC: Vision. I have found it is even more important than your business plan.  I have learned to immerse myself in the vision- writing process, not only what we want to do, but what will it look like, what will it feel like, what will other people’s experiences be when they encounter it? Now, my business plan comes out of the vision.