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.