Interview: Joe Fugere of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, Seattle
Note from Peter: I first met Joe Fugere, founder of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in Seattle, WA, at the 2016 Caputo Cup in Harlem, and then saw him again at the 2017 Pizza Expo, and then again at the more recent Caputo Cup in Atlantic City in October. We picked up our conversation each time as if time hadn’t intervened at all. From the first, I was impressed with Joe’s commitment to the big picture, not just the craft of making a beautiful Neapolitan pizza, but the values that serve as a foundation for a company that is built to last and able to make a positive contribution to the greater good. I asked him if he’d be willing to share some of his thoughts with our viewers and he graciously agreed. Here is our most recent conversation:
Peter (Pizza Quest): Joe, many of the folks we interview here on Pizza Quest are pizza makers who own restaurants and pizzerias, and we tend to focus on the art and craft of the pizzaiolo. But your art is more on the business side, and your vision is focused on running a socially responsible, multi-unit pizza concept that is dedicated to the craft of great pizza. Can you tell us more about how you got into this and how your vision for Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria has formed and evolved?
Joe: Well, Peter, few people realize that even though I’ve had a pretty extensive business background, I am also a pizza maker. I trained as a pizzaiolo in Naples, got certified, and pretty much made every pizza at Tutta Bella for the first six months. My current Executive Chef, Brian Gojdics was one of my first hires. He went on to become certified himself, and has also been named a master pizzaiolo.
These days, I am feeling more like a business owner than a pizza maker because I have Brian keeping an eye on the kitchens. It allows me to continue to pursue my original dream of building a meaningful business, dedicated to providing a meaningful work experience, a meaningful dining experience for my guests, and being a meaningful member of the neighborhoods in which we operate.
PQ: We’ve celebrated artisanship in many forms here on Pizza Quest, whether it’s the farmer or grower, the wine or cheese maker, the oven builder, you name it. In fact, we often say that Pizza Quest is more about the quest than it is about the pizza. How would you describe your personal quest and what it is that burns deep within you and that drives you to do this work?
Joe: I have a burning desire to improve peoples’ lives. Nothing pleases me more than to see a dishwasher get promoted to line cook, or to see guests light up when they taste a Neapolitan Pizza for the first time! These experiences add up over time, and hopefully they create a memorable legacy and impact on people.
PQ: Every now and then we run a Guest Column about the business side of pizza and how to do it properly and successfully. What are some of the guiding principles that you follow and that are embedded into the DNA of Tutta Bella, and are there things you would do differently now based on what you’ve learned?
Joe: Well, as they say hindsight is 20/20. I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way. But, I’d also like to say that sticking to some core principles (like transparency, generosity, forgiveness) and avoiding some temptations (like greed, unchecked ego, and wastefulness) has served me well as a person and as a business. One of my mantras is, “People before Profit” or, “Profit is a result, not the goal.” Again, living by these standards has added value to our journey.
PQ: Joe, how do you find business partners and employees who share your values, who feel like kindred spirits or, perhaps, how do you groom your staff to come into a shared vision and execute at the high level you require?
Joe: Great Question. In the beginning it is more of a sales pitch because you have no track record to show success. After time, a reputation for delivering an amazing artisan product or an excellent work environment, attracts brand evangelists and believers, or “kindered spirits” as you so aptly named them!
PQ: I’d like to get specific about one particular issue that I know means a lot to you, fair wages. Can you share your position on this and why you feel so strongly about it? Also, working on this has thrust you into the political dimension of business, so what are some of the lessons you’ve learned from this aspect of the journey?
Joe: Wow Peter, you really are great at asking the right questions. Wage parity is extremely important to me, and it is definitely a political hot potato! Honestly, I call myself an ‘accidental activist’ in this arena, because I have been dedicated to wage parity since 2004, when I opened my pizzeria and when we tip-pooled. Over the years, I’ve spoken as a concerned business owner to public policy makers (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully) on how we can achieve wage parity in the hospitality industry. Considering total compensation — where tips, health care, and other benefits are included in calculating minimum wage — is one example of achieving a “Win/Win” in wage parity.
PQ: Where do see yourself and, also, Tutta Bella in 5 or even 10 years? And what else is on your to do list, things you’d like to accomplish, especially applying the things you’ve learned by being in the pizza game?
Joe: This might sound strange, but I like to think about where Tutta Bella will be in 100 years. One of the things that struck me most about my time in Naples is the number of pizzerias, gelaterias, and coffee bars there that were opened in the 1800s. I aspire to reach that kind of legacy. We call it the “100 year mentality” and it drives us to think long term at Tutta Bella. I’d also like to see some of my employees own their own businesses someday.
PQ: Any words of advice to others who are thinking of opening a pizzeria, or even any kind of business?
Joe: Most importantly, be clear about what you are trying to achieve as a business owner. Making an amazing pizza is one thing (and not to be denied, for sure). But running a sustainable business that will have a positive impact for years to come is quite another. Stay focused on your goal!
PQ: Joe, thanks so much for sharing your journey with us. How can our readers find out more about Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, or contact you directly if they’d like to follow up?
Joe: The biggest charge I get is when people come to Seattle and visit a Tutta Bella. Please contact me when you come to town – I’d love to meet you! I can be reached at email@example.com and our website is: https://tuttabella.com/
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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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