Interview: Michael Shepherd and Siler Chapman, of PerfectingPizza.com
I ran into my long time friend (and Charlotte pizza legend), Siler Chapman, at the Northeast Pizza and Pasta Show in Atlantic City a couple of months ago, where I discovered that he has partnered with his World Pizza Champions teammate, Michael Shepherd, on an exciting new venture. They both agreed to fill me in on their new consulting and coaching business, PerfectingPizza.com, so I’ll let them take it from here. But let me add, one of the exciting and important aspects of this project is seeing how the current generation of pizza superstars is cultivating and curating the wisdom they have accrued in order to pass it down to the next generation. The generosity of spirit within the greater pizza community is totally inspirational and, most important, provides a solid foundation for anyone, whether an old timer or a newbie, to create a successful business and keep improving the art and craft of pizza making. Here’s what Siler and Michael had to say when we met:
Peter (Pizza Quest): Both of you have been successful pizzeria operators as well as competitors on world championship teams. Would you each share for our readers a recap of your career arcs, your journeys, and how you ended up working together on this new project?
Siler: I started in the pizza industry at the age of 12, washing dishes for my best friend’s mom at her pizzeria in Waxhaw, NC. Worked my way up to a pizza maker and delivery driver by the time I was 16. I went to UNC Charlotte for engineering and 9/11 happened during my first year there. I noticed all the previous graduates coming back for advice because they just got laid off. I didn’t understand that you could lose your job so easily. So I told myself I wanted to work for myself and not have to worry about someone firing me. I had a dream that following week where I heard the words, “You need to open a pizzeria!” The next day, in my Art Appreciation class I started to write a 52-page paper on how a pizzeria could make money. I presented it to a couple of investors and history was written, when Si’s Pizzeria was started in 2002. I was 18 at the time I opened the first store. Over the next 10-years we grew it to 3 locations, doing a little over 3.5 million in sales, and I earned 3 world titles for Acrobatic Pizza Tossing, and was featured on many top network shows, including Food Network’s “Pizza Battle” and “Pizza Challenge”, The Steve Harvey Show, Ellen DeGeneres, and The Today show.
I sold the business in 2012 and had a non-compete for 2 years but was still around, running the World Pizza Games in Las Vegas. At the end of 2016 Michael and I spoke about possibly doing a subscription based website for the pizza industry. We both agreed that we wanted to give back to the industry in a big way. Thus, Perfectingpizza.com was founded to create the ultimate online resource for the pizza industry.
Michael: I started working for one of the big pizza chains in high school and college back in the 1990’s, made good money as a delivery driver and got a pretty good grasp of the operations part of a pizzeria as well. I graduated college with a degree in business and computer programming, but quickly realized that I did not want to be a computer programmer the rest of my life
The opportunity came up to buy a run-down mom & pop pizzeria in my town, so at the age of 24 I put a second mortgage on my house and bought the shop. We changed everything about it except the phone number and one piece of equipment. We started making our own dough and sauce, changed the name to Michael Angelo’s Pizza, revamped the menu and started aggressively marketing. We took the delivery/carryout-only pizzeria from $2,000 per week to over $20,000 a week in sales over the next ten years (in a city of 8,000 people), moved into a new location, opened a second location (in a village of 600 people), and ultimately opened a full service dine-in pizzeria with 120 seats called Six Hundred Downtown – we opened at a $million + in sales and went up from there.
I was runner-up for the Ohio SBA’s Small Business of the Year in 2006, Hardin County Business of the Year in 2007, and won the 20 Under 40 Entrepreneur Award in 2008. I am also certified in Neapolitan & Classic Italian Pizza Making by the International School of Pizza.
My pizzerias have won numerous awards for pizza making over the years at pizza competitions across the country. I have earned eight medals from the World Pizza Championships held in Salsomaggiore, Italy, for Fastest Dough, Largest Dough, and Team Acrobatic, including three gold medals, plus I am the only American to ever win the Largest Dough Competition at the World Pizza Championships.
I sold my pizzerias over the last several years and now focus primarily on helping others in the pizza industry through speaking, consulting, and perfectingpizza.com.
PQ: Being part of those teams seems so instrumental in each of your development. What does it take to make the team and to become a champion, at both the national and international levels? And who were some of the most influential mentors and role models for you?
Siler: The World Pizza Champions was created around the best of the best in the industry. Making the team is not easy; we look for the most dedicated people in their specific craft, cooking, acrobatics, competitiveness, and work ethic. We do look at their past history: have they competed, do they have a World Title, and would they get along with the team we have?
Dedication to your craft and, literally, practicing for hours at a time, 7 days a week is what it took for me to get the titles I have. For anyone that is coming in new to the acrobatics part I always tell them to look at what people are doing now and be 10 steps ahead of them. There are so many phenomenal competitors today that the only way to stay ahead is, first, to emulate what they can do but also to bring your own flare and step it up a level beyond anyone else. As far as the cooking competitions go, if you want to compete on that level and become a true champion you have to take your education to a whole new level. I remember Tony Gemignani telling me back in 2007, “Siler cooking is the next big thing we have to master!” Now look where he has taken the industry. Just remember you have to respect the craft and work everyday to master it.
The most influential people that have helped me shape the path in my pizza career would be Tony G, Michael Shepherd, Sean Brauser, Big Dave, Pizza Paul, Joe Drury, and Peter Reinhart. Yes I said you, I remember the time I had a problem with some dough issues and you said do this and a little of this and poof, my issue was fixed!
Peter: Amazing — I had no idea. I love being included in that list of pizza greats– thank you!
Michael: The idea for the World Pizza Champions came about when Tony Gemignani, Joe Carlucci, Siler and I were sitting in a motel room somewhere in West Virginia while we were doing a dough throwing event for an Italian Festival back in 2004. We had been competing together as part of another pizza team for a few years at the World Pizza Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy and it just wasn’t going the way we wanted. We wanted the United States to be serious competitors at the greatest pizza competition in the world, so we decided in that motel room in West Virginia to create the World Pizza Champions. Not a team created from trials and auditions, but a team with hand-picked members who we would personally vet. Guys who knew their stuff about pizza, would be loyal, had a competitive nature, and were willing to put in the hard work to make the team successful. We quickly added Ken Bryant, followed by Sean Brauser, to make the core group of the team. The team went on to win the coveted Team Acrobatic competition in 2006 & 2007 with our Star Wars and Godfather routines. We now have members from around the world.
I am not fond of the terms “mentor” and “role model.” To me they both imply that I need to emulate or try to be someone else or I should strive to be just like another person. I don’t want to be like someone else — I want to be myself regardless of my faults. Instead, show me how you do something so I can take that information and turn it into how I want to do something. Maybe I’ll use that information and maybe I won’t. There isn’t a right and wrong way to make a pizza or run a business, only differing opinions and ultimately what works and what doesn’t work.
My pizza education was mostly self-taught. There was no YouTube, Facebook, or Google when I got started. I couldn’t look up a recipe on how to make pizza, and I am better for it. Instead I bought and read every book and magazine I could find about pizza and took that information and experimented with it. Lots of trial and error went into building my business, but it was those errors that I credit for my ultimate success.
So, instead of role-models or mentors, I can say that I learned a lot from several people that have played a role in shaping the pizza industry into what it is today, those people being Big Dave Ostrander, Tony Gemignani, and John Correll – along with Pizza Today Magazine and Pizza Expo (which I have attended for the last 20 years in a row.)
PQ: So now, together, you’ve created PerfectingPizza.com . What is it and who are you trying to reach and serve?
S: Now, I know that Michael is going to get detailed for us on the question, so I’ll get to the point on who I personally want to reach and serve. I want to reach and serve everyone who has a dream, a passion to better their career, their craft, and even to open a pizzeria one day. There are so many people working in a pizza shop and want to open their own, but have no clue how to get started. That’s where we want to come in and say, here is how we did it and you can do it too. We both have so much proven experience through trial and error that we can speed someone’s learning curve up to 10x faster. This is why we created PerfectingPizza.com, along with giving back to people who might be struggling in their pizza shops and have no idea where to go from here. We can give them a fresh look at what to do and let them implement that idea into their own store. We want to help create hope for them and show that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Michael: PerfectingPizza.com is what we call the “Ultimate Resource for pizza operators.” We are taking our decades of pizza experience and have packaged it into a website where for just $25 a month you get full access to a whole slew of resources. Not just articles and pointers but real tangible solutions for doing business. Pizza operators don’t have time to sit in front of a computer creating an employee handbook or training manuals – so we did it for you. Want to see deep inside the mind of a successful operator who is willing to show you exactly how they run their operation and what made them successful? We have that in our video series.
People new to the business often don’t have a clue where to start – so we developed a complete step by step guide, financial projection tools, and business plan templates for them to use. Everything is specific to the pizza industry, not generic restaurant or business forms.
We will also be rolling out one-on-one coaching in the near future for those who just need someone to talk to or bounce ideas off of.
- Step-by-Step Guides
- Financial Projection Worksheets
- Business Plan Templates
- Interviewing Procedures
- New Hire Checklists
- Performance Evaluations
- Training Guides
- Menu Engineering Spreadsheets
- Scheduling Tools
- Dough Making Worksheets
- Recipes and Pizza Making Procedures
- Marketing Tips & Templates
- Exclusive Partner Discounts
- VIP Behind the Scenes Pizzeria Video Profiles
PQ: That’s a lot of support! It looks like you’ve assembled a great team of contributors too. Can you tell us a little about what they each do?
Michael: There isn’t one way of doing business. Sure, there are some universal fundamentals, but often what works for one operator won’t always work for another. So, to avoid having just one viewpoint on how to make pizza, market, or conduct business we are building a team of independent contributors that are also pizza professionals who can help us develop well- rounded content. We want everyone involved to have an extensive pizza background – this site is pizza specific.
Ann Farrell excels at creating solutions where people are involved (hiring, training, company culture, etc), LeeAnna Shepherd, also my sister, has tons of pizza experience but also knows her way around Excel and creates back office solutions for us. Will Grant just came on board with us after winning the Caputo Cup, and he has loads of pizza experience and is willing to share his knowledge with others. We are just getting started with our contributors and expect many more to come online soon.
Siler: You know it’s all about who you surround yourself with in life and, over the past decade, Michael and I have gotten to know some amazing people. We know there are many ways to do one thing. So by bringing on successful pizza operators, giving another view on how they did it, helps our members along.
Ann is amazing with employees and procedures. LeeAnna is one of the most well rounded pizza operators out there. Her knowledge of the pizza industry and skill level on Excel helps bring us amazing documents for back office solutions. We will be adding more contributors this year and look forward to what they bring to the team.
PQ: You’ve both played a major role in the recent pizza renaissance in this country, and have witnessed up close many of the new developments in the industry. What do see coming up in the next few years, perhaps some trends, and also what do operators really need to know to keep up and to be successful?
Siler: Yes the pizza industry has changed so fast in the past two years. Its like we blinked and all of a sudden all these artisan, fast casual pizza places have opened up on every corner and out of nowhere. I believe it is somewhat of a fad and the top 3 will stay around but the one-offs will die out.
I’m sad to say they I do not see a lot of mom and pop pizzerias any more. I remember my location was a destination spot in our town and truly a part of the community. Those spots have died out; however, I do see a come back in the next few years. I say this because so many people I know are really going after the art of pizza making and they know their town needs a good pizzeria where kids can grow up also have a fantastic pizzeria experience or have an excellent pizza delivered to them. Also, technology is continually getting better and will only help our industry grow.
One suggestion on keeping up and being successful is knowing that social media isn’t going away and, if you want to be relevant, you need to get on the band wagon and be present!
Now, regarding a challenging subject, employees: I believe we can’t manage the old way we used to; we have to understand the new age of millennials and how they operate. Once you find that out, they will bend over backwards for you and perform at a whole new level.
Michael: Indeed, the industry has really evolved over the last several years. Some for the bad, but mostly for the good. There has been a renewed interest in making quality pizza and using old-school techniques and, as a result, many customers are much savvier. I think it is important for all operators to make sure they understand the science and art behind pizza making – more so than ever before.
The number one issue facing operators are employee issues and I don’t see this going away. The problem however, in my humble opinion, isn’t so much that today’s younger generation sucks, it’s that, as Siler pointed out, they are just different. Money isn’t as much a motivating factor for them as it was for us. They want to matter, they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to have a voice, but they want to work on their terms. So, unless science finds a way where pizza operators can clone themselves, everyone needs to integrate new methods of doing things and alter their system in a way that accommodates the younger workers. This isn’t going away, it’s time to get on board or get left behind.
I also see a vacuum developing in the industry that will need to be filled. The mom & pop pizzerias, the neighborhood locally owned pizza shops – they are starting to disappear. More and more operators are going down the artisan pizza path, which is great, but, that wood-fired Neapolitan pizza doesn’t do well for carry-out or delivery. So, when a family wants a pizza delivered where do they go? Sadly, it’s to the chains. I see real opportunity here for many to capitalize on.
PQ: How can folks connect with you and learn more about these ideas and about PerfectingPizza.com?
Michael: You can find us here:
Facebook – facebook.com/perfectingpizza
Instagram – @perfectingpizza
Email – email@example.com
Or if you want to jump right into a FREE two-week subscription you can use the coupon code FRE14DAY at checkout!
Siler: You can also check out our bios, or write to me at: www.perfectingpizza.com/aboutus
PQ Thanks so much to you both for all your contributions, past, present, and in the future. See you in Las Vegas at Pizza Expo in March!
Siler: Everyone, please come see us at the World Pizza Games stage!
Pizza Quest Info
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.
...and other books by Peter Reinhart, available on Amazon.com