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Interview with Paulie Gee

Written By Peter Reinhart
Tuesday, 11 July 2017 Interviews
 Note from Peter: I finally got to meet Paulie Gee, the legendary pizzeria operator, at the recent International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. It was an instant “bromance!”  So, I was thrilled when Paulie agreed to do an interview with me for Pizza Quest. His responses, as you will see below, are extremely humble and inspirational as he shares his journey from the world of intellectual technology (IT) to the far kinder and generous world of pizza. Enjoy Paulie’s story and check out his website (www.pauliegee.com) to keep up with his ever-expanding universe.
PQ (Peter):  Paulie, you’re kind of a phenomenon in the pizza world, bursting onto the scene, and not as a kid, seemingly from out of nowhere. But there has to be a long story leading up to your emergence as a pizza superstar. Can you give us a short recap of how it all unfolded for you?
 
Paulie Gee -- the man and his oven.

Paulie Gee — the man and his oven.

Paulie:  I chose a career as a corporate IT professional around 1980 while working for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the World Trade Center. Although it turned out that I wasn’t wired for that type of work, I toiled at it for about 30 years. I did not realize it wasn’t for me until I had established financial commitments that kept me locked into that path. I had to provide for my family, and was not going to deprive them of an enjoyable lifestyle, so I continued to accumulate debt to make that happen. Looking back I now realize that it wasn’t just that I wasn’t a geek, but that I was not meant to have a boss but, instead, to be the boss. The result was that I wasn’t anywhere near approaching my potential. I always enjoyed cooking for and entertaining friends and family and they often encouraged me to open a restaurant, but I had no desire to deal with the complications and risks that such a venture would bring. Being a pizza enthusiast, through observation I eventually observed that an artisanal pizzeria was a far simpler operation than a full service restaurant. That realization emboldened me to make the decision to open a pizzeria. Through business success principals learned in the corporate world, and while pursuing the development of a multi-level marketing business, combined with my guerrilla marketing efforts, I began to create what eventually became Paulie Gee’s and our network entrepreneurial outposts. It all started by building an oven at what I now refer to as my country home in semi-rural New Jersey.  After two years of experimenting and practicing on friends, family, fellow pizza enthusiasts and potential investors I found the courage to cross a couple of rivers and sign a lease on a beautiful space in an up and coming section of Greenpoint in Brooklyn. That quest also involved me befriending all of the pizzeria owners I admired and aspired to be like. I sought their advice and they all very graciously provided it to me along with a great deal encouragement. Those were, but were not limited to, Mathieu Palombino of Motorino, Mark Iocono of Lucali, Anthony Mangieri of Uns Pizza Napoletana, Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco, Tom and Stalin of Nomad, Chris Parachini of Roberta’s and Michael Ayoub of Fornino. And none of that would have been possible without the financial and emotional support of my friends and family, who demonstrated their belief in me via their precious hard earned cash.

PQ: Why do you think people love your pizzas so much? What is it that has allowed you to distinguish your style and product in a very crowded pizza world?

The Mootz --what's not to love?

“The Mootz” –what’s not to love?

 Paulie:  I believe, in addition to a somewhat unique pizza crust — which started BTW with the Neo-Neopolitan dough recipe in your American Pie — and some unique sweet and savory topping combinations, people find me to be someone to root for. They like my story and I enjoy interacting with them. I do not treat Paulie Gee’s as a business. Being there six nights a week and enjoying it makes ours a welcoming dining experience.  I do my best to remain humble when people compliment our pizza and I always recommend other pizzerias to my guests. I enjoy other people’s pizza as much as my own and love to share my appreciation with others. I think people sense that I am, first and foremost, a pizza enthusiast. I always wear hats from other pizzerias and when guests question why I’m wearing my competitor’s hat I point out that I have no competitors, just colleagues. No one on the staff is permitted to wear Paulie Gee’s logo wear. I want the place to feel like a neighborhood dining experience, so no uniforms are worn. I want the staff to dress just like our guests. I want the place to feel like the “Little Rascals” opened a pizzeria. Unfortunately for Spanky and his gang though, they didn’t have Evan and Oliver Haslegrave of Home Studios to build their restaurant. The seductive space they created for me is a major reason people enjoy dining with us again and again.

The Greenpointer

“The Greenpointer”

 PQ: Some of our followers are pizzeria operators and some are just passionate pizza freaks (like me).  For those who are operators, or who want to get into the game, what are some of the hard won lessons you’ve acquired as you’ve built your business and your brand?
 
Paulie
  1. Never consider failure, and know that every problem can be solved.
  2. Learn from those who have gone before you.
  3. You have no competitors, just colleagues.
  4. Set up five interviews for dishwashers and only one will show up. They just want an email they can use to demonstrate that they are looking for work.
  5. If you want a good dishwasher hire someone who wants to be a pizza maker.
  6. People love when an owner is present to assure that their guests are having an enjoyable experience.
  7. If you make a pizza suggestion to your guests and tell them that if they don’t like it they can have any other pie on the menu on the house, they never take you up on the offer.
  8. People stay a lot longer when it’s raining out or when it’s 15 degrees outside.
  9. When a staff member tells you “Don’t Paulie worry, I gotcha”, they usually don’t gotcha.
  10. Never tell a guest that your pizza is better than anyone else’s, or admit to it if they proclaim it to be.
  11. Everyone is a VIP at Paulie Gee’s.
  12. Always expect friends you haven’t heard from in a long time to contact you and let you know that they are coming in on Saturday night at 8 o’clock.
he Cherry Jones

The “Cherry Jones”

PQ: Now that you are expanding into other locations beyond the original Greenpoint (Brooklyn) store, and licensing people to use your name and brand, how are you protecting the quality and assuring customers that they are getting the true Paulie Gee’s pizza experience if you’re not there making the pizzas?

 

Paulie:  I don’t make the pizza at Paulie Gee’s either. I partner with people who are obligated to be at their location six nights a week and want to be. I do my best to work with people who want to live the pizza entrepreneur lifestyle and are not just looking for another asset line on their balance sheet. Additionally, there are certain ingredients they are obligated to use. Fortunately, I can tell if a pizza is being prepared properly just by looking at it. Rather than ask them to send me pictures, I simply look at the many photos that guests post on social media.

Ricotta-Be-Kidding-Me (with a little peek at the Hellified Porkpie White)

“Ricotta-Be-Kidding-Me” (with a little peek at the “Hellified Porkpie White”)

PQ: Where do you see yourself, and Paulie Gee’s in, say, 5 or 10 years? What do envision as your legacy?
Paulie:  I don’t concern myself with my legacy. I do my best to operate an establishment that people enjoy coming to while I’m producing a reasonable profit and I strive to do whatever I can to help my partners do the same. As far as the future goes: you plan, God laughs. My hope is to continue to help aspiring pizza entrepreneurs own and operate successful pizzerias in interesting neighborhoods in cities throughout the country. I also hope to launch a successful old school slice shop and help others replicate that model as well. Most importantly, I hope to continue to make new friends in the pizza community and from among my guests, as well as deepen the relationships that have already been established. Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver, the other is gold.

 PQ: Your website (www.pauliegee.com ) lists five current locations, with a slice shop soon to come. Who are some of the “stars,” or Paulie Gee protégé’s, that people should know about if they go to any of those locations?

Paulie and some members of the Paulie Gee family

Paulie and sons Derek and Michael, along with his wife, Mary Ann

 
Paulie: I have done my best to identify people with a passion for pizza who are new or relatively new to serving pizza to the public, and who are interested in being sole proprietors involved deeply in the everyday operations of their restaurant. In each one of our four locations I have been successful in that regard. Paulie Gee’s Hampden is owned and operated by Kelly Beckham. I met Kelly around ten years ago via the (for now) defunct pizza-enthusiast website, Slice. Considering Kelly’s love for pizza and libation, as well as the fact that he wasn’t born to be a financial advisor, I approached him about owning and operating a Paulie Gee’s in Baltimore, where he resides with his family. After three plus years working on getting the place open, much of it via Kelly’s own elbow grease, persistence dealing with various governmental bureaucracies, and shear determination coordinating with contractors he has shown himself to be the quintessential restaurateur and saloon-keeper. On any given night you will find Kelly out in the dining room interacting with guests, manning the pizza station, in the kitchen and roaming behind the bar assuring that all is going well.
PQ: Finally, who else in the pizza universe do you think our readers should know about or who have impressed you with their work?
 
Paulie: That is a long, long list so I’ll put an emphasis on the more humble people in the community. I’ll do my best not to leave anyone out. I’m pretty sure I will though, so if you are not on the list feel free to assume that I simply forgot you. There are a few on the list whom I’ve included despite their own lack of humility (you know who you are):
First and foremost Walter and Judy of Smiling with Hope Pizza
Norma Knepp of Norma’s Pizza
Vincent Rotolo of Evel Pie
Anthony Saporito of Urban Fire
Mark and Jenny Bello
Scott Weiner and crew of Scott’s Pizza Tours
Lou of Sam’s
Dave at Coalfire in Chicago
Chris Bianco
Jon Darsky of Pizza Del Popolo
Phil Korshak of Home Slice
Brandon and Zane Hunt of Via 313
Angelo Womack of Oak and Rye
Jeff Krupman of Pizza Hacker
The brothers at Nino’s Pizza
Scarr of Scarr’s Pizza
Mark of Lucali
Peyton Smith of Mission Pizza WS
The guy whose name I always forget at Joe and Pat’s
Brandon and Molly of Delancey
Ken of Ken’s Artisan
Brian Spangler of Apizza Scholls
Sarah Minnick of Lovely’s Fifty Fifty
Caleb Schiff of Pizzacleta
Jay Jerrier of Cane Rosso
Bez of Mother Dough
Tom and Stalin of Nomad Pizza
Frankie at Prince Street Pizza
Luca at Sottocasa
Sean of Grimaldi in Hoboken
Scott of Pizzaoli in St. Louis
Albert Grande of Pizza Therapy
The Tribute Pizza guy
Gio and Leo of Luigi’s
Jonathan Goldsmith of Spacca Napoli
Keith of Emilia’s in Berkeley
The couple who own Fong’s Pizza in Des Moines
Guilio Adriani of Forcella
 

PQ:  Thanks so much, Paulie, for all you’ve done to move the dial on great pizza and for inspiring so many others. Best of success as you continue your growth and spread your message of humility.

That's me sandwiched between the legendary Paulie Gee, of Brooklyn, and Rob DiNapoli, the tomato sauce king.

That’s me sandwiched between the legendary Paulie Gee, and Rob DiNapoli, the tomato sauce king, at the 2017 International Pizza Expo.

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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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