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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Executive Chef

In 2011, Irv Zuckerman had been retired nine years from his life as a concert promoter for Clear Channel Entertainment and was spending time doing one of his favorite things: playing lots of golf. But life changed quickly for Zuckerman, 65, after a casual chat with his former business partner Rodney Eckerman at the tee box at Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo. His friend suggested starting a pizza restaurant based on the Chipotle assembly-line model of making burritos. In short order, retirement was a memory and PizzaRev was born, with the friends’ two sons, Jeff Zuckerman and Nicholas Eckerman, joining them in running the restaurant. Already, the eatery has three locations in the San Fernando Valley: Northridge, Woodland Hills and Studio City, where the company is headquartered. And in March, PizzaRev hit the jackpot: an equity investment from Buffalo Wild Wings Inc., a big Minneapolis chain that specializes in chicken wings, sports and beer. That’s all a long way from promoting shows for artists such as James Taylor, KISS and, later, Blue Man Group, something Zuckerman did for some 30 years after starting out as a teenager booking bands for high schools. Zuckerman spoke to the Business Journal recently about what it’s like to come out of retirement to enter an industry known for its long hours, why staging concerts has similarities to running a restaurant and the unfortunate truth about his rising golf handicap. Question: How do you go from retired to starting a pizza business? Answer: When this was presented on the golf course, it was so compelling of a story that I couldn’t resist. In terms of knowing what Subway and Chipotle have done with the assembly-line process, and being a No. 1 pizza fan, it was something I couldn’t say no to. In concept, it just sounded correct on all fronts. Everything about it sounded right. We went straight to business planning, and it wasn’t long before we were looking at real estate. Wait – the golf course? Like all great business plans are developed, ours was no different. It all started on the golf course. We were actually on the tee box at the third hole. Rodney just mentioned this idea he had. In a casual way, Rodney just ran it by me and asked what I thought about it. There was no perspective of business at that point. One thing led to another and we went from the napkin to pursuing it. But you were retired and the restaurant business is well-known for requiring a massive time investment? I wasn’t looking for anything, but we have a passion for business. And this just became an exciting shift in the restaurant business. So much like in the early days of the concert business, the idea of blazing a trail intrigued me and my partners to roll into this in a big way. The great thing about business is what you don’t know, you don’t know. Has it been more than you expected? There’s no way to put a number on the workload. It’s a full-time job to accomplish what we want to accomplish. Everyone involved is working inordinately and counting hours is not important. I do it as an avocation; it’s what I like to do. I don’t feel like I am going to work every day. Business is business, but your background was in entertainment, right? My background is certainly not in restaurant operations. Yes, Rodney and I were involved in Clear Channel Entertainment. Rodney used to say that our challenge was getting 20,000 Jimmy Buffett fans served concession food and beverage in under 30 minutes, which is the length of the intermission. So we understand fast. What are some things that stand out from that era? There are so many stories that come to mind. The best concert was the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne on the same bill. Weirdest requirements: As a promoter of the Kiss Tour, the promoter had to appear in full makeup as one of the members of the band. The New Kids on the Block went from opening shows for Tiffany to headlining stadiums in less than a year. And the “I’m not a star moment” is James Taylor doing his own laundry backstage at venues. Did luck play any role in your success? An example of a serendipitous moment – in 2006, a colleague of mine from St. Louis asked me if I was interested in taking a meeting with Blue Man Group. He said they were thinking about taking their show to some arenas and thought I might want to take a look at the concept. One thing led to another and before I could catch my breath, I was producing their world tour. We took a group that had really only done small theaters very successfully into large arenas around the globe, and sold many of them out for three plus years. What did you learn from the business? I learned all about dealing and working with people. It was about learning how to make a positive and yet repeatable experience. We learned to put systems in place that helped with repeatability. That’s something food service is all about. How does that translate to PizzaRev? I would say that repeatability is essentially offering a great experience for our guests each and every time they visit PizzaRev, as we tried to do in the concert business. How did you get into concert promotion in the first place?   Booking local bands at high schools and colleges lead to requests from schools for larger name bands. That meant I needed to contact major national booking agencies. Those initial relationships opened the door.  From there, being the good agents they were, they asked if I would like to promote some concerts instead of just booking them at schools, and the rest filled the next 30 years of my life. Did you finish college? No, I left school just a few credits short. I just got too busy with work to complete it. I know Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard, but would you recommend dropping out to pursue a business career? I wouldn’t recommend cutting short an education or missing out on the overall college experience. Not that I have any personal misgivings. The stories are plentiful of those who dropped out, yet were successful in business or the arts, etc. But I still believe it is better to complete what you started, and that goes for getting a degree. How has that industry changed since you got started? It has become very corporate and less free flowing. There are very few independent small promoters. The development of artists to replace the volume of classic rock era artists to fill arenas, which can’t go on forever, has been a challenge.  So, I take it, you weren’t a suit-and-tie executive? No, no, not at all. In fact, a suit and a tie had nothing to do with what we were doing. It was an era, in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, where the suit and tie was not part of the entertainment scene at all. In its simplest form, we did for business what people did for fun. We put on entertainment events that people couldn’t wait to go to. We were standing back and enjoying the fruits of their experience. What’s not to like? I understand you spent a lot of that time working with Rodney Eckerman in the music business. It worked incredibly well the first time around and it’s working out even better this time around. He brings a skill set to this that I value to an extraordinary level and I knew that going in. It was a very simple transition from a decade ago to putting the band back together again. Isn’t it considered unwise to mix business and friendship? It really doesn’t interfere with us. Since we have been there and done that before, we know what we are here to do. We’re here to build PizzaRev into a solid major brand. We don’t have a lot of things that get in the way of that. We just move forward. You’ve gone a step further and brought your children in. What is it like to work with your son? It’s been incredible. What’s been great is to see your son, and Rodney’s son, since I have known Nicholas for some time, to see how they have developed. If you don’t work with a family member, you never know what they know or what they can do. What does your wife think about you being back at the office so soon after finally retiring?   She’s been there for the whole ride, so getting into another car seemed easy. Add our friends the Eckermans and my son Jeff, and it was just another family affair!   Describe a typical day. The great news is that there are no typical days. In my particular case I spend time doing research on the fast casual industry as a whole and trying to glean best practices, as well as looking for innovation, be it from a service perspective, marketing vantage point, or simply an overview of what we can do better. I particularly like spending part of my day looking for or inquiring about real estate opportunities. What were your expectations for PizzaRev when you started? The expectations were to create a model that could work and we could hone and take one step at a time. We just wanted to grow it out in the L.A. area. There was really no long-term business plan. We had a specific idea in terms of what we wanted to do, but the blow up in the space and our business yielded a new view of how far we could take it. Has it exceeded those expectations? It certainly has exceeded all expectations and projections. And that’s really only furthered our passion to move forward. How did you get the investment from Buffalo Wild Wings? We were introduced through mutual acquaintances. Buffalo Wild Wings and us got together to have a conversation. From there, we just hit it off immediately. Our passions melded together in a way that produced an agreement in a short time that we both liked. We love what they are about. They’re a highly respected restaurant organization and they will help us in the learning curve as we expand further. What does its role entail? They are there to help us with whatever we need. We are still the owners, but we get to learn from them. We are excited to explore future expansion with them as partners. We want to make this brand something special to our customers and extend across California and well beyond. How long do you plan on keeping up this work load? These kinds of endeavors energize anyone who has passion and is seeing fruits of their labors. There is no timetable or prescribed plan that would indicate anything other than fast forward. So, what’s your favorite pizza? Well, I have two favorites. I love our original Roman-style crust with organic red sauce, low-fat mozzarella, kalamata olives, fennel sausage and sun-dried tomatoes. My other is our gluten-free thin crust with Alfredo sauce, buffalo mozzarella, garlic and fresh mushrooms. How often do you get to play golf these days? As we have developed PizzaRev over the last year or so my golfing days have dwindled and there’s no set game that I have. That’s my “go to” rationalization for being bad. What’s your handicap? Sadly, it is up to 15, so my Senior PGA tour plans have been thwarted.

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