The first piece of advice I'd give to anyone who wants to start a business is this: "Have a plan."
I'm sure they say that in business school, I've never taken a class, but I can't imagine that they don't. In fact it should be on page 1 of Basic Business:
"Have a plan. If you do not have a plan, you will fail summarily and with little solace to your anus." (Have a plan or kiss your ass goodbye!) It's so simple. Childlike simple.
I'm not sure looking back that I did have a plan. No, I'm pretty fuckin' sure that I most certainly did not! I signed on as a 2% partner with no idea of what my role was really gonna be. I put my name on the corporation papers without reading them, without consulting a lawyer, and without thinking about what that could mean for a 23 year-old line cook. I trusted Frank that I would pretty much continue doing what I was doing; managing a kitchen. That's what I thought. Simple. I'd run a kitchen like I was already doing, except it would be easier. I'd just be making pizza. No lasagna, no frutti di mari, no linguini, no spaghetti, no fettuccine Alfredo and no veal parmigiana. Pizza and breadsticks that was my plan. My only plan. It never occurred to me that I might fail, at least not before we actually opened the place.
Frank had taken me to Terre Haute to scope out equipment; dough machines, oven, coolers, for the place. The restaurant equipment dealer looked like a cross between a tacky car salesman and an Italian mobster. He wore an expensive dark suit, orange silk shirt (opened to reveal dark chest hair), alligator shoes, and more gold than Mr. T. I had never seen an actual Rolex until then. He had slick, black, curly hair and a tan that rivalled George Hamilton's. Sly and slimy at the same time. He showed us around a big showroom of state-of-the-art ovens and dough machines. We picked pretty much what he wanted us to, signed the appropriate loan forms, and left. We would get our equipment in a week or so.
Frank was giddy in a weird "Frank" kind of way on the drive back. The equipment pimp was the embodiment of everything Frank aspired to be. Rich, tanned, smooth, and the king of his little fiefdom. The glitter of all that jewelry and the shine of the Jaguar in the executive parking spot really went to his head.
"You see that guy? How fuckin' slick is that? One day....one day." Frank would say in his thick accent, a bit too dreamily. It would have been touching if I didn't feel so creeped out. I felt like I was selling my soul to the Devil. I was attached to this equipment character now with a contract and it was a bit unsettling. I didn't plan for this.
Two days later a couple of guys showed up to seal the wall inside our new space. The red bricks were shedding dust and bits all over the place. I let in this fellow named George, who Frank hired to do the job. I knew this George guy from around town. He liked to deal coke to young teenage girls, often trading for unspecified currencies in his apartment. He had receding blond hair and wore sunglasses all the time. He had an aquaintance of mine named Bob helping him that day. I liked Bob well enough, he had played in a few local bands that I enjoyed and he helped me aquire party supplies from time to time. I thought George was a scumbag though, and didn't say two words to him. I had standards, after all.
The next day, Frank and I walked over to check out our newly sealed wall and found a chaulky filmed mess. It seemed that in an effort to increase his profit margin, George "watered down" the brick sealer with turpentine. The wall looked like someone had ejaculated all over it. Frank lost his mind.
"That motherfucker, cocksuckin' sonofabitch bastard! I'll tear his fuckin' heart out! I'll eat his Mother's eyeballs! I can't fuckin' believe this goddamn catastrophe! I'll skull-fuck 'em." It would have been really funny, but Frank was in an uncontrolled rage. He was slapping the wall, stomping his feet and disgorging obscenities in an endless torrent. I didn't plan for this either.
Frank's temper was both amusing and frightening. Nearly everyone who had ever worked for him had witnessed it at one time or another. It reminded one of a child's temper tantrum with a little bit of psychopath thrown in for good measure. Like an R-rated Tasmanian Devil. Chaotic venom from a demon possessed 4 year old.
At The Italian Villa he usually saved it for the waiters. One time he threw a full trashcan down the flight of steps from the dishroom to the kitchen. It tumbled down to the bottom throwing leftover food, sauce, paper, broken glass and other rubbish all over the stairs, walls and railings. He screamed a few more moments and then grabbed a passing waiter, a Chinese/American guy named Chen by the arm.
"Pick that shit up Chen!" Frank yelled pointing. Chen looked startled, even from the bottom of the steps where the cooks were all peering up over the empty trash can, trying to hold back laughter.
"What?" Chen had no idea what was going on.
"I saw you, motherfucker! Pick that shit up now!" Frank spit.
"Now Chen! Clean it up!" Frank bellowed as he turned to go into his office, no doubt to fix a brandy or do a line.
Chen picked it up too. He didn't dare not pick it up. His tables got their food late and he got shitty tips. Nobody saw Frank the rest of the night, not that we sought him out. Frank always needed a cooling off period after such displays. Wide berth. It was humiliating for the waiter, but better him than us.
So, here I was, stuck in this small space with him. Ranting and raving, stomping and spewing. My own outbursts would flare comparatively in the upcoming years, but right then I was terrified. I stayed a good distance away while his little terrible, tornado conniption went on. Then he remembered I was there.
"Go over to the restaurant and get that Motherfucker over here! Call him on the phone!"
I went over, glad to get away, found the number and called. There was about an hour until my shift started at The Villa and I wanted to watch this guy get his ass chewed out. I waited from in front of the restaurant until I saw George and Bob get out of a car and go into the space down the street. I walked over and I could hear the screaming before I even got to the barbershop.
The profanity wafted through the window towards me, "Motherfucker...goddamn ruined...stupid fuck..."
I looked in the window to see George being ripped down one side and up the other. Bob was standing back smiling nervously. Frank would slap the wall and George would visibly flinch. When he walked out he didn't even glance in my direction, his mouth was set in a grim frown and his forehead was perspiring in big wet beads. Bob followed him out, nonchalant.
"Hey man." He said like nothing even happened. Bob was totally unfazed. Blithely unconcerned. Smile still fixed to his face.
They left and I told Frank I'd fix it. I called my Old Man and asked what I should do. He showed up with an orbital sander, a box of sand pads, an extension chord and a ladder. My Dad told me to sand each and every brick and then call him when I was finished. He would personally seal the wall for me. My Dad knew his shit, I'd worked for him once refinishing furniture, so I didn't question his instruction. Although, I really didn't plan on this.
For the next two days I sanded those fucking bricks. I did it after my shift at the Villa was over, from 10:30 pm until 4 am. I watched everyone from the restaurant head over to the Video Saloon for fun and drinks each night. They tapped on the window and yelled as they went, and I had the sinking feeling that my days of freedom and fun were coming to an end. My nose and eyes were filled with contaminated brick dust. Frank would stop by, mutter what a great job I was doing and then leave abruptly when the red powder started coating his action slacks. I finished it and my Dad sealed it. Then it was time to decorate.
I had come up with the idea of getting memorabilia from local bands in exchange for food. Frank was a little leery of giving things away, but I convinced him that it would be free advertising if the bands announced from the stage at the Bluebird or wherever, that they had gotten free pizza from us. I really wanted to take down the decorations Frank had purchased from an ad in the back of Rolling Stone Magazine as soon as I could. Frank had ordered 8x10 glossy concert photos of rock stars like Madonna, Ozzy Osborne, Eric Clapton and the like. He had them framed and wanted them scattered about on the walls. He made sure we had one of each person in our menu. He also went down to Ace Pawn Shop and bought a number of instruments; accordion, sousaphone and trombone, for the wall, included also were two very cheesy looking heavy metal type guitars. We screwed them to the walls, putting the two guitars in an X shape over the place where we had plans for a jukebox.
I started talking up the place to my friends, letting it be known that I intended to support all the local musicians with space on my wall and free food. I started soliciting photos, broken instruments etc..., asking for anything for the new shop. I wanted a local presence on the walls before we opened. Anything to offset the cheesiness of the Eddie VanHalen photo that mocked me every time I stepped foot in the place.
The first to show up with something for us was my good friend, Robbie Mullet. He was standing in foyer of Leslie's holding out an object draped in a blue bandana. When I approached, he lifted the bandana up and off in a dramatic fashion, like a kid doing a magic trick. It was a drum cymbal with a jagged crack in the middle of it. He held it out to me proudly.
"Hey Burd, I wanted to be the first one to give you something. This is for your new digs man," Robbie smiled this crooked smile, and strutted about like a proud alley cat. Back and forth. He had hair like Rod Stewart or Ron Wood (in the '80's) except only better, frosted, and seemingly never out of place. He was loud, obnoxious and one the best pals a guy could ask for. If you had the pleasure to ever meet him, you'd never forget him. Rob left an impression wherever he went. A lovable lout.
Across the cymbal in black permanent marker was written; "Hey Jhonny - GREAT ZZAAA - BROKE ME CYMBAL CRAVINNN IT!!!!!" and then, "Luv Robby!! P.S Luv ya! babe!" and then in bigger letters he wrote the name of his band; "TOXiN!" across the bottom.
"Damn! Thanks Robbie!" I said holding it up.
"It's all you Bro, that place is gonna fuckin' rock. Really man." Rob said, slapping me on the back.
"Ya really think so?"
"Fuckin' A man." That crooked smile.
I took Rob over to the future space of Johnny Rockit's and let him decide where he wanted it. He walked back and forth giving it a lot of thought and then decided that over the doorway was the best spot. It would be the last thing people saw before they left the place and no doubt burn itself into their brains. He stopped in often in those early days and pointed it out to everyone.
"There it is mate...Toxin!" He'd say in his best faux British accent.
Two other musicians stopped by before we were open to donate to the space. Bubba, this guitar player for a band called the Space Cowboys and the lead singer Troy, from the Mere Mortals. Bubba had a shell of a guitar that was covered in paint and magic markers and the Mere Mortals gave us another cymbal adorned with their signatures and the bands name. Across the top was written, "We've got a Rocket in our Pocket for Johnny's Pizza!" I put the cymbal under the two cheesy guitars, where it looked like it belonged.
A day or so later the equipment arrived and then our sign after that. The sign was this big neon and wood thing. Painted on it was a record with the name "Johnny Rockit's Famous Pizza" and a "Flying V" guitar blasting off. All of this was accentuated with bright neon lines. It was pretty impressive. The jukebox (with about half of the songs I wanted) showed up too. We even installed a TV for our customers in the corner. We washed the windows and we mopped the floors. All that was left was food and customers.
There was a few days left in August of 1990 before I was to relinquish my Manager's job at The Villa and start from scratch as my own boss (sort of) at Johnny Rockit's. I was going to miss the Villa. I had started nearly 5 years before as a dish dog and had worked my way up. I was lucky enough to work side by side with many of my friends over the years and I made many more there besides. It was gonna be a hard goodbye.
I was allowed to choose my successor in the same way I had been chosen by John\, and he had been chosen by our friend Terry before him. I chose this guy we affectionately called; Rughead. His real name was John and he had been baptized in fire a year or two before. He had survived and proved to be a decent cook. He was cool under pressure, somewhat organized and sarcastic as all hell. John exhibited an uncanny talent for terrorizing the waitstaff that was cheerfully sadistic at times. He was perfect manager material for the Italian eatery.
I was deeply worried about how to continue my boozing while over at the new place (we didn't have a Beer/Wine license) but Frank insisted I keep a set of Villa keys in case I "needed anything." It solved the nagging question of how to stay drunk. My other concern was what kind of pay I'd get, to which Frank replied, "Don't worry about it." I didn't worry, until I overheard two of the waiters at The Italian Villa wagering how long until the place went bust.
"I give it 6 months, a year, tops." One said garnishing his plate of Chicken Marsala.
"Are you kidding, Frank's a buffoon! No way it lasts 6 months," the other said in a hushed voice.
They broke apart and exited the kitchen when they spotted me. A nagging fear started in my belly. So, I did what any normal person would do under those circumstances; I drank more. I also started trading my last few Villa checks for cocaine. The maitre 'd at the Villa also happened to be the restaurant's main dealer and he was all too happy to trade. I had slowed down months before, but I needed something to strengthen my resolve. I was told that I partied hard those last few nights.
The stock came in the following weekday and I got ready for business. Ads went out, coupons (exactly like Pizza Express's) were made and a Grand Opening sign was hung. I wished my former crew "Good Luck" - they wished it back, although with something approaching pity in their eyes, and I flipped on the open sign and stood behind the cash register. Craig agreed to help for a few days and we sat there smoking cigarettes and waiting...
Oh, I hadn't planned on that.
The second piece of advice I'd give to someone starting a new business:
"Have a backup plan."