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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Order Up: Hot Tomatoes Pizzeria

By Andrew Arvedon
12:00AM / Thursday, December 14, 2006

John and Angie England, owners of Hot Tomatoes Pizzeria in Williamstown.[Photo by Sue Bush]
Northern Berkshire leaders from North Adams Mayor John Barrett III to Williamstown's Town Manager Peter Fohlin and others have said that the region's economic revival relies significantly on developing a diverse economy made up of small companies and private business. iBerkshires correspondent Andrew Arvedon recently interviewed Hot Tomatoes owner John England and England's wife Angie for a candid look at the dynamics of one privately-owned small business.

Williamstown - It was 9:30 on a recent Friday night. The dinner rush had come and gone and John England breathed a sigh of relief.

The Hot Tomatoes Pizzeria would close in about a half-hour. For England, who had worked about 35 hours that week, it couldn't come soon enough.

Hot Tomatoes is a busy, popular pizzeria that draws customers from all parts of Western Massachusetts. People from Pownal and Bennington, Vt. and Petersburg, N.Y.. come to England's pizza place.

It has not always been this way. England acknowledged that he's failed numerous times but with determination, intellect, and learning experiences, he owns and operates a popular eatery.

How did he do it?

England knew he wanted to become a businessman when he was 14 years old, he said during a recent interview. England lived in White Plains, N.Y. until 1970, when his family moved to Williamstown. John started a lawn mowing venture when he was 14 and he later worked as a carpenter and construction worker.

In 1986, England opened a deli that operated for about a year and a half, he said. The deli had loyal customers but failed due to competition and a lack of new customers. England closed the deli but rented the building out to other would-be entrepreneurs.

Learning Curve

England opened Hot Tomatoes on April 13, 1993. When the business first opened, England served breakfast, he said. National chain-type restaurants and local coffee shop competition doomed England's breakfast business but England said that was a blessing in disguise.

"There were more drawbacks to having breakfast hours than there were positives," he said. "Most notably, the hours were killing me and my wife. Waking at seven in the morning to bake all the goods for the breakfast hour, then quickly changing into lunch mode and after lunch getting ready for the dinner rush, I would not get out of there sometimes until 11 at night or later, only having to wake up six hours later and start all over again."

England hired morning shift employees to help him out.

"The employees I did have working for me in the morning were not reliable at all," he said. "More often than not, I would have to come in because someone had called out or not shown up."

Trial And Error

In 1995, England attempted to expand the Hot Tomatoes name with an annex next door called "Hot Tomatoes Annex." The restaurant served prepared meal items such as chicken dinners, mashed potatoes, and other "to-go" meals. The annex did not go as well as hoped and England closed the business. He cited an inability to generate new customers as the main reason.

England subsequently opened another pizza shop in nearby North Adams but said due to poor location, frequent break-ins, and a low customer base, he again closed shop.

The Water Street pizzeria remained viable and England focused on that business.

"One thing I kept telling myself throughout was that I should never give up and always hope for the best," he said. "I knew what I was doing but I also knew that the odds are against you when you open a business."

During its' early years, the pizzeria was doing well but England explained the business could have been managed better.

He cited employee reliability and theft issues and personnel personality clashes as small business challenges. Hiring appropriate employees is a challenge as well, he said.

England has been left to work 80-hour weeks, which has caused him to think of selling the business at certain points, he said.

From 1993 to February 2005, handwritten restaurant order checks were used to record customer orders.

Business Investment And Fine-Tuning

Handwriting and reading issues caused some orders to be prepared incorrectly. England decided to invest in a Point-Of Sale system though the system cost over $8,000.

"Now, 99 percent of my orders are made correctly, with maybe one or two per month made wrong," he said. "It used to be five or six[mistakes] per week. In addition, this system keeps track of what I'm selling, when I'm selling it, repeat customers, phone numbers, payroll, gift certificates, and a whole lot more. Instead of running around and doing a ton of things all day, this system will allow me to do everything in one place."

England has expanded his menu to include salads and appetizers and also has invested in used restaurant equipment. He has a full-color menu that has pictures of the items he sells.

"The majority of the equipment is in phenomenal shape and is being auctioned off due to bankruptcy, fire, or other problems," he said.

England shared business tips and strategies that he believes may be helpful to entrepreneurs.

* When looking for a business location, research extensively.
"Besides your business plan, this aspect of your business should be second in time allotted," England said.

* Become involved in community events and activities.
"People like to know that you [as a business owner] care about them."

* Treat employees with respect.
"If your employee happens to make a costly mistake, do not yell at them, it solves nothing. Not only will you be stressed out, your employee will be stressed out an if there are any customers present, they will be stressed out. Consumers want to have good feelings associated with your business."

* Before opening any new business seek an objective opinion. Determine whether the economy and demographics of the area are favorable for the business.

Wife And Partner

England's wife Angie has been at England's side throughout his business ventures, and had worked many hours in addition to being mother to sons Matt, Nick, and Riley. She offered her perspective on small business ownership and its' impact on family.

"There are pros and cons to owning your own business and I'll share some crucial ones," she said. "The pros are being able to be your own boss. You come into work knowing that every dollar you make is yours and you're not working for someone else. You know that if you communicate well with your employees you'll be able to get the job done."

Community involvement is another plus, she said.

"My children are well-known throughout the community which is a good feeling for me as a parent," she said. "I try to help out in the community as much as I can."

Business needs rule the family, she said.

"The cons are the fact that because my husband, my sons and I at some point work crazy hours, we are never able to have a consistent dinner at home as a family," she said.

Appreciating customers is a key to business, she said.

"You can have all the new customers you want but if they don't come back, you won't be in business very long," she said. "In my interacting with customers, I give it 100 percent no matter how I'm feeling or how I'm treated. If someone comes in and is rude, I might not like it but there could be circumstances out of my control. There could be sickness in the family, money issues or marital issues. The fact that the person chose my business instead of others makes me happy, period."

Employee relationships are another key, she said.

"You have to have the guidelines for your employees to follow," she said."Sometimes you have to have a talk with employees about negative things, and they don't like the answer sometimes, but that's life."
Your Comments
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Good luck with your magazine writing career, Andrew! Hope you learned a thing or two in my class!

Jenifer Augur
from: jenifer auguron: 01-13 00:00:00-2007

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