In Up Next, The New Orleans Tribune features young, inspiring professionals from all walks of life making their mark on the city.
Along with his business partner, Uche N. Okpalobi is co-owner of The Original Italian Pie franchise on Paris Avenue. Okpalobi recently talked with The New Orleans Tribune about his business, family, community, and, of course, food!
He is our May 2016 Up Next feature.
Q: You studied molecular chemistry in college. Why did you decide to go into the restaurant business?
A: I decided to go into the restaurant business because it was what was next to do! I saw a great opportunity with The Italian Pie franchise and then started putting the pieces together. There was actually two years of planning that went into this business, from location to construction to interior design, furniture, fixtures, kitchen equipment layout and personnel. The main reason I went into the business is for my children. I believe that every parent wants to leave something behind for their children, but I wanted something that I could see them enjoy and grow into and be proud of. I have five girls from the ages of eight to 20 who are very demanding. I wanted to provide them the opportunity as well as an example to have a business they can call their own whether they work here or receive the profits and have a comfortable life. This business is a business that they actually get excited about. They love going to The Pie, and I love to see that they feel proud when they are there.
Q: In New Orleans, there are places that get more tourist traffic than others. Why did you decide to open a restaurant in the Gentilly neighborhood?
A: I think that it is every business person’s dream to return to their neighborhood. I was raised two blocks away from our location and went to school at Clifton L Ganus at the other end of Paris. I remember growing up in this mall when there was a National grocery store, Murphys, Burger King, Walgreens, Golds Gym, Pizza Hut, D’ Avanti Fashions, Church’s Chicken and Adrian’s Bakery. This investment has never been about money. This is a great neighborhood; it always has been because of the businesses that have been here and the ones that will be joining us soon. This area is the best kept secret; and it is a blessing to have the opportunity to return to the neighborhood and open a family restaurant such as the one we have. With the amount of money invested, you are right, we could have opened anywhere; but this was pure choice to open here. My family is from Nigeria so we understand what it means to plant seeds, and water as well as cultivate and be patient and we plan on being deeply rooted here in this community which we proudly call the 7th Ward.
Q: What have been your greatest challenges?
A: This is a business where I am able to create and extend opportunities for the people in this community and pay a few bills. But the biggest challenge here is that we are not feeding peoples stomachs we are feeding egos. I have never seen so much entitlement and I have never been so humbled at the same time. I have friends who live in New Iberia that drive over just to get a pizza and say hello. And I have friends whose houses I go to and there are Pizza Hut boxes all over the place so it is a balance of emotions to stay motivated about being in this business. We have great food! All of our dough is made daily in house. We use fresh produce daily. Our salads are our best seller, and our sandwiches and muffalettas are awesome. There is nothing on our menu over $15.00. We pride ourselves on our large portions. This restaurant is extremely versatile. We have dine-in, take-out, delivery and catering, as well as a full service bar. There are over 40 items on our menu. So in this great location in Gentilly, no brainer right? That’s what I thought. Getting food out on time has been a huge challenge; but it is something that we work on daily. We have fast food prices; but we are not a fast food restaurant. Like a good friend of mine said “You gotta eat somewhere. Why not here?”
Q: What’s next? Do you plan on owning more restaurants?
A: Yes definitely. Food is where it is at right now. You have to strike while the iron is hot. In addition to the restaurant we have a food trailer and an awesome catering business and the plan is to open five smaller models over the next seven years. I really enjoy interacting with the people who patronize us. Meeting new people and talking and listening to their ideas really motivates and encourages me.
Q: How important is it to know every level of the business?
A: Your business will fail without it. I have been blessed to have other businesses before this one and have an extensive amount of support and advice from other business owners. But you have to be humble in order to receive the education! You see when it comes to the restaurant business, I started as an amateur; but I embraced that opportunity to learn everything possible about the business. For months, I worked side by side with my employees; and they never knew that I was the owner. They were the experts. They had the experience. I asked a lot of questions and kept my head down. You have to know the numbers, labor costs, food costs, fixed costs, variable costs. More important you have to know the people who work for you. They are your biggest investment and should always feel that. When your employees know that you genuinely care they will always give 110 percent.
Q: Do you cook at home and what is your favorite dish to prepare?
A: Yes I do cook! More often than I like to admit. My favorite dish to prepare is barbecue shrimp. I got a flawless recipe from a friend’s mother years ago when I was in college and have perfected it.
Q: Who are your inspirations?
A: My biggest inspirations are my family because they have supported everything that I have done in my life and have encouraged me without prejudice. I started my first business at the age of 24 and have never really looked back, but that is because I have a huge team of people who support the things that I do. It doesn’t take too much to get me going I am a lover of people and a fan of success so there are many people that inspire me and motivate me. Nothing inspires me more than Black people who love being Black.
Q: Do you have any advice for other young entrepreneurs looking to enter the restaurant business?
A: Yes, go to school get an education. It’s not easy!!! If you want to go into the restaurant business get some schooling on business management and culinary arts. What is more important than anything is you have to be extremely disciplined to make it in this business. The hard work and work ethic will come, but you have to be disciplined. You have to be involved; and it takes up a lot of your time. This is a young man’s business, get it while you got it.