Start to Finish: What Inspires Execs | December 2014

Start to Finish: Paul Hibler

Owner and founder of Pitfire Artisan Pizza talks about how he went from catering to Steven Spielberg to helping revolutionize the pizza industry.
San Francisco pizza quick service executive learned from movie catering business.
Pitfire Artisan Pizza

I never thought I would be an owner of a quick-service restaurant brand; I actually received my economics degree at Stanford. Being in the San Francisco area, however, I happened to wander onto a movie set that was shooting in the Bay Area. After witnessing the movie-catering business, I ended up starting my own company and started to be on film sets all over the world, serving clients like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, and even had the opportunity of catering for former president Bill Clinton. Part of our elevated menu were our pizzas, and Pitfire Artisan Pizza was born in 1997.

My expectations were adjusted quickly when I got into the quick-service business. My catering business was high-dollar, and we weren’t always concerned about the nickels and dimes. That clearly changed when Pitfire started. I remember wanting to create a higher-level casual pizza place. It took a while, but we found out how to be successful, even when being one of the higher price points when it came to pizza.

I don’t think quick service gets its due for being able to build a community around the brand. Once I had the fourth Pitfire up and operating, I realized that there was a community behind the brand and it started to inspire me as an owner. I started to shift the attention inside our stores and be a bit more experiential, which is still unique in this industry. But what really inspired me was the idea of building that community in and outside our brand.

I’m trying to build a sustainable company, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I can build that company around bringing people together through food and experience.

The community also includes the people who work inside the buildings, and it’s crucial that they feel taken care of. The main goal, though, is to leave behind a sustainable company and have that company be able to survive and grow without me. This business is about taking what we’ve learned so far, choosing the direction, and building from there.

What was your first job?

Dishwasher at the age of 13.

When did you enter the quick-service industry?

When I started Pitfire in 1997.

What is your favorite dish at Pitfire?

The Burrata Pie.

Which operational strategy are you most proud of?

Our hybrid service. Most quick serves hand the food off and they’re done. We create a lot of value added after the food is given to the customer.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

I’m an avid cyclist for fun, but I also enjoy building and developing real estate with my wife.

What is the best piece of advice quick-serve executives should hear?

Do whatever it takes to understand your brand, the purpose of it, and how and whom you are serving.

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