TUTTA BELLA, Seattle’s first Neapolitan pizzeria, was founded on an idea and a journey. Established 18 years ago by
CEO/Founder Joe Fugere, TUTTA BELLA is also the city’s first to be awarded the VPN Verace Pizza Napoletana (“true Neapolitan pizza”).
Now with seven local neighborhood restaurants, Joe also has a retail line–a Costco bestseller– which is expanding the brand’s reach and fueling the business with explosive growth. Amidst his busy schedule, Joe joined CW Magazine to speak about the genesis of his company and the trials and travails of entrepreneurship.
I know about TUTTA BELLA’s Naples history, but walk me through your path. I’d love to hear it in your words.
The genesis of the company had more to do with me going through that time in my life where I wanted to do something meaningful. I was working for a big coffee company that has a mermaid in their logo. And, you know, it’s a great company. But I just felt – I don’t want to call them golden handcuffs, but, you have a good job, things are going well, and you start to evaluate your life. I was in my 40s. And I just felt like I wanted something more meaningful.
So I decided to leave my job and start my own company, one where I could set the values, determine the direction of how our employees and vendors are treated, and how we engage with the community.
I set off. I was reading a book, I might get the title wrong – somebody gave it to me, called ‘Zen and the Art of Making a Living’. And I took some time off and I did some soul searching.
Then I came across a former boss. She was starting a professional coaching business and asked if I would be her first guinea pig client. We went on this great journey together where she had me list all the things that I’m good at, the things that I would love to do and dream about. And you know, essentially she sent me off on a mission to see if all those things that I love and dream about could become a career for me.
In the back of my head I thought the restaurant business is the last thing I want to be involved with because of the high turnover and burnout – I thought, I’ve been doing that all my life. And so I looked into nonprofit work, travel, architecture, design, other culinary opportunities and nonprofit work. And after doing that deep dive, I found out that I really wasn’t qualified to do all those things that I loved.
So I came back to my coach, and she’s like, ‘Well, why don’t you just apply all the things that you love to the things that you’re good at, which is running restaurants and I thought, you know, she’s got something there –
Now, I knew that if you’re going to be in the business, choose a category where you’re likely to succeed: The two most popular restaurant categories in the world? Pizza and burgers. Burgers didn’t resonate with me, but pizza did. And so I set down this path.
People ask, ‘what inspired you to open a restaurant?’ I’m thinking – it’s my Italian grandmother who used to give me crap: ‘Why are you going to Domino’s when you really need to tap the pizza of my homeland?’. But there was no place to get that in Seattle, so I tell people that I was inspired by my grandmother and Google.
What followed was a journey to Naples, Italy to learn the true art of Neapolitan pizza, studying the craft, and being blessed enough to be able to learn from several master pizzaolos, before eventually returning back home to Seattle to
open the first Tutta Bella.
And I never planned on opening more than one;
I was pretty content. Sometimes when you’re most content is when opportunity presents itself. A friend in a master’s program was doing a project and invited me into this project to do some strategic planning: we put out 1,000 surveys and got 950 of them back!
The number one survey question was not about our menu, not about service, not about all the typical things you’d expect, it was: What would you like most to see? And the answer
overwhelmingly, was a second location. So that started me on this journey of building…we like to call it a family of neighborhood restaurants.
And you now have seven. Talk about your personal growth through all of this. Looking back now for the last 18 years, have you been surprised at who you’ve become?
You know, personal growth, professional growth – I feel they’re woven together, especially when you’re an entrepreneur. But on the professional side, you can’t blame anybody if you’re the guy at the top, you’ve got to take full accountability. So I learned how to embrace that, that role of leader, accountable leader, servant leader.
I know it’s an overused term, but I really had constituents. And I had to worry about pleasing my employees, because I wanted to keep them. You find good people you want to keep and so you learn how to flip the pyramid a little bit and serve the people that are helping you build your company. You realize you can’t do it alone.
Barack Obama actually asked me, when I met with him and had 30-minutes with the President to talk about my business. And he is the leader of the free world and his question was: What keeps you up at night? And I had to think about that, and well, it’s changed. When I opened the business, I was really worried about personal things like how am I going to pay my home mortgage? How am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to pay the telephone bill and the power bill – But as the business started to take off, and when we were successful, it
shifted into it, ‘Crap’, or whatever the word is – like, now I have to worry about having employees.
I started with eight. It grew to 20 within no time at all. Today, we have almost 400. It’s really changed a lot. And if I screw up in a business decision, I’m going to impact these people’s lives. It was no longer paying the rent that kept me up at night. It was like, ‘How do I keep these guys gainfully employed and continue to provide opportunities for them so they can provide
It’s really an interesting shift. So there’s growth there – personally and professionally. And I got really involved in the community. I think I owe it to my mother. She’s one of the kindest and most generous people I know.