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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Christo’s Famous Pizza in North Adams—a new owner and a new vibe

With a recent change in ownership, a fresh coat of paint, and the same great menu, this locally established pizza shop is coming back full swing with consistency, quality, and the intent to succeed as a small business in the Berkshires.

As a young teenager, Duncan Russell got his first taste of the restaurant business working in the kitchen of a small local shop in Albany, New York. “I’ve been working in restaurants since I was fourteen years old,” he says, “the first place being a pizza shop very similar to this. That’s how I got started in the restaurant industry.”

Growing up in Albany, Russell’s experience in the field of food was not limited to pizza places. “I worked in a couple of other restaurants in the Albany area. One of the chefs that I was working for suggested that I go to culinary school, so I applied, and got accepted to Johnson and Wales,” he says, proudly. “I graduated with an Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts in 2009, then got my Bachelor’s in 2011 for Food and Beverage Management.” His journey at culinary school didn’t stop there; a requirement to complete an internship for his final semester of college led him overseas, travelling from country to country, collecting experiences and knowledge from different people, places, and cultures. “It changed my life,” Russell explains. “I started in Abu Dhabi and got a position with a hotel company called Kempinski. I was in their kitchen department, starting off in a traineeship. Ultimately, it led to my staying abroad for almost six and a half years. The hotel company transferred me from Abu Dhabi to their management training program in Dubai, where I stayed for a year and a half. Then I went to an island off the coast of Kenya for six months, overhauling their fine dining restaurants.” During these locational shifts, Russell was moved from the back of the house into front-of-house operations, rounding out his involvement as a worker in the restaurant industry.

With all this experience, it’s curious how Russell landed his finger on North Adams as the place to pursue his long-term dream of owning his own business. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for family,” he says. “My father’s partner is Reverend Mary Francis over at All Saints Episcopal Church, and that’s how I came to find North Adams. I met with the previous owner of Christo’s, she said that the business was for sale, and the ball started rolling from there.”

Christo’s Famous Pizza is located on Holden Street between a yoga shop and a tattoo parlor in downtown North Adams. The business now belongs to Russell and, after many months of anticipation, planning, and eagerness to get through the doors, the restaurant has reopened for dining and takeout.

Christo's new owner Duncan Russell in North Adams
Christo’s new owner, Duncan Russell, seated in his newly acquired restaurant before renovations.

“Originally, we were supposed to close in March, but because of the second round of PPP money, it got delayed until November first. That time allowed me to get everything in order to make the transition as smooth as possible.” Russell explains how this eight-month delay gave him the time to plan renovations, gather resources and make sure all the pieces were in place before moving forward, resulting in a short and smooth transition once November 1st came around. After just three weeks spent replacing the carpet with flooring, painting, cleaning, and working until three in the morning, Russell is proud of what he has accomplished and is grateful for his staff’s hard work and efforts.

With some help, Russell lays down new flooring. Photo byDuncan Russell.

Christo’s connection to the community was another selling point in Russell’s restaurant search. “The inspiration to buy this business was that I saw the clientele and how receptive people were to the business itself, and I thought, ‘okay, this is a business that is generating revenue, profit, and making people happy, and has good quality food.’ And that’s what I was looking for.” The restaurant’s previous owner, Mary Giannaris, had built a good customer base. With Russell’s new face behind the counter, he wasn’t so sure how well-received the change would be. “Luckily,” he says, “the clientele that the previous owner had established has been quite receptive, which is good. And part of the agreement with the previous owner was that I was going to maintain the restaurant as consistently as possible. That way she felt comfortable handing the business off to me, and it wasn’t going to be this big change in the community.”

Standards and consistency are key ingredients on the Christo’s menu. “The recipes themselves have not changed. We will be adding a couple more items down the road to make it more vegan-, vegetarian-, and gluten-free-friendly, but for right now we need to focus on the consistency and the quality.” Russell excitedly shares that there are a variety of house-made items on the menu, including but not limited to the pizza and marinara sauces, spanakopita, baklava, salad dressing, rice pudding, and the most important product in the restaurant — the pizza dough, prepped daily to meet Christo’s high standards of freshness.

For a small business, especially one in a reboot period, keeping the money in-house is in everybody’s best interest. “Every nickel and dime that goes out of the business unnecessarily leads to less money that I can contribute to things like raising wages, or general maintenance that would make everyone’s life easier.” A challenge posed by the pandemic, not only for Christo’s but across the board for many restaurants, is the still rising prices of bulk products and ingredients. “To this day, because of the pandemic, we’re still having issues with suppliers not having certain items. Chicken is massively expensive, and other items will come and go. Lettuce, for example,” Russell says, shaking his head. “Last year a case of lettuce for us cost around thirty-eight dollars. Last week, a case of lettuce cost seventy-four dollars. That’s not the only product that has doubled in the past year. And unfortunately, for restaurants, for the past two years, our prices have been increasing. They fluctuate on a weekly basis — we call it catch weight. And we’ve seen it throughout the entire pandemic. It’s a hard game to play right now.” This increase in pricing makes it more difficult to access certain items, but alternative options are being factored into the equation for future changes. “My goal is to start contacting local farms when we have more of the capabilities to source locally.”

Two happy customers finish up their meals in the newly renovated dining area. Photo by Duncan Russell.

Another challenge many are facing due to the pandemic is staffing. “For any industry right now, that’s a big challenge, but I think restaurants in particular are taking a very hard hit.” Russell says. “I’m trying to make sure that my staff is happy and that this is a really good place to work, because it’s important.” Currently, Christo’s is hosting a staff of nine workers, but is looking to hire more delivery drivers into the operation. Keeping staff small but secure allows Russell to maintain more efficiently the quality of the products, the process, and good relationships with his crew, as he is often behind the counter working right beside them.

Detailing his interest in managing the business, Russell says, “I’m super data-driven. I’ve been very pleased with using Square thus far because I can track the sales data. I’m working on my inventory management sheets, I have a personal order guide that I created, and I have checklists for everything. I’m somebody who likes things as organized as possible, and I like cleanliness. It’s not for control, but for that sense of consistency and quality.” He explains how maintaining operations on a daily basis can prevent having to spend days cleaning the kitchen, or processing inventory. “Rather than doing things infrequently at best, as long as there’s that upkeep, we’ll never have to do something like that deep clean again.”

Despite challenges brought on by the pandemic, difficulties during renovations, and the anticipation of the waiting game, Russell is bringing commitment, excitement, and a world of experience into this new chapter of Christo’s Famous Pizza. “I’ve always wanted to own my own restaurant; it’s been a goal of mine basically since I started in the field,” he says. “Life really comes full circle if you put the work in and you’re dedicated.”

The front window of Christo’s. Photo by Sarah DeFusco

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