Photo by Jason Saul, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Secret Sauce: Chicago Pizzeria Owner Shares Small Biz Experience

Buying an existing business can be challenging — and rewarding. Tania Mavrakis, an Evanston lawyer, says she found that out when she became the new owner last fall of Leona’s Pizzeria, a nine-store pizzeria chain in the Chicago area that originally opened in 1950. Mavrakis was no stranger to the pizza business when she bought Leona’s. Her parents owned a few pizzerias in Chicago when she was growing up, and she worked there after school and on the weekends. “I know the business very well,” she says. “When I found out that Leona’s was selling [its] restaurants, I thought it was a great opportunity. I could make them what they could be. They had great potential.”

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Building Staff Relationships

Mavrakis, who runs the business herself, says the first thing she did after buying the nine stores was to meet with the general managers. “We gave them our vision and told them who we were and where we wanted to take the company,” she says. “We were willing for them to stay with us and to work with us.” Mavrakis also held staff meetings at the individual restaurants. “I wanted everyone to feel that they could approach the corporate office,” she says. “That’s a big thing. We weren’t there just to give orders. They can contact us, tell us what their grievances are and give suggestions. That did help us build better relationships with the current employees.” Some of the biggest changes that Mavrakis made involved designing a new menu and website and adding a new online ordering system. Customers can now order everything from the menu with their smartphones, computers and tablets. She also opted to lower some of the prices, she says.

Respecting Each Location

One of the most important lessons Mavrakis says she learned is to respect each store as a unit unto itself. “Each store is in a different location with different customers and a different atmosphere,” she says. “We like to hire local people. All of the staff in these stores is recruited [locally]. They know the neighborhood and the customers well.” When Mavrakis decided to take certain items off the menu, some staff members warned her that there might be complaints. “That is a big help,” she says. She did keep popular items like lasagna, Italian beef and pizza, but added new items like shrimp dishes for the summer. Another change that Mayrakis made was ensuring that the dough is made fresh every day. Before, it was pre-cooked.

Attracting New Customers

One of the biggest challenges so far for Mavrakis has been attracting new customers. “I think we are getting there. When my parents owned their pizzerias, you would advertise through local newspapers. Now, it is the digital age,” she says. Her company is using Facebook and Twitter to reach out to customers with specials. “You definitely need professional help with all the digital components. It is a big challenge dealing with all the new mediums in business.”

5 Tips for Buying a Business

For those thinking of buying an existing business, Mavrakis offers some additional tips:

  • Figure out if the business is a good investment. “It’s very important for anyone who wants to buy an existing business to do their due diligence,” she says. “You really need to scrutinize the financial aspect of the business. Is it losing money or doing well?”
  • Consult the professionals. “Have an accountant and a lawyer help you out in finding all the information you need,” she says. “There is always hesitation. It took a few months to get all the information needed to make my decision.”
  • Find the right location, implement the right operation and go for it. “Everything has a risk. Calculate that risk, and do it,” she says.
  • Keep your well-being in mind and take time out for yourself. Get up in the morning, exercise, eat a good breakfast and divide your time with your business and your family.
  • Figure out how to make the customer happy. “Yes, you have to make a profit. But you have to please the customer, and then things fall into place,” she says.