Otto Pizza Co-founder Shares Advice for Entrepreneurs
Student Success Story
Bachelor of Liberal Arts, '94
The alumnus and co-owner of Otto Pizza dishes on his career choices, provides advice for young entrepreneurs, and shares his experiences at Harvard Extension School.
What does it take to be an entrepreneur? “You have to live it,” says Anthony Allen, co-owner of Otto Pizza and a Harvard Extension School graduate. Allen, and his co-owner, Mike Keon, have expanded their pizza business from a single restaurant in Portland, Maine, to a family of seven restaurants.
Igniting the Spark
What leads an individual into the high-risk and reward business of entrepreneurship? Allen, for one, was inspired to enter such a world by his family, including his father and uncles, who encouraged him to “do your own thing.” And the young Allen did just that.
Between high school and college, Allen took a year off from school. Having traveled to Italy and fallen in love with how they make pizza over there, he recognized an opportunity back home in the States.
Taking the first leap is daunting. But once you’re bit by the bug and do your own gig, it’s tough to get out of it.
Every day, hundreds of passengers were ferried to the tiny island of Nantucket where he attended high school, and he saw the hunger in their eyes upon disembarking. Denied by the banks, Allen relied on the good faith of a friend's father for a loan to open his first pizzeria near the docks at age 17. Within the first two months Allen was able to pay back his debt and turn a profit.
Following the success of his Nantucket pizzeria, Allen returned to school but realized after two years of college that it was not where he wanted to be at that point in his life. “Taking the first leap is daunting,” says Allen. “But once you’re bit by the bug and do your own gig, it’s tough to get out of it.”
Plan, Take Action, and Seek Help
Generating great business ideas is one thing, but putting those ideas into action is a whole other ballgame of logistics, financing, and risk. “Getting financing means getting confident,” says Allen. And to be confident, “you can’t over-plan. You want to allow for all contingencies. At some point, you have to be ready to make the move. I’ve seen some people plan for five or six years and never take any action.”
“Mike and I put a lot of time and energy into our brand, our menu, and our product. We’re judged by every slice.” Of course, one might think, aren’t there enough pizza shops already? To that, Allen counters, “You don’t want to mess with the magic, but do something different and keep refining it.” For example, one of Otto’s best-selling slices, the mashed potato, bacon, and scallion—recently featured on The Food Network’s 50 States, 50 Pizzas—started out as mashed potato, meatloaf, and gravy, but was not selling as expected until the modifications were made.
No doubt Allen learned the ins and outs of business and hospitality from his eight years as a commercial broker and restaurant dealer in Boston. “I saw a lot of money spent as a commercial broker. Plenty of people do well one time, open up more shops, but don’t plan accordingly.”
Allen suggests seeking out a mentor, someone who has been through the ups and downs of starting a business, and someone whom you can trust. “Use them as a resource and ask questions like, ‘What's a day really like for you?’ In the end, do something you get enjoyment out of. You have to have a passion for it.”
I always tell people the Extension School is the best educational value on the planet.
You also need to surround yourself with a good team. “We have a strong CFO who understands multi-channel operations. Our social media manager has just the right touch and feel for our company voice, and we make sure to keep our staff trained, energized, and engaged.”
The Value of an Education
As an entrepreneur, Allen knew the value of seeing a project through from beginning to end. “You need to have the discipline to begin and complete something,” he says, which is also why he chose to complete his undergraduate degree. “I knew I wanted the degree, I just didn’t want to be doing cost accounting when I was 19.” So when Allen later came across Harvard Extension School, he found the opportunity to pursue a liberal arts education, well, quite liberating.
In his creative writing classes, Allen learned new ways to approach specific tasks and how to remove barriers and tear down obstacles. “I always tell people the Extension School is the best educational value on the planet,” says Allen. “I learned new and different approaches than what I was used to in business. I really enjoyed it, and I have the utmost respect for the instructors.”
Attending the Extension School also gave Allen a taste of the college atmosphere in Cambridge, so when a slice of Harvard Square real estate became available, he and Keon jumped on it. Occupying the former Finagle-a-Bagel spot at 1432 Massachusetts Ave., Otto Pizza’s third venture is humming along thanks to the heavy foot-traffic of hungry college students, tourists, and Harvard Square worker bees. It’s a tiny shop, designed mostly for take-out and some standing room, but Allen and Keon’s thorough business plan was enough to inspire the landlord’s confidence.
A day in the Life of an Entrepreneur
Continued success does not come to those who rest on their laurels. Allen and Keon have opened seven shops in the past four-plus years, including their flagship store in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner and the two newest locations in Lynnfield, Massachusetts and South Portland, Maine, both of which opened in November 2013.
Needless to say, their average work day has become even busier. For Allen, it usually starts with getting his three children off to school, then meeting with Keon, their attorney, and their operations and public relations staff. They go over reports, look at new opportunities, assess what is and is not working at their current places, and schedule and conduct staff training programs for their 250 employees.
“We don’t take guest services casually, even if the customer is only spending $3 on a slice of pizza,” notes Allen. He and Keon are 100 percent invested. They visit the shops, check in on staff, and examine the product. “We want to get it right every single time. I have much more respect for McDonald’s than most people would think. They are just so consistent.”
While this venture is still young, Allen is certainly doing his thing and doing it well. “I’ve had some luck at it, but it’s tough work. Mike and I have had successful projects and less successful projects, and that humbles us. We never lose sight of where we began, and we remain true to what works,” says Allen.
From the sound of it, Allen and Keon are doing their research to serve up another winner in South Portland. The new 35-seat restaurant on Cottage Road occupies a former Getty Gas Station and uses reclaimed materials from the New England area. Like their Coolidge Corner and original Portland shops, this latest jewel features their unique pizza and an expanded menu of salads, beer, and wine. “We hope you know you’re in an Otto, but each one is also unique.”
“In each of the new locations, the neighbors, the community, everyone has been so welcoming. They’ve really embraced Otto. It’s been phenomenal.”