For Persona Neapolitan founder, food comes first
“I cannot draw, I cannot dance, I cannot sing, but I can cook,” says Persona’s Glenn Cybulski.
An Italian-trained pizzaiolo, Glenn Cybulski muses on food, family, surfing, tattoos and his fledgling franchise—all while fending off the occasional coyote at his rural California home. How he aims to win this footrace.
FT: You learned to cook from your father?
Glenn Cybulski: I’ve loved food and cooking my whole life. That inspiration comes from my father who passed going on five years now. He was the kind of guy who would love to cook for everybody. Anyone we brought over was welcome to stay for dinner, and on the weekends, we’d go camping and he’d cook a full meal.
The family gathered around food is what brings you back. I don’t know how old you are, but it doesn’t really matter, because most of the best times you had with loved ones were probably around food.
FT: After bouncing between Southern California and Hawaii, chasing the surf, you ended up in Italy. How did that come about?
Cybulski: I’ve always loved to talk to people, and from an early age, I’d just go up to people and start talking. On a surfing trip—wait, I need to pause for a second. I live in the country and I’m watching a coyote around my goat enclosure right now…we’d go to the Triple Crown in Hawaii to watch and surf and have fun. I believe it was in 1986 that we met the Italians. Basically I walked into a bar on the North Shore, and three guys were speaking Italian. I said, ‘Hey, you guys are Italian,’ and they said who cares. I bought a round of drinks and literally that was it. We bonded very quickly, and they invited us over to Italy the next May. They owned a restaurant, and that began the odyssey of my Italian culinary roots.
FT: Tell me about attending the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli, the oldest pizza school in the world, I understand, and a pizzaioli or pizza maker is an actual certification.
Cybulski: It’s a huge deal in Italy. It’s getting more and more recognized here in the States. Especially, to be certified is a pretty big deal, because it also means you’ve been schooled in all the technical aspects. Understanding what double-zero flour is, understanding how yeast reacts in certain combinations makes all the difference in quality.
If you do it right somebody may not know why it tastes so great, the technical aspects, but they do know it tastes phenomenal. When people know that, it makes a huge difference in how people connect with you through food.
…Wait, can you hold on for a moment? I need to take care of something...
FT: …Did you go after the coyote?
Cybulski: I just had to chase him off. I’m up in Sonoma County. He’s out there stalking in the morning, and that’s not good. I scared him away. We have goats and livestock, chickens... The goats are for fun, for pets, they’re hilarious animals. And the chickens, of course, are for eggs. But the predators come down from the hills, the drought’s been bad.
FT: You’ve opened Persona Neapolitan Pizzeria, and have begun franchising the choose-your-own-ingredients chain. Tell me about it.
Cybulski: A big influence in my career was Tony Gemignani. Tony is regarded as one of the best pizzaiolis in the world, and we competed together, in the Naples 2007 competition in Italy, where he won best in the world. Through that and his connections to the school, I was brought on as a World Pizza Champion team member. I was giving a speech on, “So you want to open a pizzeria?” with a friend of mine, because we know the ins and outs. I’ve had my failures, I’ve had my successes. Joseph Baumel, my business partner now, was in the audience, looking for a professional that knew what they were doing.
He came up to my restaurant, tried the pizza, and said, ‘You have to partner with me.’ I said, ‘I’m willing to do that if you’re willing to go big with this.’ This segment is the biggest thing to happen since take-and-bake pizza. The rest is history.
FT: There’s a lot of competition—Blaze, PizzaRev, Pieology, Pie Five. What’s your claim to fame?
Cybulski: It’s based on high-quality, truly Neapolitan pizza. That’s what differentiates us from all the rest that have started the choose-your-own-ingredients restaurants. We’ve taken that extra step to make sure the quality is there, and bring the public a truly fast-fired pizza, 90 seconds rather than five minutes.
FT: I can see why consumers would care about the speed, but do they really care about quality to that degree?
Cybulski: They might not know the science, but they taste that difference, hands down. We’ve literally had new franchisees signing up who are blown away. We had some guys in from South Carolina, and they said ‘if your food is better than others, we’re going to go with you.’ I try to stay humble on this, but my pizza is phenomenal and I know this.
FT: Everybody is scrambling for share in this market.
Cybulski: What’s going to happen, unfortunately, is after the hype of people being able to pick out their ingredients has died down, what it will come down to is quality and guest retention.
FT: You started franchising after opening only one store, which many people say is a no-no.
Cybulski: We already knew, and again I don’t want to sound arrogant at all, but we knew this concept was going to be big. Respect goes out to Anthony Carron, who founded 800 Degrees in L.A., because he was the first one who hit it big. We knew this was going to change the way people thought about pizza.
We’re not going to put everybody out of business, we don’t want to. We just want to be a runaway smash hit. We didn’t think it was necessary to take the long road and invest $5 million into corporate stores and wait two years. In a sense this is a footrace. The excitement is going to be short-lived in some of the other concepts. You’re already seeing some fall off.
FT: But couldn’t that happen to you?
Cybulski: We have to differentiate ourselves. Part of how we do this is the passion through the food. We truly make our dough from scratch every day. We don’t add water to the bag like everybody else does. We’re the only one doing wood-fired. We’re the only one that has two chefs as the founders. I wouldn’t be as confident saying this if 800 Degrees had chosen to franchise, but they chose not to.
FT: How many franchises have you sold so far?
Cybulski: We’ve awarded 20 so far in Florida, with Sager. We’re about to award double-digits in Chicago and high single-digits in South Carolina.
FT: Do you worry that you’re a little late?
Cybulski: No, absolutely not. The example goes, PizzaRev opened its first location six months before we did ours. And Buffalo Wild Wings infused $9 million into their organization before they had six months under their belt. When a concept generates that kind of an investment from a Wall Street firm, then we’re not late.
FT: Tell me about your tattoos.
Cybulski: I have a couple of wristbands with my children’s names on them and some free-form artwork along with the flames. It kind of shows my artistic side. I cannot draw, I cannot dance, I cannot sing, but I can cook. I have four children, two girls and two boys. I’m very proud, my oldest daughter just went into college. My new wife has two kids, so this is what you do. This is what you live for.
FT: Food is at the center of your family, it sounds like.
Cybulski: Every time I make my father’s spaghetti sauce, I’ll get a comment: ‘This is like home.’ That’s why we do what we do at Persona. That’s what drives me.
Years ago I had a little pizza shop, and I was doing Rome-style. I’d been out surfing and I walked into my pizza shop, and an old lady was sitting there with a slice of pizza and a Coke with no ice. You know they’re European with no ice. I said, ‘Hi, ma’am, how’s your pizza?’ And she looked up at me, and I’ll never forget it. She goes, ‘This reminds me of the pizza my Dad used to take me to get, down at the corner every Sunday.’
That’s worth all the money in the world. That’s it. My piece of cheese pizza took the lady back to her childhood.