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The story behind the story that I didn't tell you

The story behind the story that I didn't tell you

December 07, 2011

I already told you about the incredible story of how Nick Sarillo has created a "Compelling Company" for his employees, but what I didn't tell you is even more amazing. Read on...

Last week I told you the story of how our client Nick Sarillo created an incredible company based on a clear purpose, values and teams of employees who manage themselves to become one of the top 10 pizza restaurants in the country.

Here’s what I didn’t tell you.

The company was on the verge of closing down less than three months ago, unless there was some sort of miracle…

I’m even tempted to call this the 2011 version of It’s a Wonderful Life…it’s that inspiring. I’m telling you when you read this it will really move you.

Reclaimed wood from dairy farms, cobblestones from the streets of Chicago and an unwavering commitment to local community organizations makes Nick's a "Compelling Company" for customers too.

You and I both know that not every company operates perfectly – even if they are working with us ;-)

What always impresses me though is how the best business leaders overcome some of the most difficult and challenging times in their lives. Those are the stories that inspire me. And this is one of them…

Nick’s Pizza & Pub outside of Chicago is the envy of many business owners thanks to Nick’s vision to create a compelling company in which employees are truly empowered to choose their own career paths and take ownership of ideas. Employees at each of his two restaurants work in self-managed teams and managers don’t supervise – they coach. He’s created what I call a “Compelling Company” for his employees.

Nick’s has become a bit of a poster child of our “Compelling Company” concept for his customers and here’s why. It’s a fun, family dining experience. Peanuts abound and customers freely throw their shells on the floor. Much of the wood used in the restaurant is from old dairy barns. The building alone is worth the visit. The stone is from Chicago’s old cobblestone streets.

For years, Nick and the employees have gone out of their way to support boys’ and girls’ soccer teams, scouts, the Humane Society, church groups and they even surprised a woman with all the profits they raised one day at the restaurant and donated the money to her so she could pay the medical bills for her daughter who suffered a brain aneurism.

Yet, all his efforts still weren’t enough to overcome a major, (read that again, major) Walmart road construction project that diverted traffic away from one of his restaurants and an economy that kept people at home instead of dining out. Sales at his Elgin restaurant started dropping in 2008 and continued to fall by 30% this year. His other restaurant, which had been doing great and had been very profitable, could no longer support both restaurants and the $31,000-a-month mortgage.

During our conversations we explored many options. Including saying nothing, doing financial gyrations with the bank (all legal), getting investors and we even hired a sign spinner to stand outside to attract more customers. But, faced with the prospect of shutting down in September, after much deliberation and difficult phone calls Nick shared his vulnerability in a way that most could never do. He wrote what he describes as the “most gut-wrenching letter” he ever had to write.

In an open-letter email to 16,000 frequent guests and a post on Facebook he admitted,

We had overbuilt and overspent, and then we didn’t cut fast enough or hard enough when sales started to go downhill… The whole responsibility for our troubles is mine for making the bad decisions that got us into this mess.

He added, "Barring some sort of miracle, we are going to run out of cash to pay our vendors and team members over the next couple of weeks and will have to close."

That was September 27 at 3 pm. Word spread within minutes by email and over Facebook. One former employee urged others on Reddit.com to help rescue Nick’s Pizza and Pub from financial ruin. The post said: “Go forth. Eat pizza. Drink beer. Save this local business!” Hundreds of emails of support started pouring in. Phones began ringing.

That same night, just before midnight, Nick struggled to find the words in a post on Facebook to express his gratitude …

As we brush off our pizza aprons and wrap up for the night Nick's Pizza & Pub, all of us here can't help but feel a bit overwhelmed by all the amazing support from so many people in the communities of each restaurant. It was a hard night to keep up, and it was truly inspiring to experience!

Thank you all!

Two $1 bills from a child and a $15 check is one of the many donations Nick's received to help them through the worst financial crisis facing Nick's Pizza and Pub. Writing his “most gut-wrenching letter” ever, it was Nick asking for the community to help him from shutting the doors on his restaurant after 16 years of supporting the scouts, local hockey teams, church groups and civic organizations.

The support never let up. By week’s end, sales were double what they had been the previous week – a $50,000 increase in each of the 2 restaurants. (That’s now what we call the “$50,000 email.”)

A child even sent in $2 saying he hopes this will help keep the restaurant open. Another sent a $15 check with a note that says, "Wish I could send more."

In just a few weeks, Nick’s had reached 30% of their goal to keep the doors open. As of this morning the restaurant has reached 75% of its goal. We are not done fighting yet!

Local news stations have even been so impressed with Nick’s story he’s been featured on Fox and NBC Nightly News. But what most people don’t understand is that this story was 16 years in the making – 16 years of Nick’s supporting and serving the community in a way that few businesses dare to do.

Nick says it best in a recent Facebook post…

I myself, and the team Nick's Pizza & Pub continue to be amazed with each community surrounding each of our restaurants and their support. I wonder if these people truly understand the magnitude of positive difference THEY are making in this world with this experience. I truly mean all of you here, the fans of Nick's, that have come out in support. You are getting noticed by the other small and large business, and by the news. With your help we are showing the world (yes the world) what is possible and what is needed in business today. As each of us continue this movement to support each other....

Nick's supports the community, the community supports Nick's, and Nick's continues to supports the community.

Business owners, CEOs, managers...and if we get lucky may be a few Politicians as well are taking notice, and must be scratching their heads trying to figure out how they could be honest, totally transparent, and giving back to their communities.

All of you inspire me more than ever now, to continue to use our values and our purpose as our guide in running our business!

Thank you all!


Here’s the take away for you.

Take a good look at yourself. What would happen if you showed your vulnerability? Are you a compelling company? Would your customers come out in droves and spend extra money with you just because they love you that much? If not. It’s time to start investing deeply in your team, your clients and your community.

Stay tuned. Next week as a holiday present we’re going to give you a free tool you can use to turn your organization into a “Compelling Company” like Nick’s and some of our other shining-star Compelling Companies.

For Nick, his 200 employees and the thousands of people who have come out to support Nick’s Pizza and Pub, it really is a Wonderful Life! And, if you’re in Chicago, go there and get some pizza.

Always taking you from where you are to where you want to go,


Jon Goldman, President & CEO
Brand Launcher