Healthy growth: Profile of Emilio Finatti Pizzeria
By By Colleen CrossFeatures Business and Operations Profiles editor pick pizzeria
B.C.'s Emilio Finatti Pizzeria is growing on a foundation of community, quality and fun!
Aaron Gehrman knew from a young age he wanted to own and operate a pizzeria.
Starting with his first location in 2005, opened at age 22, Gehrman established and oversees four locations of the popular Emilio Finatti Pizzeria, a career he finds exciting and fulfilling.
Who is Emilio Finatti? Gehrman loves to tell the story of his father’s life on the road as a salesman.
“My dad had a friend named Emilio Finatti in the 1950s. When they got together, they made food and snacks that brought together friends and family. Dad was a travelling salesman gone for weeks at a time. He loved trying out diners, drives and dives along the way. He told me about unusual ingredients. It piqued my curiosity.”
Gehrman’s dad encouraged him to work as a busboy at age 15 for a restaurant in Vancouver, Wash. His first of several pizza jobs was at a Papa Murphy’s store. He later worked at a little trattoria in Vancouver, Wash., as a soda jerk and kitchen helper. That’s where he first encountered a domed pizza oven. “That’s when I knew I would be involved in restaurant management,” says Gehrman, now 40.
His first location came about when the Pepperoni Cafe in White Rock had an assets sale. “My mum found it and I was able to buy out the assets for about $20,000,” Gehrman says. “I designed a menu. My dad, Ray, was a driver. He recommended that it would be nostalgic to name the pizzeria after his good friend.”
“The community helped me too. I had never really managed a restaurant. The ingredients were good but the pizza needed a little more work. I got feedback and started cooking directly on the stone,” he said, describing their style as stone-baked New York-style pizza, calzones and honey butter drizzled crust.
That was in 2005. Gehrman has gradually grown his business to four locations and counting. There is the flagship restaurant at White Rock, Langley City, owned and operated by his brother, Jason Cook, Port Coquitlam and this fall Port Moody, a beach town.
The pizzeria’s motto is “Melting Cheese & Hearts” and they have received dozens of community choice awards over the years.
The business now operates as a group made up of Gehrman, Cook, Mitchell Fetter and Robbie Stewart.
“We’re going to be opening corporate stores. The management should be a little simpler. Our locations will be modelled on Port Moody. They are all about 1,000 square feet.”
Gehrman knew for sure he had a winning recipe when his self-described “old-school” pepperoni pizza won the traditional division for the International region at the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas in 2015. “We did really well and that got me into the pizza community and I found out how supportive they are,” he says. “It’s great to bounce ideas off each other, trying to stay creative and keep our audience.”
Gehrman placed second at the Canadian Pizza Summit West in Vancouver in 2023 with his The Club Med featuring Emilios 27 Mediterranean blend of herbs, spices, dates and tomatoes, and slow-braised New Zealand lamb shoulder.
The business employs about 100 people in total. As with any small business, they experience some turnover, but Gehrman feels lucky to have a strong team in place with high standards. He is a hands-on manager – not the kind always looking over your shoulder but the kind who wants to be part of the team and build trust.
“I visit the locations once a week,” he says. “I always ask questions and ask if anyone has comments or concerns. It helps me stay aligned with what’s happening with their location. Even down to the dinner rush and modifications.”
“You get what you give,” he adds. “You need good morale.” Sometimes that means making changes on the fly, as when he switched an employee hired for back of house to front of house. “Now they’re just so much happier.”
“For a good operator or manager, it’s important to be on the floor at least 50 hours a week. It’s a good standard to have. You know your volumes, your velocities and encourages loyalty and retention.”
He also recommends learning employees’ names and giving them the freedom to create a weekend feature special. That is how they developed Dizzy D-Lux and the Hot Sicilian.
“We have a discount program for staff: everyone working a shift gets a free hot meal. I’ve always worked so long and hard in this industry and always tried to sustain myself with good food. I tell our staff, if they’re coming from school or in a rush, we’ll have a meal ready for them. When you’re working, you need to be able to think on the fly. It builds product knowledge as well.”
Gehrman met his partner, Celine Garand, when she lived above the White Rock location. Celine was working with restaurants on White Rock beach. “When she would come in, I would write her notes in her pizza box,” he says with a smile.
The two built the Langley City location and Port Coquitlam central facility together. Gehrman says, “Celine is that great second set of eyes, she’ll help me slow down and bring balance to the occasion. She was always front of house, so I showed her making pizza back of house. She still wants to pursue her own dreams as an artist, but we having fun working together, and she finds the industry rewarding.”
Gehrman, who currently works seven days a week, says he hopes to hire an office assistant and/or a qualified general manager for the Port Coquitlam facility in 2024.
On a related note, he says it’s important to gauge your own mental health. “It’s good to take personal time when it’s available,” he says. “I’m not always on the floor, I work about three to four doubles a week. Celine and I have time together on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. We go to the community market. We try to have a date night at least once a month.”
It’s also key to be aware of your teams’ mental health. “It’s always important to notice if someone seems a little off. Sometimes you just have to be that support for your teams.”
Gehrman believes in growing the business in a measured way. “I don’t like to rush things. I see some other businesses expanding quickly and sometimes have to close or have quality or operational issues. If you don’t have good policy, things can really fall apart.”
The Langley City location is a great example of how the business has grown in a thoughtful way that involves and reflects the community. They purchased another pizzeria, gutted it and acquired an oven. “It used to be a farmhouse. We painted it yellow and I had some buddies who are local graffiti artists, they decorated the outside with awesome pizza topping characters.”
Of the new Port Moody location, he says: “When you’re working with a tight budget you have to be creative. Mitchell Fetter and Robbie Stewart primarily funded that location and I project-managed the it. The other part of the company that sells equipment, Emilio Finatti Food Services Inc. – that helps us with our expansion.”
They are planning to open a fifth location next year and are actively scouting. “We like to have them no more than 10 or 15 kilometres from each other. We start getting a demand for new territory over time. It’s an effective model for us. Now we’re in a bit more of a position to strategize. We’re looking to actually have a structure and build out a model floor plan for efficiency and continuity.”
Gehrman points to the resources and grants available through Business Development Bank of Canada. “I can’t say enough about how rewarding it is – as long as you’re willing to put in the work.”
“When people tell me they’re celebrating something special – an occasion, a comfort meal, a cheat meal – and we can be there for that, that’s amazing! As a chef, it’s just overwhelming and it’s so nice to have that support and acknowledgment.”
We can’t wait to see what the pizzapreneur does next!
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