One of my buddies recently suggested that I write a column about an accountant who invested a fortune in a pizzeria.
The idea reminded me of my obsession of a few years ago to open up a hot dog stand. My wife headed off that mistake-in-the-making.
But I was hooked on the accountant’s story. Here was another entrepreneur with too much money and not enough good ideas of what to do with it.
My appetite was heightened when I heard that he installed some specialized, super-duper pizza ovens. The tale gets even better: There are at least six pizza shops within, oh, 300 yards of his, and Washington is full of popular pizza places — 2Amys, Comet Ping Pong, Mia’s, Matchbox and Pete’s, to name just a few.
Then I got him on the phone.
Tiger Mullen, 56, is a self-described pizza nut, but he did not come to this idea lightly.
He approached it with the same mission-driven thoroughness that a private-equity dealmaker brings to a $100 million decision to buy a company. For example, before opening his restaurant, Haven Pizzeria Napoletana, the Pittsburgh area native:
●Visited the Barnes & Noble at Tysons Corner and bought books on breadmaking, pizza making and brick-oven construction.
●Hit up the bakers at Whole Foods for a slice of fresh baker’s yeast so he could make pizza dough. Then kept going back.
●Nearly burned down his house when he used his oven’s cleaning cycle in pursuit of a higher temperature to bake his pizza.
●Found a Michigan inventor who built him a propane-fired portable oven that was shipped to Mullen in pieces via United Parcel Service.
●Hooked the portable oven up to a natural gas line in his house to bypass the propane.
●Baked homemade pizza six nights a week for 18 months as he hunted for the perfect recipe, experimenting with different doughs, flours, temperatures, yeasts and toppings.
●Tested his recipe during a seven-hour pizza marathon at a Christmas-break family reunion, baking 60 pizzas for about 60 people
●Scouted 50 potential pizzeria locations throughout the Washington area with a commercial real estate broker before picking a former oriental rug store in Bethesda. The deciding factor: a rear entrance yards away from a Montgomery County parking lot.
●Walked the parking lot to count the spaces (326).
●Found two investors who bought a minority share.
●Interviewed 63 pizzaioli (pizza chefs) he found on Craigslist in Rhode Island, New Haven, Conn., and New York.
●Shelled out $400,000 for two custom-made, 12-by-12 coal-fired Italian bread ovens that weigh 100,000 pounds each.
I concluded that this was no whimsical pursuit, and I was no longer surprised once he told me his background.
Mullen grew up in Oakmont, Pa., where his father was an investor in Pittsburgh area commercial real estate and several national businesses, including Bryant & Stratton for-profit colleges.
One of seven children, Mullen started his own landscaping business when he was 11. As a teenager, he painted houses; by 16, he was the general manager of a local carwash.
Mullen graduated from George Washington University with a degree in accounting in 1979 and spent four years working for what is now Ernst & Young. He dabbled in the apparel industry before starting his own boutique accounting practice, specializing in real estate. He has about 30 clients, some of which are the biggest real estate players in the area.
His love affair with pizza began at age 4, when he started spending summers with his grandparents in Branford, Conn. A couple of times a week, the whole brood would troop over to New Haven for pizza at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.
“If you are going to do coal-oven pizza,” he said, “that’s the mecca.”
Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Arturo’s on Houston Street in New York also had a big influence. But Mullen visited several dozen pizzerias as part of his research — and because he loves pizza.
The catalyst came in 2007, when visiting a brother in New York. They decided to drive two hours for a pilgrimage to Pepe’s. Mullen couldn’t get the pizza out of his mind, and when he returned to Washington, he launched his project.
I asked him why he invested in such a high-risk business as a restaurant — with a flock of competitors within spitting distance. Wouldn’t it be smarter to leave your money in stocks, bonds or real estate?
The entrepreneur did his homework there, too. One of the biggest costs in the restaurant business is food spoilage, but because pizza has relatively few ingredients — most of which are easily preserved — it has high profit margins and is a safer bet than most other restaurants.
Haven Pizzeria Napoletana (he swears the name is not a rip-off of Pepe’s) opened Feb. 15, after more than $1 million invested by Mullen and his partners, including money for 18 special reinforced-steel beams to support the weight of the brick ovens.
The only advertising was a mailing to local residents.
Mullen said the business has a very small amount of debt, which means he put a ton of his own cash into it. His projections call for the business to pay back the investment over three years.
He wouldn’t tell me how many pizzas he has served or the number of customers that have come through, but Haven is turning a small profit and, so far, is ahead of Mullen’s projections.
The next step is to present a consistent quality of food and service, which should boost traffic and revenue. That, in turn, should boost profits.
The restaurant seats 160 and has spacious wooden booths that can fit a big family. The family thing appears to be working.
My wife and I visited on a recent Saturday early evening (we have eaten there twice), and it was packed with families. The wait was 90 minutes.
We left. I wouldn’t wait 90 minutes for a stock tip from Warren Buffett.
For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.