What does computer software share in common with pizza and gelato? Nothing at first glance, but a closer look reveals their mutual keys to success.
When Samantha and Greg Hathorn left their jobs at a thriving software company to open a pizzeria/gelateria in downtown Huntsville, Alabama, they brought the neighborhood more than just their favorite two tastes of Italy.
With the 2007 launch of their Good Company, the husband-and-wife small-business partners were taking a chance on the declining downtown square.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” Greg Hathorn said. “I don’t think I had any gray hair when I started this journey.”
“They dared us to open at night,” Sam added. “They were like, ‘You’re not going to get any business!’”
Over a decade later, Sam and Greg’s Pizzeria/Gelateria not only forms the centerpiece of the now-developed entertainment district, it stands out as a unique family destination in an area catering predominantly to nightlife.
“We still are basically the only family focused – kids and parents – place on the square,” Greg said. “You can’t really bring your kids into any of these other places, but they want to come here.”
The venture has become so successful that the Hathorns recently opened a second location, which they say will adhere not only to their menu’s recipes, but to the operational ingredients that have proven their worth countless times since the first location opened.
“Have formal processes, and say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be and don’t change it, unless we all talk about it.’ That’s something I knew from the software business,” said Greg.
Another lesson from his previous career: the heart should always follow the head.
“We see, from those experiences, and our experience in the software business, that you have to keep your passion for whatever it is you’re doing in check and in balance with the fact that it’s a business,” he explained. “‘Gee, I would love to open a restaurant because I love to cook!’ That’s a far cry different than running a business.”
While not allowing the heart to govern business decisions, the Hathorns do admit to opening their hearts in appreciation for their staff.
“It is like an extended family, and we wanted it to be that way,” Sam said. “We wanted our staff to feel comfortable. We don’t want it to be a drudge for them to work.”
“We have a lot of respect for our staff because the service industry is difficult,” added Greg.
As difficult as the industry is in the best of times, the Hathorns rose to meet the further challenges they faced in the wake of the pandemic.
“Here we are with 250-plus seats,” Greg said. “We’re not designed to be a takeout place. With this square footage, that won’t cover the mortgage payment. When we were shut down, as everyone else was, we just flipped the business inside-out. I bought big iPad Pros, put them in the kitchens in both restaurants and implemented a texting service, and then we put people on the curb with walkie-talkies to do pickup on the curb.”
It was in response to the pandemic that Greg’s skills as a software engineer were best put to use, integrating the restaurant’s online ordering and point-of-sale systems.
“We did the software work to integrate the two,” he said. “All the reporting, all the management reporting for all of these different diverse ways of getting business in, has all been consolidated and distilled into one management report, and that’s power.”
Greg also noted that the power is scalable. Now with a prosperous second location, the Hathorns remain open to possibilities for future growth.
“It’s repeatable,” Greg said. “It’s all automated. From that standpoint, if somebody were out looking for the next concept, I’d entertain it.”
Regardless of their plans for expansion, as Sam and Greg Hathorn look to the future, the couple continues to apply a software engineer’s approach: refining for efficiency, finding and fixing flaws, and relentlessly pursuing excellence.
“I’m constantly on edge about it and constantly turning it over in my head: where are there any weak points and what can we improve?” Greg said, “but I’m settling down in that regard. We’ve now gotten past – knock on wood – COVID, so I think we’re in a good position.”