Anthony Falco turned 40 in a white apron, deep in Argentina, working on a Buenos Aires pizzeria’s soft opening for friends and family. It is the third year in a row he has spent his birthday in another country’s kitchen, and 2020 will mark his fourth year under his own self-made job title: “International Pizza Consultant.”
Falco was originally one of the masterminds behind Brooklyn’s Neapolitan institution Roberta’s, but since going independent in 2016, he’s made a living exporting what he’s learned about marinara sauce, air bubbles, and ricotta dollops to anyone who wants to pay for his wisdom. Thus far, Falco tells me he’s taken on about 35 different clients in countries like Brazil, Portugal, and Kuwait. He describes the job as a comprehensive pizza crash course, drawn from a decade’s worth of experience in front of one of the world’s most famous wood-fired ovens.
In practice, that constitutes plenty of technical advice on recipes and pizza ingredients, but also his perspective on finances, staffing, advertising, and the rest of the stuff that builds a sustainable business. While other restaurants, like Goodfellas, offer their own crash courses in pizzeria management, Falco does consider himself to be the No. 1 name in his niche concentration.
Falco has worked with pizza chains with dozens of locations, but just as often, he is hired by small-business owners who’ve been in the food industry for a long time and want his help to bring the pizzeria they always dreamed of into reality. For those clients, Falco might sign a consulting contract that lasts a full calendar year. Some of the most important work he does is providing moral support after the many catastrophes that inevitably befall a fledgling restaurant. After all, Falco admits that he’s made all of those same mistakes before, and he’s living proof that it’s possible to survive them. We talked about that, as well as the unique challenges faced by pizzerias in disadvantaged economies, and why the most important investment any aspiring pizza baron can make is a good oven.
So how did you come up with the idea of being a pizza consultant after leaving Roberta’s?
I had no plan. I had no idea I was leaving Roberta’s. It felt pretty accidental. I had my head down, I was working there for about nine years, and I went to LA when there was a change in direction, and basically I got fired. The partnership had broken up, and I was collateral damage. So I was in my car, with a pizza oven, in Los Angeles, so I left the pizza oven on the street and I drove back to Brooklyn with no plan, really.
Actually, the first thing I did was go to Silicon Valley, where I had a job interview right away with a company that wanted to build pizza robots. But there was something in me that was saying, “Get the hell out of here.” I made an Instagram post that said, “Hey, I worked at Roberta’s for 10 years, and if you need a consultant, let me know.” I got a huge response from that. There was a company in Brazil that had a project that they thought I’d be a good fit for. I flew down there within the first couple of months and signed a consulting gig with them, and I changed my Instagram to “International Pizza Consultant.” It had a nice ring to it.
What’s your daily routine like?
I have a home office here in Brooklyn, so when I’m not on the road, I’m there. I drop the kids off at school, have some breakfast, and I do a lot of my work remotely. I want to be involved in my clients long-term. The thing I’m most proud of is the continued success and growth of my clients, and establishing long-term relationships with them. So I’ll check my email, and I’ll do development and rescues. Currently I have a project that’s about to open in Denver, and the troubleshooting is kinda unique because of the altitude and the lack of humidity. There’s texting going on constantly. There’s this conception that this job is just taking Roberta’s and exporting elsewhere, but there’s not been two clients that have been exactly alike.
It sounds like you get pretty granular with each business you take on.
Yeah, I’ve been fired from other jobs before, and I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s because I have very little filter. That works great as a consultant. I don’t bullshit people at all. When you have a client, they know they’re getting real feedback.
The other part is I do a lot of research. I’ll find out the background of the city. One of the projects I did this year was in Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires has this huge Italian population, but my client wanted to do something completely different from Buenos Aires-style pizza. The logistics are tough. Just like, how do we get the ingredients, how do we leverage the best local ingredients? That’s tough in Buenos Aires; the economy is so rough that importing ingredients is out of the question. It’s a lot of different things every day, and that’s one of the reasons I really like this job.
When you’re in the heat of that process with someone getting a pizzeria off the ground, do you ever feel like you’re back at Roberta’s 10 years ago when the restaurant was just getting started? Does being a pizza consultant ever feel like you’re opening dozens of restaurants every year?
Yeah, opening a restaurant is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It’s a very stressful thing, and it’s very hectic, and part of my job is just to stay grounded when things go to hell. A value I give to my clients is the amount of things I’ve screwed up myself, or have seen screwed up. We have years and years of mistakes, and I’m able to give them little tricks to avoid them.
Here’s an example. When you install a mixer, there’s a 50/50 chance that it’s spinning the right way or the wrong way. If it’s spinning the wrong way, the dough will come spitting out, and you’ll have no idea why. The people selling you the mixer never seem to tell you that. Dough is the hardest part about making pizza, and that’s the kind of thing I’ve spent the last 14 years trying to figure out.
How much attention is focused on a pizza recipe with a client, versus other stuff like staffing, social media, advertising, or pricing?
It depends on the client. Some clients, like my client in Brazil, have a huge company with 40 restaurants. They’re very, very good at a lot of things. They know specifically the things they want out of me. They like to include me in the branding, I’ve done some graphic design for them, I did a mural down there for one of their locations. But then I did a place in Iowa, and it was this guy’s first restaurant he’s opened himself. So, we did everything from kitchen layouts and equipment selection to moral support. Pep talks. He’s been incredibly successful, it’s doing great.
I think that’s why this has caught on. When we opened Roberta’s there wasn’t Instagram. There wasn’t instant food reporting. We were still figuring things out after we opened. Nowadays, you gotta have that shit figured out on day one. People are going to come in and start judging you and start taking pictures of everything, so owners really feel the pressure to have the best possible product as soon as they open their doors.
What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had doing this job?
I was in Lisbon working on a pizzeria, and one of the things I get excited about is local ingredients and learning about the whole process and how everything I use is made. I flew in, and this was the end of a nine-week trip where I’ve gone from Argentina to Brazil to Chicago to Canada, just a crazy string of opening pizzerias. I dropped off my stuff at the hotel, and the chef took me to this 300-plus-year-old mill. It started as a windmill, and now the guy whose family owned it has a modern mill built around it. He showed us how the windmill works, and how milling flour was a central part of the community, and then he took us into his artisanal flour operation where he had robots working. That was one of my highlights of the year.
If you were going to name one major rookie mistake to avoid when opening a pizzeria, what would that be?
The oven that you pick is very important. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Spend your money correctly on high-quality stuff and you’re going to pay less in the long run. It’s going to be less of a pain in the ass. Get good stuff.
How much does it cost to hire your services?
It varies, but I think my rates are pretty competitive. If you’re talking a year-long process, and we’re designing the kitchen from the ground up, and I’m spending multiple days on the ground there training and giving you months of support afterward, that averages around $15,000. I think that’s a better value than hiring a PR firm, because we’re talking about real results rather than just talking about it.
Are there moments where you bring on a client and you’re like, “Oh man, this guy’s in over his head.” Do you feel the existential terror of working with someone who might not be ready to run a restaurant?
I think part of my success as a consultant is being choosy. If someone is like, “Hey, I’m a school teacher, there’s this place for rent, and I want to come in on the weekends, I have these kids I’m going to hire, and I don’t have any restaurant experience,” I’m like, no. The people I work with are all experienced restaurant operators. They know the business, they know what they want, and we’re all there to do the same thing. I’ve had a really great string of clients. It can be unbelievably stressful. Every once in a while, I want to get out of there, but it always works out. We grow together in those stressful moments.
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