When customers see Paul Petronella at Paulie's, the restaurant started by his parents that he's been running for the past four years, he's usually behind the line wearing a chef's jacket expediting orders. Yet, in his role as the restaurant's owner, Petronella has transformed the front of the house experience, too. First, he turned over the entire staff after instituting a coffee program and hiring baristas to run it. Then, he diversified his menu offerings by partnering with food truck the Eatsie Boys for ice cream and gelato. Recently, Paulie's gained positive press for making all the restaurant's pasta in house and adding three new dishes created by Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan of the upcoming restaurant The Pass and The Provisions. Petronella spoke to Eater about how he transformed Paulie's and made it a favorite among restaurant industry types who appreciate its high quality at reasonable prices.
How do you divide your time between the front and back of the house?
I do spend most of my time in the back of the house, but they way we're set up I can watch the front of the house. I can always see what's going on. I can control the crowd from the kitchen. If I see someone standing at the counter, I can call one of the baristas over and ask “has this gentlemen in the blue been helped?”
I direct the front of the house as I work in the kitchen. That's simply because of the way the kitchen is set up. I don't recommend that to anyone else. It's the advantage I have. I can see a lot from where I am.
You've transformed the service staff over the past year or so. What motivated you to do that?
It was a very slow process. I think it was over two years, maybe longer. The staff I inherited ... was kind of lazy, rude – the exact opposite of what I was looking for up front. At the same time we introduced the coffee program, and I needed a barista to run that.
I really love the lifestyle and culture of baristas, because they're smart and kind of nerdy. Which I like, because it means they want to learn. I can trust that kind of person. I feel comfortable with those guys up front running the show themselves. If they have a major problem, they get me out of the kitchen. Otherwise, I let them handle it.
Now it's a restaurant run by baristas in the front. Which is amazing to me. It's what I've always wanted. You really can't just put anyone on that espresso machine. It has to be someone who knows what they're doing. That's always been a source of frustration I want everyone back there to be able to jump on the machine and pull a great shot. We're getting really close to that.
It feels like the restaurant is more crowded these days.
We've definitely increased sales across the board. There's no doubt about that. Besides making all of our own pastas, I can't really touch the menu very often, even the specials, because we have such a demand for those. I haven't really changed the menu. I've given it more attention [by] making sure things are fresher, coming off the grill at a better temperature, [serving the] bread toasted. Small things that make the items much better.
How have the front of house changes affected sales?
Professional baristas are aware of their customer service skills. It's part of their training. I want someone who's proud to be working here, proud of the product we're selling and able to sell it with confidence.
What are the challenges associated with a counter service model instead of servers?
You really only have one opportunity to make a good impression on people. It's that moment when they order. [After the customers] take their drinks and pager away, you really may not see them again. A server has several opportunities to make up for a screw up at the beginning. By the end, [customers] may leave liking him. These guys only have one opportunity to be cordial and friendly. I tell them you have one chance to make someone happy.
How did you start collaborting with other chefs?
It was all a benefit to my personal time. I used to make my own gelato, but for me to stop and check on it and get the batch made was a lot. I just called Matt [Marcus, of the Eatsie Boys] one day and asked, do you guys sell to restaurants? Are you interested at all? I'm willing to pay for it. I'm tired of running myself ragged. You guys have better equipment. I was willing to pay for that so I could focus on other business aspects.
Seth and Terrence was pretty much the same thing. I knew Seth and Terrence didn't have a full time job. That they were living off consulting. I wanted to make pastas but didn't have the time to play with recipes and ratios. Not that it's that difficult, but it's kind of a hurdle to start. You really can't leave it alone util you get it. I got the machine and told them to play with it. I'll pay you. I want to help you out and I want you to help me out.
How has the fresh pasta been received?
Our customers have been very open. [Sometimes] people don't like change. The last thing I want to do is piss off people that have been coming here for 14 years. You have to be real slow and subtle about it.
Seth and Terrence developed some very ambitious menu items and also some [that were more] approachable. They were all delicious. I just thought [the three I selected] were approachable and delicious. [Also] easy for our kitchen to reproduce without me watching them all the time. I've ordered a bigger pasta machine. We've maxed ours out. The one I have now makes 18lbs per hour, which isn't enough. We've upgraded to 40lbs per hour. Twice the size, and it has its own water cooling system. You can run it all day long.
You seem to attract a lot of customers from within the restaurant industry. What does that mean to you?
It means a lot to me. It means a lot to me that they really want to eat here. That's who I'm out to impress. Their opinions really matter to me. They know what it takes. For them to respect me like that really means a lot. I grew up in the industry. We get each other. We understand each other's schedules. It's an unspoken bond.
What does the future hold?
I want to succeed and I want to fill these tables. There's also a point where we can get too busy. If people have to wait 25, 30 minutes for their food. That's bad and I don't want that. I want to fly under the radar. I like to keep it reasonable. We have a small kitchen. If we were any bigger, I don't think our kitchen could handle it. I know our capacity.
· Paulie's Restaurant [Official Site]
· Paulie's ups its game with house-made pastas [29-95]
· All The Gatekeepers on Eater Houston [-EHOU-]
Paul Petronella at last weekend's OKRA fundraier. [Betheny Quillin]