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Originally published on Capital Daily .
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Since 1979, Pagliacci’s Restaurant has been a home of hearty meals and laughter-filled conversations. Even as construction adds new buildings and shopping centres to the downtown skyline, and the proliferation of ordering online increases, Pagliacci’s has stood the test of time.
How do they do it?
Well, for starters, by taking the perspective of the customer.
That mantra stems from Howie Siegel, one of the original owners of Pagliacci’s, who never originally intended on opening a restaurant—he just wanted to afford to eat in one.
Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, Siegel moved to Victoria in 1979 when a friend got him a job at a local radio station. Siegel’s friend, Alan Di Fiore, was the one who dreamed of opening an Italian-family restaurant. So, the two partnered together and started Pagliacci’s, using recipes from Di Fiore’s mother.
“We’re still using her recipes,” Siegel said. “It’s what made us—her red sauce, focaccia bread, lemon dill yogurt dressing, these things were unknown to Victoria.”
The original staff of Pagliacci’s included Siegel and his brother, David, their partners at the time, along with Di Fiore and his wife and mother.
Siegel remembers that they made $163 their first day in business, but as word of mouth started to spread about the restaurant, he says, folks were interested in Pagliacci’s menu that featured cappuccinos, home-made bread and cheesecakes.
The restaurant has become an institution in downtown Victoria, decades later, and fiercely loyal customers will defend it to the last. When CBC Radio host Gregor Craigie made the mistake of pronouncing the silent “g” this winter, he received dozens of calls—from people who took issue with the mispronunciation as well as some who were equally misled—and the “g” became an issue of public discussion.
Among the reasons for their original success was Pagliacci’s promise to bring a fresh energy to the Victoria restaurant scene. Rather than worrying about the dollar amount of a meal, Siegel’s first priority was to ensure you left the restaurant satisfied.
“I took the point of view of the diner, I wasn’t a restaurant owner who was squeezing the profit out of the soup. I wanted to please you, I wanted you to love the soup, and then talk about the price,” he said.
“It was fun, I was making money for the first time in my life.”
Family addition, and transition
When Solomon Siegel, Howie’s son, took over the restaurant in 2014 his uncle David was so nervous that he avoided coming into Pagliacci’s at all.
Howie and David were looking for new management to run the restaurant as they approached retirement, and Solomon wasn’t working at the time. He just left his previous job, and briefly started his own restaurant, Solomon’s, before closing it a few years earlier. As his father searched far and wide across the city for a new boss, he hinted interest in running the family shop.
“My dad said, ‘We need a new general manager for Pagliacci’s, do you know anybody?’” Solomon said.
“I said, you know, I don’t have a job right now, and I know how to do that. He said, ‘You sure you know how?’”
Solomon’s first memory of working at Pagliacci’s was when he was three years old, standing behind the bar eating maraschino cherries while his dad served drinks. He started working weekends at the age of 10, and admits he had a bad temper as a kid.
Solomon would argue a lot, rub some the wrong way, and both Howie and David feared he would ruin the welcoming, customer-first, atmosphere they had been building for years. While they knew he was passionate about the restaurant industry, they also worried he would make the staff miserable.
“When I was 17 I thought I knew everything and tried to order everyone around; I didn’t get how to be a leader,” Solomon said.
Opposed to when he was a hot-headed teenager, when he started in 2014, Solomon was a father and significantly matured.
“I think after a little while, when they would come back, [Howie and David] were nervous at first because they knew it wasn’t going to be fun if they had to fire me,” Solomon said.
“When they saw how I was running the place they got more relaxed.”
Sustaining success: “I always think of it like surgery”
As he began as general manager, Solomon took it upon himself not to reinvent Pagliacci’s, but to figure out its core elements and what he can afford to experiment on without ruining customer favourites—the pasta, bread, and cheesecake—that had kept them coming back for years.
“If you’re a surgeon, you have to look at what is the life-giving, sustainable flesh and what is the chronic stuff that causes the issues,” he said.
“The Hemingway Short Story, our best selling pasta, arguably you could go, ‘I want to use this cheese instead of that one, I want to put Cayenne pepper,’ but if I change the hair on that thing’s head, the city would lynch me.”
It’s a fine balance between slowly integrating new options, and coming up with what to keep.
One of Solomon’s first moves as general manager was to redo Pagliacci’s wine menu. No one was coming to the restaurant for their wine, he thought, and decided that could be an avenue to increase profit. He added a range of offerings, including a mix of high quality wine and cheaper options that comprised most of their previous collection, and it worked—customers were happy, while the new offerings brought in more money.
“Even though you’ll still get somebody going, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re changing anything,’ I think that if you don’t change the stuff that is not truly life-giving, not core to the personality of the place, it’ll end up infecting everything else,” Solomon said.
On the other hand, he did the math on their cheesecakes—which are served in big slices and made in-house—and found that they made no money off them. That is a losing proposition he was willing to afford, especially, he said, when their competitors offer desserts at similar prices for half the size of what Pagliacci’s serves.
“You go, well I can’t alter what we’ve been doing, so I’m not going to mess with that,” he said.
“The desserts are not going to be the thing that makes us a ton of money, because I’m not going to cheap out on the ingredients… and I all of a sudden don’t want to give a guest a smaller size.”
When asked about the key to Pagliacci’s success, Howie said it’s all about trusting people.
It may have taken some time for him to see Solomon mature and grow up into both the restaurateur and business person he is today, but that journey was all a part of his learning process.
“He opened his own place, he had his struggles working for somebody else,” Howie said.
“He became more of a realist when he grew up, and he was ready to take over.”
The Brief: Solomon Siegel
Capital Daily: What does Victoria need to make it easier to run a business here?
Solomon Siegel: To run business in general, we need everyone to get vaccinated so we can have herd immunity and get back to work.
What worries you most about your business?
I remain the most worried about my guests’ experience. I worry that every one of my guests has a truly wonderful experience, and that’s the majority of what keeps me up. Not the macro stuff, we’re an old business and doing fine, I feel confident in our ability to move forward.
But I do worry about missing an individual guest, and anyone leaving here without feeling like we care about their happiness. That’s what I spend a lot of my time on, I care about the tiny percentage of people that are unhappy.
What excites you the most about your business?
I was raised where feeding people was how you showed that you cared about them. My grandmother, her way of loving us, I’d go over and visit her in LA and she’d wake up out of bed every hour if I was watching TV at night and offer to make me a sandwich. Because it was her way of showing that she loved me.
I get most excited that Pagliacci’s is still about food, wine, drinks, music, and laughter. Those are big values for me, and I get to make a living sharing those things with my guests is constantly exciting.
What other local company or business leader do you look to for guidance?
I look to my father and the memory of my uncle first and foremost, they’re always my archetype for moving forward. The first person I would usually call in the hospitality world in Victoria is Shawn Soole.
If you had to run another business in town, what would it be and why?
If I was going to magically create something I’d think I’d create a jazz bar.
If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest it?
I’d probably be looking at more property.
How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?
In general, I stay inspired through a sense of love of what I do. I care deeply about food and drinks, I care about music, and making those things beautiful.
[But] I care about happiness above all, the idea that, hopefully, Pagliacci’s is a beacon where people can come and feel cared about, welcome, feel joy, and those amazing moments that we’ve all experienced—at least once in our lives, hopefully—of going out and having a great, meal, listening to beautiful music, and having fun. If we’re something that generates that, those beautiful human moments, then I think it’s kind of God’s work.
What is the first thing you’ll do when we can all stop with pandemic protocol?
Hire the live music back.
What do you consider your biggest failure, and how did you overcome it?
I guess my biggest failure has to be Solomon’s, which was my own place that I owned directly. It closed after 18 months. My dad liked to remind me, and I loved the quote too, that Bob Dylan said, ‘there is no success like failure.’
I overcame it by going, ‘well the business failed, but it was the birthplace of modern bartending in Victoria.’ It inspired so many other bartenders to create the amazing drink culture that we have now. I learned so much about how not to run a business. My master’s degree in how to run a business was failing with one. I’m a high school dropout, so my schooling was really opening and closing a business, and it cost about as much as a degree.
_What do you wish you knew before taking over from your uncle and father?
I wish I fully realized how clever they were. Even though you look up to your father and uncle, sometimes from afar you wonder why they trust that person or do things that way. So often, I had these moments with both of them [where I saw] the depths of their vision was much more so than they even realized.