Paulie Gee & The Brotherhood of Pizza Entrepreneurs: How One Man’s Passion Inspired a Nationwide Ethos
This story was originally published in five installments at Greenpointers.com
Part I: No More Takeout
To live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn is to know Paulie Gee’s pizzeria. Since the restaurant first opened on Greenpoint Avenue in 2010, Paulie Gee’s became first a neighborhood institution, then a dining destination, and now an ethos unto itself, captained by none other than Paul Giannone himself (a.k.a. “Paulie Gee”).
Dining at Paulie Gee’s is truly an experience, if you can get in. Like many Brooklyn institutions, Paulie Gee’s does not take reservations. These days a line will form as early as 4pm for a table on the weekends. After 8pm? Fuggetaboutit. But if you do manage to get in, entering the restaurant is like entering a rustic pizza palace, a candle-lit cathedral of pie.
Built out by the prolific, award-winning Evan and Oliver Haslegrave brothers of design shop hOmE Studios, Paulie Gee’s interior is a patchwork of exposed brick and patterned wood walls with a small, elevated bar at the entrance before an expansive great room hosting a collection of bespoke, wooden dining tables and a bricolage of seats and chairs. The high ceilings allow for a shallow shelf on which sits a collection of household table lamps with a variety of lampshades. Paired with the table candles, Paulie Gee’s dining room glows warm and welcoming as the custom-built Stefano Ferrara brick pizza oven watches over everything from its perch in the back of the restaurant.
And like any pizzeria, that oven, orange flames peaking out the opening, is the life-source of the restaurant. An investment unto itself, the oven was imported from Italy and meticulously installed.
Inevitably, while dining at Paulie Gee’s, enjoying his rotating repertoire of unique and original pies like The Hellboy, Ricky Ricotta, or Anise and Anephew, Paulie Gee will shuffle up to your table. Wearing thick black frame glasses, a ball cap from another pizzeria — he collects them — and an open flannel over a T-shirt, Paulie Gee holds a to-go coffee from Oslo Coffee and speaks in a mild Brooklyn bravado, tinged with a jovial cadence, something like Martin Scorsese meets Woody Allen.
“Are you enjoying your pizza?” Paulie asks, somehow both sheepish and proud. He genuinely wants to know.
In all the years, as all my friends can also testify, we’ve never eaten at Paulie Gee’s without Paulie stopping by our table. In fact, one date night with my girlfriend we decided to order three pies so that we would have leftovers for the next day and Paulie came by with a bottle of Limoncello and three glasses, saying, “We have to have a drink every time someone orders more pizzas than heads at the table.”
Paulie truly loves his customers.
“When I opened the place,” Paulie says, “I knew I was running it in a way that required me to be here. And I believed that I needed to be here. And I knew I was giving up the opportunity for growth by doing that. But I was just happy to be able to have my own place, one place, no problem…”
And yet, as the pizzeria grew more and more popular, a small problem did arise: Take out. “I never liked what a pizza box would do to take out, ya know,” says Paulie. At first he didn’t do anything about it, even though the take out was beginning to impact the service, especially on a busy night: “You come here,” Paulie says. “‘Oh, how long is the wait?’ ‘An hour and a half.’ ‘Ok, ok, can I get take out?’ ‘Oh yeah, sure!’
“So now you have people sitting here, they wind up waiting longer for their pies because we’re trying to slip in the take out, then you have the people out front waiting longer for their table, and for what? People were going home. Were they drinking my beer? Were they drinking my wine? No. They were drinking the beer from the bodega. Did I get to sit and talk with them, chat with them, whatever… No.
“I didn’t do anything about it at first and it got to the point where we were making enough money that I could afford to take the hit for a little while, thinking I would make it back in other ways: more people coming in at dinner time during the week, perhaps drinking our wine and beer… and that didn’t happen! But I really felt good about doing that, I really did.”
Paulie Gee’s discontinued take out in October, 2014 and ultimately, Paulie was “leaving a lot of money on the table,” but the integrity of the pizza pie came first. “Everything else was secondary,” says Paulie.
“I want people to enjoy it fresh out of the oven and I want people to enjoy the experience. And people weren’t enjoying the experience nearly as much because of the take out,” Paulie says. “The last straw was interesting: one Saturday afternoon I saw somebody with seven pies to go. I was curious, so, ‘What’s going on? You got a party?’ ‘Oh no, I work for Postmates.’ ‘Oh… Postmates?! So, um… where you going with those pies?’ He’s on a bicycle. ‘Stuyvesant town.’ ‘Ok… you going by helicopter?’
“I said, these pies are going to be totally ruined. They’re ruined in ten minutes. Forget about going all the way to Stuyvesant Town on a bike. And I was really upset about that… Some people would say, ‘I just want to take it to the park,’’’ Paulie says with a shrug. “Ya know, I wanted to accommodate them but it’s a slippery slope, and I had to stand my ground on that. So I got this idea: well, why not open up a slice joint?”
And that’s when Paulie began his quest to find a space to open a pizza-by-the-slice restaurant. The search started as a conversation with the owner at Franklin’s Pizza, just around the corner from Paulie Gee’s. “I didn’t even know that the place was for sale,” says Paulie. ”I went up to him and, ya know, I kinda asked him, ‘I’m sure you’re doing very well, I’m sure you’re very happy, but if, ya know, if you’re ever thinking about moving on, please let me know.’”
But that deal just wasn’t moving forward. “He basically strung me out for at least half a year,” Paulie admits. “So finally I said to him, I said, ‘Look, you wanna do this? I would pay you X amount of money in key money and, ya know, this would be it.’ ‘Argh, I gotta get back to you…’ ‘Look, if you don’t do this, I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna find another space nearby here and quite frankly it’s going to hurt your business.’ And he wouldn’t budge. But at that point I was determined. I saw, ya know, the neighborhood is blowing up, there’s a need for it here, there’s a demand for it… I have people.”
One of those people is Andrew Brown. “Drew Brown if you’re his friend,” Paulie adds. “Andrew Brown if you’re, ya know, his boss. “
Andrew Brown has been making pizzas at Paulie Gee’s for “a couple of years now,” and initially came to work for Paulie because he wanted to open up his own pizzeria.
“Ya know, he’s the one who wanted to do this slice shop with me,” Paulie explains. “And once I knew I wanted to do this, I started picking the brains of different people. The first person I talked to was Frank [Pinello] at Best Pizza.”
Paulie had previously sent some consulting business to Frank: “a couple of guys from Toronto, a guy in LA who wanted to do New York style pizza, a guy in England,” Paulie says. “And I think Frank helped all three of them.”
But when Paulie went to Frank for advice and direction on opening up a slice shop, “He kinda scared the shit out of me,” Paulie says. “Made me think, ya know, it’s really rough and I was trying to get ideas about how you go about different things and he kinda questioned what I was doing, so, I didn’t feel really good about what I was doing when I walked away from there.”
But Andrew was still very much excited about the idea. And encouraged Paulie.
“I said, ya know, Andrew, after talking with Frank I’m kinda, ya know, uh… I don’t have a real good feeling about this, I have to focus getting our other locations opened.” Paulie says. “And he said, ‘You don’t worry about anything. We’re gonna do this, I got it covered. You don’t have to worry about anything.’ Because he has a real passion for doing this. And in about 15 minutes he turned my head around.”
Slightly deterred but ultimately determined, Paulie kept looking for spaces: a small place just like Franklin Pizza was all he wanted but he couldn’t find it. And then he saw 110 Franklin Street at the corner of Noble Street, just two and a half blocks from Paulie Gee’s pizzeria. “I could’ve taken the back or the front,” Paulie says. “They really wanted to break it up. They said, ‘If you want it, you really gotta take the back.’ I wanted the front, not the back.” Paulie pauses and finishes with a shrug, saying, “Finally I just said, ‘Ya know what, I’ll take the whole thing.’”
But it felt like a bit of a risk, the space was just too big. It’s a great corner space with visibility, “Where ya wanna be,” and Paulie talked with Mike from Mike’s Hot Honey about doing something in the space, but that didn’t work out. He talked to “a number” of ice cream places but they weren’t interested. And then Red Star, the sports bar on Greenpoint and West, rebranded as a Brazilian steakhouse so Paulie saw the potential need for a sports bar in the neighborhood. Thinking he could do pizza in the front and a sports bar in the back, Paulie signed a lease on the whole space. “And now the Brazilian steakhouse or whatever it was is going back to being a sports bar,” says Paulie. “But that’s ok, as he just said to me yesterday, there’s room in the neighborhood for everybody.”
Paulie’s vision for this new venture is to open an old school New York slice joint. “I like to keep things simple,” he says. “I don’t try to reinvent the wheel or whatever.”
Referring to The New York Pizza Project book, and paying homage to some of his favorite slice shops like Best Pizza, Joe’s, or Prince Street Pizza, Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint’s menu will be fundamental: white pie with garlic and Romano cheese and basil, plain pie, some Mike’s Hot Honey, an upside down square pie, some vegan squares, pepperoni, maybe something different. “I would never put pepperoni on a pizza at Paulie Gee’s,” says Paulie, “but there I would.”
But there’s more to the forthcoming Slice Joint than pizza. Paulie’s vision is to give the place a 1960s vibe and atmosphere, inspired in part by the pizza shops he frequented in Brooklyn or took his children to near their home in New Jersey. “The closest town to me where there’s a slice joint is Martinsville, New Jersey, ok?” asks Paulie. “And we’ve been going there to this slice joint for 30-something years. My kids grew up getting their pizza there, sitting in that place. So I went to talk with the owner, the owner’s son, Jerry, and I started telling him what I was gonna do and I started asking for advice, what do you do about this, what do you do about that, yada yada… and I showed him a picture, I said, ‘Yeah, I want it to be an old school slice joint. I wanna get seats like this,’ and I had taken a picture of Elegante’s Pizzeria in that book The Pizza Project and I showed him these orange bench seats with the tables attached. And he said, ‘I have those!’ I had forgotten that he had remodeled his pizzeria about four years ago maybe, but I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I got six of them’ — he didn’t even know how many he had — he had eight of them. And I said, ‘What do you want for them?’ And he said, ‘Want for them? My wife’s gonna kill me if I don’t get those things out of my garage immediately. I was about to chop them up in a few days!’
So Paulie rented a U-Haul truck for $68 and his son and he went to pick up the orange pizzeria bench seat tables. “I think we made two trips,” Paulie remembers. “It was rough — those things are really heavy, my back hurt for a long time. My son’s back hurt for a day or two, but my back hurt for a long time.”
But these Slice Joint seats, from the 1960s, are not just old school seats. They’re not just antiques. “They’re antiques that my children grew up sitting in,” says Paulie. “And I’m gonna have them in my restaurant. That just blows my mind.”
Paulie also bought a Cornelius JetSpray JT 20 double five-gallon bowl beverage dispenser. “I’m gonna have punch in one and orange in the other,” he says, proudly. “And the things go around and around, we gonna do that. It’s gonna look like a place from the sixties.”
Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint will begin with take out pies and slices and eventually do delivery. Paulie’s also excited about the sports bar in the back: “Thinking of having 18 taps,” he says. “Four or five with wine, cider, and the rest beer. No bottles of wine, just tap.” And soda too, Coca-Cola products, unlike Scarr’s Pizza on Orchard Street, who’s vibe is also very 1960s. “We had the same idea at the same time but his theme is Pepsi,” says Paulie. In fact, Scarr Pimentel gifted Paulie a vintage Coke sign when they last met. “It’s not exactly what I wanted,” says Paulie. “But I think I’m gonna work something out because I like the idea of having that gift and using it.”
Paulie’s currently thinking on more signage for the slice joint while waiting for the landlord to complete the turnover work in the space. “Everybody asks me, ‘When ya gonna open?’” Paul says smugly. “The first thing I ask them is, ‘Have you ever opened up a restaurant before?’ Then they say, ‘No.’ And I say, ‘I can tell. Because if you did, you’d know never to ask that question.’”
But one thing you can rest assured on is that 110 Franklin St. will soon be home to Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint. Or maybe it’ll be called something else? “It’s gonna be Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint,” Paulie insists. “We thought about Slice Spot but that didn’t quite roll… I didn’t want to call it Slice Shop because I also want the name to connote the bar. A sports bar! A joint can be a bar, but a shop can’t be a bar. A spot could be a bar, but I think we’ll go with Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint. Though I reserve the right to change it.”
Part II: The Beginning
After working toward a BFA in Photography from SVA, Paulie Gee moved to Miami but missed New York and came back after just a short stint. “It must have been fate because that’s when I met my wife,” Paulie says. Having seen her on the train a couple of times, he saw her at a bar in Bay Ridge one night. “She was with friends and I said, ‘I know you.’ ‘No you don’t.’ ‘Yes, I do. You take the R train.’”
Proceeding to flirt with all her friends throughout the night, ignoring his future wife, Mary Ann. “Maybe I danced with her once,” Paulie says. “And at the end of the night, her girlfriend shoved her telephone number in my hand. That was basically it. In case she’s reading this, it was November 12th 1976.”
At the time, and through the early 1980s, Paulie Gee was working at the Port Authority in One World Trade Center. “I had an accounting job,” Paulie says. “I had started there in the mailroom, ya know, I had ambitions.”
“And so I wanted to do more, and I thought it would be cool to get into information technology because it was the future. I thought I was a geek because I was fairly good at math, I was in accounting, but that’s math, that’s not geeky. I didn’t realize that.”
So Paulie enrolled in night school and had a split major of information systems and accounting and left the Port Authority for a position at AT&T and eventually the spinoff Lucent Technologies and AVAYA where he worked for 18 years, though he was never quite satisfied. “I wasn’t a geek,” says Paulie. “And I was competing with geeks. I wasn’t getting as far as I liked to. I climbed my way somewhat up the corporate ladder but ya know it wasn’t right.”
Then one day Paulie accepted an offer for an early retirement and decided to work as a consultant. But he couldn’t find an assignment locally and eventually took a 7-week consulting gig in Houston. A week after he arrived there “the planes slammed into the towers and things got very tough,” Paulie says. For a number of years after 2001, Paulie was constantly on the hunt for the next assignment, taking jobs out of town to stay working: Syracuse, Greensboro, Philadelphia… “It was hell,” Paulie says. “There were times where I’d be out of a job for months on end and that wasn’t good, because ya know, we like to live a good life. I knew that my children would not get a chance to go back and be 10 years old again and ski with their father, ok? So I just kept doing what we wanted to do, we’d go out West every year. First with just one son, because the younger one was too young, then we all went out after that. And I figured I’d worry about it later, I’d figure out how to pay those bills. So I had this freight train coming at me, and I had to do something. I also knew I had do something because I wasn’t satisfied. People said I should open a restaurant and I was not interested. It didn’t appeal to me. Number one, it just made my head spin, trying to figure out how to coordinate everything and not throw out tons of food, but it kept gnawing at me, I had to do something.”
Paulie was considering moving his family to “ski country” where he could perhaps run a bed and breakfast when his friend and neighbor Russell approached him with a business proposal: Russell would bank Paulie to open up a franchise location of the breakfast and lunch restaurant Le Peep. “I wouldn’t have to put up any money,” Paulie says. “And I would give him 5% of the gross. Sounded like a great idea. We started looking at spots, thank God we didn’t find one because the more and more I thought about it, ya know, there’s no creativity in this at all. You have to make exactly what they do.”
But this initial consideration, opening up a Le Peep franchise, was what lead Paulie Gee back to one of his original passions: pizza.
“I was a pizza enthusiast,” Paulie says. “I’ve been a pizza enthusiast all my life. But I was a New York-style pizza enthusiast, had all my little favorite spots.” He hadn’t really branched out from the pizza that he knew and loved growing up. In many ways, Paulie was a prime example of the pizza cognition theory, which states that the first slice of pizza a child tastes and truly enjoys becomes for him, what all pizza is and should be. But then Paulie made a trip to Totonno’s pizzeria on Coney Island and discovered “a totally different kind of pizza and I really loved it,” Paulie says. “This pizza enthusiast thing really started blossoming and I started looking, going on pizza tours as a family, our friends would come, trying out four or five different places a day.”
It was then that Paulie chose not to open a Le Peep and decided he wanted to open a pizzeria. “I was emboldened,” Paulie says. “Ya know, a restaurant? That’s complicated. But going to all these pizzerias, I observed that was a lot simpler. It’s all very focused, you do everything the same way. And that emboldened me. It allowed me to be willing to take a risk. Because you gotta take risks in life to make things happen, ok? You can’t sit around, you can’t hope that you’re gonna get free health insurance, or that you’ll be paid forever if you can’t find a job. You can’t hope on any of these things. If you want to have a good life you have to take care of yourself and to do that you gotta take a risk. And I just decided that’s what I was gonna do.”
So Paulie Gee started telling people: sharing his desire and mission to open a pizzeria. He even spoke with some people about building a brick pizza oven at his home in New Jersey, but that was too expensive. “And finally I found free plans on a site called FornoBravo.com and I started doing this and I told my friend Russell, I’m opening up a pizzeria, and I thought he’d go along and was gonna invest in this pizzeria. But it turned out he didn’t really think that was a good idea. But he did have a passion for masonry and he wholeheartedly helped me build that oven and I may not be here without his help. I mean, I did a lot of it, you follow these plans, but, ya know, mixing cement, stuff like that… he was good at that.”
Paulie and his neighbor Russell built a traditional Neapolitan brick pizza oven in his backyard in New Jersey, but this wasn’t a hobby or a means to an end for Paulie to open his own pizzeria. For Paulie, it was much more than that. “Part of the reason I needed to do this was because I needed to show my children what they were made of,” Paulie says. “That you need to go out and do things for yourself, you gotta say you’re gonna do things, and you gotta do them. I said to my son, ya know, when he was 10 years old he said he wanted to be a pilot, and I told him he could do it and I encouraged him. At that point I was building the oven and he was attending the Air Force academy. He followed my words. Now I gotta walk the walk, right? And I had my other son and what did he see? ‘How did I get to be who I am?’ You look at your parents. I wanted my children to look at me, and know that they had something, like… Somebody once said to me, at one of these multi-level marketing conferences, ‘We all have seeds of greatness in us.’ And I wanted to show them how those seeds can become something. And I wanted to show my wife that she made a great decision, ya know, saying yes to me when I asked her to marry me. So those things were motivating me.”
And on Thanksgiving week 2007, with his son home visiting from the Air Force Academy, Paulie pulled the first pies out of his backyard pizza oven.
“There’s two things you need to accomplish things in life,” says Paulie. “A belief and commitment. You need to believe you can do something, because if you don’t really think that the effort you’re putting out is going to get what you want to accomplish, as soon as you run into a roadblock, you’re gonna bounce off it and you’re gonna say, ‘Eh, forget it.’ Why go through all of this if you don’t know that you could do it. You need the belief. The other thing is the commitment. When you start telling people you’re gonna do something, it makes it harder for you not to. You’re doing that for yourself. The belief was making that pie in that oven, but more importantly it was the belief that I saw other people doing it.”
One of Paulie’s inspirations was a man named Mark Iacono, owner of the famed Carroll Gardens pizzeria Lucali, which became an overnight sensation the day it opened in 2006, despite the fact that Iacono, had worked as a granite and marble fabricator for 20 years, had almost no restaurant or cooking experience.
“That gave me the belief that I could do that,” says Paulie. “I owe my life to people like Mark Iacono.” Others who gave Paulie the belief he needed include Mathieu Palombino of Motorino and Stalin Bedon and Tom Grim behind Nomad Pizza in Hopewell, New Jersey. And once Paulie committed, built the oven, and proved to himself that he could actually make a pizza in a wood-burning oven, he said to himself, “Ok, now I gotta work on a dough recipe.”
Part III: Backyard Pizza Tastings
From day one Paulie Gee made his own fresh mozzarella. He also made his own Limoncello. And he kept experimenting with different dough recipes and different types of pies. “I started inviting people over to my house to practice on them,” he says. “I was desperate to get people over to my house so I could try this new pie out and I’d do it about every two weeks.”
Paulie Gee’s pizza tasting parties have since become a legend unto themselves among the pizza enthusiast community: about eight people would gather in Paulie’s backyard, listening to music, enjoying Limoncello, as the pizzas were prepped in the kitchen and fired in the backyard oven. Paulie remembers the tastings fondly, though one difficulty was that with the prep area inside and the oven outside, he couldn’t work the oven and make the pizza. “The oven had to be 1,000 degrees,” Paulie explains. “So I always had to enlist the help of someone else to work the fire. And there were various degrees of success that those people had, mostly based on their attitude, ok? My son was a tremendous oven master. A lot of times people come in, they work the fire, they go sit down and watch the Mets game, usually the Met game, the Yankee fans stay out there and they really work that thing, but Mets fans they go in and sit down. Then I go out with the pizza looking for a hot oven, and ‘Uh-oh!’ So I learned it was Yankee fans that I wanted to have, this is a true story!”
If you couldn’t guess, Paulie Gee is a Yankees fan: pizza enthusiast first, but nonetheless a Yankees fan. And he’s also an avid reader of food blogs, some of which he followed quite closely. “I wanted the bloggers to come to have my pizza,” Paulie says. “But I didn’t want to make them, so I kinda held back. I got this one guy to come, he had this blog called GoodEater.org, and he did this piece on a chili farm in South Africa. He was a graduate student at NYU and went there to help local farmers fight off big agriculture, ya know, survive. And this one guy had a chili farm with a pizza oven on it and he was cooking pizzas for everyone and the blogger said if you know anyone else who has a pizza oven lifestyle let me know. So I wrote him in the comments, ‘Josh, we gotta talk.’ And we went back and forth, I showed him pictures, and then we had a pizza tasting. And really my goal was to get people to come. I would feed them Limoncello on an empty stomach, I’d make pizza for them, eat for free, and, I knew that no one was gonna write anything bad about me, it was my safety zone.”
But someone Paulie wanted to come have his pizza more than anyone else was Adam Kuban, the founder of Slice.com. Luckily, Adam read Josh’s raving review of Paulie’s pizza tasting on GoodEater.org and reposted it on Slice. “And the first paragraph he wrote,” Paulie says. “’Josh scored a pizza tasting at Paulie Gee’s house.’ And I said, ‘Ok, so he’s curious about this.’ And eventually I got him to come.”
The pizza tasting for Adam from Slice was set for Saturday, April, 11th, 2009, the day before Easter, which is also Paulie’s son Michael’s birthday. Naturally, Paulie wanted his best oven master on site for the special tasting so he called Michael at the Air Force Academy and invited him to come home for Easter and his birthday. “Because I wanted that oven hot!” says Paulie. “So I booked him a flight.”
Meanwhile, Paulie Gee had started looking at commercial real estate, scouting potential locations for his pizzeria. Initially, he looked in New Jersey with a man named Dan Richer who had a pizzeria, Arturo’s in Maplewood Village. “We were gonna do something together,” explains Paulie. “And all of a sudden I wanted to be closer to New York and I wasn’t really feeling having a partner. I always knew you don’t want a partner. I’ve heard many guys say, ‘Believe me, you don’t want a partner.’”
Searching on his own, Paulie focused on Jersey City. “I thought it was a great idea,” he says. “My original plan was to keep a safety net, working during the day at my geek job — I was in Parsippany at the time — but it didn’t feel right. Jersey City could’ve been done, I tried to convince myself it was the sixth borough, but I emailed Amanda [Kludt] at Eater: ‘If I were to open up a pizzeria in Jersey City, would you write about me, would you cover it?’ And she said, ‘Eh, probably not.’ So now I’m itching to get into New York City.”
Part IV: Location, Location, Location
Besides the potential for press coverage if Paulie Gee opened his pizzeria in New York City, another benefit was the cost of a liquor license: $140,000 for a license in New Jersey versus $505/year for a beer and wine license in New York City. But of course, Paulie would still need investors. “I own 80% of this place,” says Paulie. “But I do have investors. And a friend of mine, one of my oldest friends really, helped me, and he didn’t even know it at the time. He said, ‘Those investors, they’re gonna wanna know that you’re spending 100% of your time thinking about your restaurant and not your day job. But they wouldn’t mind if you took extra salary to make up for that.’ And that kinda opened up my mind on that. I said, ‘I’m gonna do this, this is great.’ And I started looking in Manhattan a little bit… but Brooklyn was calling me home.”
Paulie Gee grew up in Kensington, around Church and McDonald and then Church and Westminster, close to Korner Pizza, established in 1966. After marrying, he and his wife moved to Sheepshead Bay, but then moved to Warren, New Jersey in 1983 when he began working at AT&T. “I really thought we were leaving Brooklyn behind, going on to bigger and better things,” Paulie says. “But more recently, coming back and seeing what was going on in Brooklyn, food-wise, once I wanted to open up a pizzeria, I felt like Brooklyn was leaving me behind and I had to figure out a way, I just had to…”
Come 2008, Paulie Gee was just enamored with Williamsburg. And he was constantly chatting with other Williamsburg pizzeria owners, picking their brains about how they ran their restaurants. He spoke with Michael Ayoub, the chef at Fornino and he was encouraging. He also spoke a great deal with Mathieu of Motorino who suggested Paulie open up in Park Slope. But Paulie Gee “wasn’t feeling the Park Slope thing.” Paulie wanted to do something like Roberta’s, something for locals in a young, up and coming neighborhood, and for him that meant opening up in Williamsburg. For a while he was infatuated with a space at 138 N. 8th Street.
“It would’ve been perfect,” Paulie says. “The rent was twice what I wound up paying in Greenpoint, more than twice. I tried to convince them to lower the rent, but ‘No.’ In the meantime it’s been four different restaurants, they’ve all closed. So I said, ‘Well, ya know what, let me find the next best thing.’ I saw that Roberta’s found the next great thing out in Bushwick and they were very successful. I said, ‘Let me see what else, let me check Greenpoint out.’ First I went to Manhattan Avenue and didn’t find what I was looking for. I was looking for Bedford and N. 7th. Didn’t see it.”
So Paulie kept looking. And he kept hosting his pizza tastings at home, in a rather affluent New Jersey neighborhood. Some of Paulie’s wealthy friends and neighbors, acquaintances whom he had met through his son’s sports leagues, enjoyed his pizza tastings but when approached about investing in his pizzeria were concerned that he wouldn’t have any money invested himself: “‘It’s always good to have skin in the game,’ they would lecture me. And I knew they were right but what was I gonna do?”
And then, Paulie found his first investor: “I guy I worked with, John Diamond, came to my tasting, and he said to me, ‘Ya know, if you wanna open up a spot I want to invest in you.’ And then he did. I had him lined up with a considerable amount of money. And then my boss’s husband said the same thing. And I thought, ‘Ya know what, we gotta make this happen.’ And I told my wife, I said, ‘We have some equity in this house, let’s get a home equity loan and I took out money on a line.”
Back to Easter weekend 2009, just before the pizza tasting with Adam from Slice, with Good Friday off from work Paulie set up a bunch of appointments to look at spaces in Greenpoint, starting on Franklin Street: “It was just wild,” Paulie says of his first time to the area. “There were all these Hispanic churchgoers on Eagle and Franklin walking up the street whipping Jesus, like ‘Wow,’ and the cops are behind them, and I walk down and I found Franklin and Greenpoint Avenue, and I thought, ‘This is it. I found it. I’m home, this is where I need to be.’” At the time, the neighborhood consisted mostly of the Pencil Factory and Brouwerij Lane, “but it had a buzz,” Paulie says. “I knew it, that this neighborhood was going to become something.”
So following the success of the pizza tasting with Adam from Slice, and his newly found investors, paired with his home equity loan, Paulie Gee was ready. And he had his sites on the space on Franklin Street at Greenpoint Avenue that was vacant but didn’t have a For Lease sign on it. “So I did the stupidest thing you could ever do,” says Paulie. “I tracked down the landlord and told him I wanted to rent his space. Not a good idea.”
But soon they came to a deal. And almost exactly two years from when he pulled those first hot pies out of his backyard pizza oven Paulie Gee signed the lease for his pizzeria in Greenpoint. “No offense to those of you who live in Williamsburg, and drink a little too much,” he says. “But somebody told me that Greenpoint is where people in Williamsburg go when they grow up.”
Needless to say, over the years Paulie Gee’s restaurant has significantly contributed to the ever-growing food culture of the neighborhood. And the neighborhood has supported Paulie Gee’s growth and success as well. Short of a couple thousand pens with the restaurant’s logo, Paulie has never spent money on marketing or advertising. What began as a backyard obsession grew into a neighborhood destination and now a nationwide franchise expansion. But it took Greenpoint to make that happen.
“I love Greenpoint,” Paulie says. “People wanted me to succeed. And coming to this neighborhood, people wanted a place to call their own. And that was very important.”
Part V: Franchise Expansion
“If you talk to a lawyer,” Paulie informs me, “and you talk to the F.T.C., they’ll tell ya that they’re franchises… but my intention is to build a brotherhood of pizza entrepreneurs, ok? I told the lawyers what I wanted to do. They told me I had to form a franchise company. They told me what it would cost to do that. So I decided to ask another lawyer. I told em what I wanted to do, they told me that I had to form a franchise company. So I asked a third lawyer. Third lawyer? Franchise company. So, I bit the bullet and I did that. But really I build personal relationships with these people. They come in, ya know, when they can, they work with me… Derrick, who is gonna open up with me in Chicago, he contacted me for advice and I was itching to do something in Chicago, I had read about Wicker Park which is a great neighborhood… and when I talked with him, I said, where ya thinking about opening and he said ya know, Naperville, or something… he had a mobile business already making pizza out that way, Za Pie… he thinks it was a nice name. Hopefully he’s not reading this. In any case, I said, that’s too bad because I was hoping to maybe do something with somebody in Wicker Park. And about five minutes later we were on our way.”
So Paulie and Derrick looked for the right location all over Chicago, including neighborhoods that Paulie didn’t really like and then, finally, they found something in Wicker Park. “Ya know, Logan Square is great,” Paulie says, with a smile. “Wicker Park is to Logan Square as Williamsburg is to Greenpoint, and Greenpoint was the place for me to come to. I didn’t know it at the time, but I realized that Logan Square was the same thing.”
This is just one of the many Paulie Gee’s pipelined to open in the next year: Chicago, Miami, Columbus, and Baltimore…
“It’s not Paulie Gee’s Baltimore,” Paulie chimes. “It’s Paulie Gee’s Hampden. It’s not Paulie Gee’s Chicago, it’s Paulie Gee’s Logan Square. The neighborhood that we’re in in Miami is called the Upper East Side. We’re not calling it Paulie Gee’s Upper East Side, so we’re calling it Paulie Gee’s Miami. I like to name them after neighborhoods, not cities, because I think that’s more personal. Ya come here, this is a neighborhood pizzeria. It’s not an Italian place or something like that. The people who work here are people from the neighborhood. I don’t have Italian pizza makers wearing red neckerchiefs or caputo shirts.”
Paulie is also talking with more people, growing his brotherhood, including partners in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. “We’ll see what happens,” he says. “Andrew [Brown] was gonna do something with me in Oakland. But, ya know what, he really felt like he wanted to stay here and do something in New York and he came to me with this slice joint idea and, ya know, he’s gonna run it.”
Paulie, once deterred by expansion for fear of the original restaurant suffering, has since turned to partnerships and franchising his brand, to further his business and passion by helping others open collaborative pizzerias all over the country.
“I learned a long time ago,” Paulie explains. “Not that long ago, back in the 90s, I was a multi-level marketeer and one of the things you do as a multi-level marketeer is you help yourself by helping other people, ok? You build an organization of people, you support them, you teach them how to do things and you get a little piece of their action. Ok? And by the way, if it wasn’t for being a multi-level marketeer, I would not be here today because everything that helped me build this place I got from the conferences we went to where they brought in people who motivated you and taught you how to think positively and make commitments and speak things into existence, it was all from that.
“And the underlying theme of the whole thing was help yourself by helping other people. So I realized that I could help other people open up their own spots, under my name, I could share everything that I’ve learned, ok, I can encourage them and then I would help myself as well by taking a little piece of their action. And I was gonna do it in Philadelphia and I brought my friend up, I thought he would be good, my friend Kelly Beckham, he lives in Baltimore, he’s the biggest pizza enthusiast that I knew, that I had a relationship with, and I thought he’d like to do that… he came up, we looked at a spot, there were a couple other people I was thinking about doing it with and… I thought, he’s gonna have to move his family up and I said, ‘Kelly, what about down by you? Maybe we should look and see if there’s some place in Baltimore.’ And sure enough, we found this neighborhood, great neighborhood, Hampden, and we set out to find a spot and the first time we looked, I found a spot.
“We were looking at this pharmacy — it wasn’t big enough — and as we’re looking at this pharmacy I see this building to my left down not even half a block off this main drag where there’s a lot of action in Hampden and there it was. And today, after all of this time, I’m not even gonna say how long because it’s embarrassing, we’re about to open there, ok?
“Ya know, people come to me all the time asking for advice, and a lot of people come and they want to open up their own spot and then I started finding people who wanted to do this with me. After Baltimore I was working with somebody in Philly and then I was working with somebody else in Philly and then somebody else in Philly… none of it worked out. But now I got a guy in Philly. I really believe we’re going to make things happen in Philly now.”
Belief and a commitment to helping others, while taking some action himself, has allowed Paulie to grow and expand his business.
But really, it’s more than that. With these initial franchise locations and their respective business partners, Paulie Gee has in fact founded a Brotherhood of Pizza Entrepreneurs all across the country. His partners and co-owners are just as fanatical about pizza as he is.
Well, that’s probably not true, compared to the bonafide “pizza madman”, but I think we can all rest assured that none of the new locations will be putting pepperoni on their pizzas.