We highlighted The Pasta Shop in one of our early Guides in the beginning when they first opened, so it feels like a full circle moment to share more of their entrepreneurial story now. When I heard Tommy talking about his connection to the laundromat during an interview with BuyLocalNJ back in the Fall, I knew I wanted to learn more. It’s those little pieces of an entrepreneur’s story that draw you in and want you to embrace their success even more. Voted number 19 in Yelp’s recent call for top restaurants in the country, there’s no denying that what Tommy and his team are doing is working. Read on for more.
What is your business?
My name is Tommy Pollio and I am the Co-Owner of The Pasta Shop in Denville. At the Pasta Shop, our menu is built around our homemade pastas that we make fresh daily. We have 36 seats inside the restaurant and we also offer take-out and we sell our fresh pastas and sauces to cook at home as well.
At age 15 I was working for Sergio Sciancalepore (my now business partner here at The Pasta Shop) at his Italian Specialties store here in Denville, and also working at a restaurant in Morristown, NJ as a line cook. I would regularly take the train from Morristown back to Denville late at night and walk the 3 mile distance from the train station to my parents house. On my walk home, I would often stop in the Laundromat called “Wash ’N Shop” on First Avenue, which was the approximate half way point on my walk home. Sometimes I would use the pay phone or get a soda from the vending machine, and occasionally I would just come inside to warm up or dry off for a few minutes, if it was cold or raining or snowing outside. When it was really cold, I would heat up my jacket by putting it in one of the dryers before continuing on my journey home. At this time, the laundromat was the only place really open late at night in Denville, being that it was 24/7.
After graduating high school, I moved around the country working at the best restaurants that I could, studying and learning to be a chef. Over those 15 years or so, I lived in New Jersey, North Carolina, Los Angeles, & Chicago. Eventually I returned to Denville as I always knew I one day would. When looking for a location for The Pasta Shop, I remembered the old laundromat which I always had an affinity for, and eventually we were fortunate enough to be able to rent the space and make it the home for our business. It was important for me to keep the old neon sign on the front of the building as close to the original as possible, as an homage to the laundromat that occupied this space for nearly 70 years in my hometown.
What are your success habits?
Relentless hard work. I have worked in a lot of great restaurants in my career and alongside many talented cooks and chefs. I never considered myself the most naturally gifted or talented cook, nor the smartest person in the room. However, I decided from a young age that if I worked hard (and was smart) enough, that could be my advantage. For years I arrived at work at least an hour early, sometimes to work with the baker and learn about baking bread or to learn about making ice cream from the pastry chef. I would stay late when needed and pick up additional shifts whenever possible. I often worked more than one job at a time to try and learn as much as I could. Sometimes on my days off I would ask to work in the kitchens of other well known restaurants to see how their system is set up, how they do things, what their food looks and tastes like, and what I can learn from watching and working with them. Sometimes I would drive to New York City or Philadelphia to work at some of these places, trying to pick up as much information and knowledge as possible.
Now, for me it’s all about continuing to evolve and grow every day. I want to continue to improve day in and day out. I like to improve 1% per day, if I can. What I mean is, I don’t like to set huge unrealistic goals that are difficult to conquer. I prefer to continually improve on the small tasks every day, and that is relevant to me whether we are talking about improving as a chef, as a business owner, a manager, a person, a father, husband and so on. It may seem like such minor changes, but when you look back after 6 months or a year, you can see a big improvement. It’s not about being better than your competitors, it’s all about being better than you were yesterday, last month, last year. The key is competing with yourself and not anyone else. Continuing to learn and improve day after day.
How do you define success?
Success for me is running an honest business that myself and my family can be proud of; a business that allows me to provide for my family by making and selling food with integrity. Success in the work place is having both happy employees and satisfied guests. It is important for me to take good care of my staff and pay them the highest wages I can afford and provide a workplace that allows for the best quality of life for employees. Being in this industry for now over 20 years, I have seen and experienced first hand, many of the ugly parts of the restaurant business. Low wages, poor work environment, drugs/alcohol, sexual harassment, grueling hours are commonplace in much of this industry. My goal was to create a place that has all of the parts of the hospitality industry that I love, and none of the ugly bits. Simple things like 2 days off per week are often not an option in our industry, but I like to make that a priority.