Welcome to the Entrepreneurship@DU Podcast, a show that explores the entrepreneurial community at the University of Denver from the perspective of our alumni, students, faculty, staff, and friends.
60% of restaurants fail in the first year fail and 80% fail within five years. What is the secret to Pete Newlin and his partner Jean-Philippe’s success? Welcome to episode 16 of the Entrepreneurship@DU Podcast, as we sit down with Pete Newlin, co-founder of Gastamo Group & Birdcall, to discuss the restaurant business, hospitality, Pete’s entrepreneurial journey from DU to successful restauranteur.
Pete and his partner Jean-Philippe are the founders of several successful Denver based restaurants such as Birdcall, Park Burger, Homegrown Tap & Dough, Perdida, Lady Nomada & Park & CO. If this was not enough, they have started a music festival, Denver Deluxe.
Joshua Ross (00:03):
My name is Joshua Ross and welcome to the 16th episode of the Entrepreneurship at DU Podcast.
Pete Newlin (00:11):
I was biking home one day going back to University of Denver, and I passed by the original Park Burger. And when I did that, I decided I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, but I had enough for a burger and I sat at the bar inside a park burger and I just saw hospitality really for the first time.
Joshua Ross (00:26):
Today on the podcast, I have a conversation with restaurateur Pete Newlan to discuss his entrepreneurial journey and the restaurant industry.
Pete Newlin (00:31):
I mean, you have to be open. It’s not just about creating great food, it’s about having amazing financial acumen. It’s about developing great brand standards. It’s about understanding your guests and what are they looking for, and building a restaurant for the community has a privilege to operate in, not just something that you like.
Joshua Ross (00:54):
Pete provides insight on how he and his business partner Jean Philippe, built several sustainable restaurant brands in Colorado with a commitment to culture, great food teamwork, and a laser focus on hospitality.
Pete Newlin (01:09):
It was pretty early on when we got connected with Eat Denver, which has these legendary leaders. It was really this opportunity to see how kind everybody was in the hospitality business, and it wasn’t just an act they were putting on in their restaurant, but it was a genuine love of enriching the lives of people around them.
Joshua Ross (01:26):
Pete is a University of Denver alum, partnering Gesta group with notable Denver concepts such as Park Burger, homegrown, Tapingo, Heida, lady Ana, and Bird Call. Here’s the interview with Pete Newland. So Pete Newlan, welcome and thanks for joining us today.
Pete Newlin (01:48):
Yeah, thank you Josh for having me, man. This is exciting to be here.
Joshua Ross (01:52):
Well, we’re excited to have you and we’re just going to jump right into it. So just to get a start off during your M B A at the University of Denver, my question to you, did you ever envision yourself in the restaurant business? And with that, how did you become a partner in Park Burger?
Pete Newlin (02:09):
Yeah, so first off, the restaurant business was never a part of the plan. I grew up in Augusta, Georgia, went to school in Charleston. My parents said I had to stay within three hours. They were a little nervous about me. So I ended up in College of Charleston, but always had this big dream of moving out west. I mean, I’m a big fan of skiing. I love whitewater kayaking and just really envisioned building our future in Colorado. And it was the heart of the great recession in about 2009, and I just was kind of googling around and found the University of Denver and instantly fell in love with the school. So the original idea was to move out west and get into the outdoor industry and kind of use the M B A as a platform to get into some of these great companies. And so when I was at du, I had an internship with Deuter Backpacks.
Pete Newlin (02:57):
I was really excited about trying to figure out how to start a career at Black Diamond or Patagonia or one of those magical companies. But very, very quickly I realized that that wasn’t the path for me. And at the time I was working at a Hillstone restaurant, cherry Creek Grill and Cherry Creek. And really what was so great about getting my jump into restaurants at Hillstone was just how incredible their training was. I mean, everybody knows Hillstone is one of the greatest restaurant groups in our country, but their training program is magnificent and they actually look for people who don’t have a history in hospitality because they’re more focused on training them and building their skill set up from the ground. So I was probably there about a year and a half and I ended up leaving there, and that’s really when I was biking home one day going back to University of Denver and I passed by the original Park Burger.
Pete Newlin (03:50):
And when I did that, I decided I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, but I had enough for a burger and I sat at the bar inside a park burger and I just saw hospitality really for the first time. I saw so many different people enjoying laughs. The food was amazing, the music was perfect, and it could have been the best restaurant in the world. It wouldn’t have made any difference. It was kind of where I needed to be and ended up applying there the next day. So when I graduated my M B A, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I put together a loose business plan on how we could expand this idea of Park Burger, and I shared it with Philippe. I guess I wasn’t ready for a larger job then, but he was like, come on board and be a general manager, which was perfect. I had this opportunity to grow from within and learn every job inside of a restaurant and it was magical. I still believe in the power of moments and I still believe in the human connection and the idea that every guest is this opportunity to make a magical moment in someone’s life. And being able to see that from touching tables to engaging with team members to learning how to manage it was awesome.
Joshua Ross (05:00):
Well, that’s cool. And we will just do a shameless plug here, but I love Park Burger as well, and there’s nothing better than a beer, a burger, but starting off with the blue cheese and the chips, I mean, that’s just absolutely excellent. So talk to me a little bit about what has prepared you for the restaurant industry in terms of Pivotal experiences, your learning from Philippe as a mentor. Walk me through that
Pete Newlin (05:27):
For sure. And I think very early on you don’t know what you don’t know, and I think I thought of the hospitality industry as kind of a sink or swim industry. And what I discovered over the years is that all ships rise with the tide, and I truly believe that, and we never want to see a restaurant fail,
Pete Newlin (05:47):
But at the time I think we kind of were looking for the answers inside. So when I first started working for Jean Felipe, who has this incredible history in Colorado, he was a chef for Frank Bonano at Muna, ended up opening Tria Marco with Frank Bonano and then kind of went on his own and started Park Burger because he really fell in love with this idea of neighborhood restaurants. But at the time, both Philippe and I really kind of were looking to each other to figure out how we were going to evolve when in all reality a young entrepreneur, the best thing that we can do is reach out. And there are so many people that are there wanting to help you grow and have the answers if you’re just willing to ask. And I think what’s important in building any business is the humility to realize you don’t have the answer.
Pete Newlin (06:33):
And I think it’s so important that we remain humble and realize this can’t be the best restaurant. There are more answers, there’s a better way of doing things and being open every day to be better, which is extremely hard when you’re trying to have the confidence to start your own business anyway. But I would say it was pretty early on when we got connected with Eat Denver, which has these legendary leaders from John and Adam Schlegel from Founding Snooze to people from Dana, from Big Red F. And it was really this opportunity to see how kind everybody was in the hospitality business. And it wasn’t just an act they were putting on in their restaurant, but it was a genuine love of enriching the lives of people around them. And very quickly that opinion shifted from the first couple of years of Building Park Burger with Jean Philippe to we got to have the answers. We have to be the best, we’ve got to be better than these other people. Let’s keep the competition out to let’s just be an open book. Let’s just be ourselves. Let’s give and receive information in any which way. And I mean that’s why we’ll get on the phone with any restaurant person and we’ll be like, dude, we’ll tell you everything that we’re doing. Tell me what you’re doing and tell me what you would change about what we’re doing and maybe we can help each other because all ships rise with the tide.
Joshua Ross (07:45):
I love that. And you mentioned John and Adam Schlegel amazing d u alums as well. So it’s just very cool to hear what a community that embraces people and helps people out in the restaurant industry. You’re right, because if you’re good at what you do, you will be successful. But why not collaborate and share, especially in the restaurant industry where it’s all about creativity and art.
Pete Newlin (08:09):
And I think early on, Adam was instrumental in bringing Eat Denver together or bringing it back together. And in the early days of building Park Burger, I mean I bet Adam was like, I bet I was his annoying little neighbor. I’d be like, I have so much to learn from this guy. Please just teach me, but learn so much from him and his brother. And really we all looked at snooze as like, this is how it’s done. You’ve got to have mentors and you got to have people that have done it before because you’re going to make mistakes either which way. But it’s nice if you can learn from a couple of the mistakes that were made before you.
Joshua Ross (08:48):
Absolutely. So what was your plan B? The restaurant industry is incredibly competitive. Restaurants fail all the time, and this is for entrepreneurs in general. It’s like you’re going to go try to start something and more than likely it’s going to fail. So for Pete Newland, if this didn’t work out what was plan B? I
Pete Newlin (09:10):
Mean first you’ve got to have that mentality that you’ll never lose and you’ll always be willing to pivot. And I think the only thing consistent in modern business is the only thing consistent, only thing consistent in modern business is that you’re constantly pivoting, you’re constantly making changes. But I think if we were to lose it all tomorrow, I’ve thought about this a lot and I think I feel so thankful for the skillset I’ve built that I would just take it to that next venture. And what I love about restaurants and what I love, and I think that’s different about building the Gu Stavo group with Philippe and Bird Call is like Jean Philippe was the culinary talent behind the group. I mean, my focus has always been on development, brand building, concept, storytelling. How do we bring in digital channels to better amplify this message?
Pete Newlin (09:57):
And those two skill sets together are necessary to build a great hospitality company. So the problem with hospitality and why I think it’s challenging is people don’t realize the breadth of different skill sets that are necessary to actually be successful. I mean, you have to be open. It’s not just about creating great food, it’s about having amazing financial acumen. It’s about developing great brand standards. It’s about understanding your guests and what are they looking for and building a restaurant for the community. It has a privilege to operate in, not just something that you like. And over the course of a long, slow growth history, we were able to learn these lessons and each one of them painful in their own, but it’s allowed us to build a very diverse skillset with the power of an amazing team that has specialized in each one of these kind of areas. But going back to your question, because we’ve had this opportunity to build those amazing skill sets, you really learn one thing and anything’s possible. And I am truly a believer in the idea of anything’s possible. So if tomorrow we lost it all, man, I’d be so thankful for the journey, the skillset that’s built, and we’re going to just go figure it out.
Joshua Ross (11:07):
So it’s a perfect lead into my next question with Gusta, you and Jean Felipe have created a number of restaurant concepts. Park Burger Lady, no, Perdita, do. What am I missing here?
Pete Newlin (11:20):
So it’s Park Burger was the first concept. Homegrown Tappen, DAU parking company Lady, no Mata, which is our taco bar, Purita, our high-end Baja Kitchen. I think that’s it. And then of course, bird Call was our first restaurant that we took outside of Gustavo Group
Joshua Ross (11:39):
And my 17 year old and her friends love Tappen Dau. I mean that is an old town, Arvada, that’s their jam, that’s their spot. So all different variety of restaurant concepts. How do you decide on the cuisine, the theme, the location, the feeling, the menu? They’re very different.
Pete Newlin (11:59):
Yeah, and I think early on, the goal was right, we didn’t know what we were doing. The whole goal was to grow Park Burger. It worked once, it’ll work a hundred times. And in fact, there’s some times we revisit that, and that may not have been the right time then or the right answer at that time, but we really didn’t decide we were multi concept operators until the opening of Homegrown Tappen Dau. I mean early in FE’S days, he opened Park and Co and Urban Tavern, but it was still connected to the theme of being a neighborhood burger joint. But I think what’s important in this business and any business is being opportunistic. If you set yourself so focused on like, Hey, I’m going to expand Park Burger, and that’s all we’re going to do, you might miss something that could even be more powerful.
Pete Newlin (12:42):
And so we stumbled on a property on Old South Gaylord. It’s where the first homegrown is today in Tennessee and Gaylord Street, and it was too close to the other park burgers to be a park burger. It was frankly right in between two park burgers. And so we were like, but this place used to be a pizza restaurant. It’s set up perfectly well, no, we’ll be successful. And I think that was the time we were like, let’s pivot. Let’s open a new brand. And now we’ve got three guiding principles. Back then it was just kind of shooting from the hip. It was like, dude, if there’s a good piece of real estate, we’ll figure something out. If the brand feels like it needs to grow, we’ll grow it. But now it’s like every deal goes through our three guiding principles. One foods we’ve been eating for generations, we only build concepts where it’s foods that we’ve been eating our entire lives.
Pete Newlin (13:30):
That’s why if you look across our portfolio, it’s great Mexican food, it’s burgers, pizza, chicken sandwiches, and the second one is value above all. In the end of the day, every dollar matters and the larger value proposition that we can give to our guests, it’s the biggest gift we have. So how do we constantly look for areas where we can have the highest quality ingredients, the most unique guest experience, but offer at an affordable price point? And building that value prop as big as possible is the huge focus for us and everything that we do. And then the third thing that I think influences all the decisions we make is that experience, experience over function. We’ve watched in the last decade dining shift from functional dining where it was just about the food you ate to this is about removing you from your everyday life. And so we feel pretty confident if you layer that on good real estate strategy, thoughtful brand expansion, Hey, can there be a thousand of this brand in the future? You’re going to be opening restaurants and you’re not going to be closing restaurants. But that’s a completely shift from where we started where it was like, Hey, this is a nice piece of real estate. Let’s just open a restaurant. But you just got to constantly be looking for your areas where you can be better and evolve, I guess.
Joshua Ross (14:45):
So with that idea, and how do you maintain and build culture across these different restaurants, both the themes, right? With the homegrown Tapin d, the bird Call the Lady? No, but also across Gusta group because you and John Philippe, I believe have a very clear understanding of what you want your culture to be. How do you embed that?
Pete Newlin (15:08):
Yeah, and I think that’s all of this is an evolution, right? And I think we’re managing in different times today, and I think the focus on being a leader takes priority over everything. And I definitely didn’t know that when I was younger. So if you ask anybody the type of leader I was when I first started, I didn’t know. And you’re trying to grow your team and influence your team with whatever tactic and skillset you have, but more and more, I mean ultimately it’s easy to build a beautiful restaurant. I mean, you can go across the country and you can see empty restaurants that are some of the best architecture or masterpieces you’ve ever seen that it’s relatively easy to put a menu together, but it is incredibly hard to build a great team. And the power of, and I still believe this more than anything, they’re not coming in the restaurant because of the interior design.
Pete Newlin (15:58):
It may accelerate growth, but it only compliments the amazing people that actually build that store up. And so now it’s just about how do we continue to grow that? I think the other big thing over the, gosh, 14 years of being with Philippe is we’re all kind of learning where our natural skill sets are. I’m not the best leader because I’m so focused on all the growth and the amazing opportunities that I’ll run everybody through a tailspin of like, okay, by the way, we’re building this over here and by the way, we’re going to start a cruise line and it’ll drive people crazy. So I think the biggest realization there is just know where your skillset is and where it isn’t. And I think the best thing that I can do for our team both at Bird k Casto is put better people in place than me that know how to lift others up.
Pete Newlin (16:44):
We’ve got a great president at Gusta Group, Jason Glutton, who’s amazing team leader, and then we’ve got a great c e O of bird call, but culture’s got to be everything. And I think I see it every day. You see it every day. If you go to work and you’re totally stoked and you’re not bringing the weight of stress or interpersonal relationship challenges inside the store and you go because you want to be there and you want to be your best. I mean, man, the performance is incredible. I know when I’m my best and I know when I’m not. That’s why anytime I have frustrations, I go straight to Philippe. I know in my head if I can clear the frustrations and the challenges any partnership has, then I’m going to be able to put my best foot forward and be the best for our team.
Pete Newlin (17:26):
So how do we open up that doors for others to see it? Because you don’t want to go to work and be frustrated, but if you go to work and you’re stoked and the delivery is going to be that much more magical, and I think that impact’s going to be much more magical for the team members. So I think from that standpoint, culture’s everything. We want to have fun. We want our team to have fun. We got to put leaders into place and set them up to be successful and make sure people have the right job that they’re doing. And I think the other thing that’s challenging about a growth brand, Josh, is like you don’t know what you don’t know. So many times you just have to burst through a wall and you don’t have the right tools. And then in hindsight, of course that was a bad decision, but sometimes it was the necessary decision to get you to that next stage.
Joshua Ross (18:09):
So with you and Jean Philippe, you’ve had a very productive partnership and you’re building these restaurants, you’re building this amazing culture, but working with a partner, it’s like a marriage and it can be rough, it can be incredible, but there can be some patches where you don’t agree on things. How has this work between the two of you?
Pete Newlin (18:32):
I think Philippe is an incredible leader, and like I said, Philippe built the platform to which I could launch my career and we’ve been partners for over a decade now, but it’s all because of the risk that he took. I like to say, man, I’ll take a risk on your business, but can you imagine him? He had a great restaurant downtown saying, let’s go open our own place. Let’s go open a 40 seat burger restaurant. I mean that stress, that weight, I can’t even imagine the weight that must have put on his family. So I have so much respect for what he has done. But that doesn’t change the fact that when you’re working with someone for 14 years every day, it is a marriage. And I think one of the things that has really helped that partnership over the last decade is like we’re both committed till the end is just like, I am not the perfect husband, but don’t tell my wife that.
Pete Newlin (19:28):
But the point is you go through challenging times, but if you make it through, you’re going to be stronger. There’s a bigger deepness of love following that. I was actually just talking to a life coach today, and I think the biggest area of opportunity that I have going into this next phase is like I have to listen more to Philippe because when you have a relationship that’s long, you feel like you can anticipate any action or any question that he’s going to ask, you think you can anticipate every decision he’s going to make. And maybe that’s true in certain regards, but to make that assumption can be the biggest weakness I think I have. So I think in this next phase of growth, I’ve got to be more open to listening to his perspective and ask more questions because he’s evolving on a different journey than I am, and we’re our biggest supporters. So golly, partnerships are hard, but partnerships are beautiful. And I think more important than that in any business that you’re building, if you don’t have someone rooting you on in your corner, it’s going to be a hell of a lot harder. So being able to look at Philippe and say, dude, we’re going to get through this. I mean, I have a lot of friends opening restaurants and I have had some friends close restaurants and for them you need someone to let this stress out.
Joshua Ross (20:45):
So we’re going to talk a little bit about hospitality. The first time you and I talked, we got into this discussion talking about hospitality and Danny Meyer’s book setting the Table, and you’re like, you got to read this book, unreasonable Hospitality. And it was around 11 Madison Park, the restaurant in New York City that’s achieved number one restaurant in the world. And their whole goal was to create this environment of unreasonable hospitality. So with what you’re all doing, how do you implement hospitality in your restaurants and what is your goal with hospitality?
Pete Newlin (21:20):
And today, I mean, that’s one of the biggest challenges of growing a multi concept restaurant group because getting further and further removed away from the table touch. And I often miss being in a store, or even when a guest decides to go to the restaurant next door and you run into that restaurant and you buy their dinner and you say, you know what? I’m sorry I made a mistake, but come back and see us again because I’ll be better. I miss those moments. So now it’s just about how do we inspire and how do we build teams and allow them to have their own hospitality journey so they can see that too. And I don’t think there’s a final destination there. I think it’s a constant reminder that, I mean, golly, the power of walking into someone’s home, the power of making someone a home kick dinner power of opening the door and saying, thank you for coming in, making someone feel truly special, that magic’s more and more needed in this world.
Pete Newlin (22:10):
So I think in this next stage of growth, it’s going to be harder, but I think we just need to make, put a more and more important emphasis on it because there’s no doubt as you develop more layers in an organization, it gets harder to get that message out. So we’ll keep working on it, but that’s what I love about God. I was just up in Beaver Creek and I forget the name of the restaurant, but I love going into locally owned restaurants because you can see the owner operator and you can feel their passion for the business. You can talk to ’em about why they got into it and it’s like, man, how do we replicate this at scale?
Joshua Ross (22:45):
So how do you gauge the success in customer satisfaction and how they feel after they leave a meal from one of your restaurants? Because as you said, it doesn’t show up in a spreadsheet and you have your finance and accounting department, nothing against finance and accounting, but they want an R O I on anything that’s going out the door, what’s the return on that money?
Pete Newlin (23:04):
Joshua Ross (23:05):
Do you do?
Oh no. And I think that’s why I’m probably not the best c e o, because I always evaluated the success of a restaurant by being inside, feeling the restaurant, touching tables, asking guests for their opinions. And now, I mean there’s technology for everything. We are using an AI tool that allows us to gauge customer sentiment, and then we’re measuring that across another tool that aggregates all of customer sentiment across every website or place. Any feedback would be delivered. And from there you can develop a pretty good gauge, but in the end of the day, some of those metrics are easy to not, manipulate is not the right word, but it doesn’t tell the full picture. It’s just like you can see a restaurant that’ll close, but they’ll have 4.7 on Google Analytics. So it’s like it’s not the only measurable, right? So I think there’s no substitute for going in a restaurant and talking to the guests.
Pete Newlin (23:58):
I heard a story about the founder of Hillstone, and so I don’t know if this is real, but I take it with me everywhere I go. And the founder of Hillstone once said, if you sit in a restaurant for 10 minutes, everybody knows you’re there. But if you sit there for 30, they’ll forget you exist. Point being, if you go into your restaurants and you sit in a corner, you can watch ’em, you can see where the areas of opportunity, you can see if that hospitality experience being hit or being missed. We’ve got to coach, we got to coach our team and our team needs to coach us. But the thing about restaurants is they can go really, really well very quick, and they can fall very, very quick. And if you lose sight, if you stop at taking into consideration the cleanliness, if you don’t visit the store, then it can go sideways very, very quick. That’s because teams need to be set up to be successful. So I think to answer that question, it’s just staying in the stores, a restaurant group that’s not in their restaurants, it’s not going to work.
Joshua Ross (24:54):
I love it. Alright, we’re going to transition to bird call. So in 2016 you launched Bird Call with a vision of making natural foods more accessible. So you have the success with these sit down establishments and now you decide to transition to order at the counter format, which is now Bird Call, which is quite good, by the way. Thank you. Why?
Pete Newlin (25:19):
Once again, just making a ton of mistakes on the way. So the original vision of Bird Call, first off, Tom’s Home cooking was in the center of Five Points, an incredible southern style restaurant, and they were closing their doors and it got relayed to Philippe’s neighbor. And we went down and talked to Tom and we’re like, if you’re closing your doors, we’d love to take over this location and start. This new concept we’ve been playing with is Bird Call. Bird Call originally started with just the idea of being a simple one-off order at the Counter Chicken sandwich shop that basically really relayed the same principles of Park Burger sandwiches from all over the world, unique sides. But we got delayed in construction and as we were getting delayed in construction, we just kind of kept falling in love with this idea of this, how do you increase the quality while decreasing the price?
Pete Newlin (26:14):
Everyone’s faced with this constant challenge and with inflation and man, it’s been harder than ever to be a restaurant or any business for that matter, but you still have this question every year, okay, do we decrease quality or do we increase price? And so bird call early on was this obsession of how do we increase quality and decrease price? I was in a triathlon out in San Francisco doing this escape from Alcatraz. It was actually pretty cool, but at the time I stumbled upon this restaurant called ita. ITA was an amazing tech startup that also had a restaurant component and they figured out a hundred percent automated restaurant. So you would order at a kiosk, it would display your name, you’d go through this really unique user flow, this robotic bay would open up with your order. They were working on hoppers, I believe, in the back.
Pete Newlin (27:03):
I mean the whole idea was an automated restaurant. Now what I thought at the time, I was like, oh my god, this is magical. Look, we’re having fun with tech. I still remember getting giddy, like jumping around calling Philippe and Heaven only knows if you read his text chain, what I’ve said in the past. But to me that was the answer, right to Philippe, that was the answer. If we can use technology in a unique way, a couple things can happen. One, you can create more fun jobs instead of saying, do you want fries with that? Team members can be hospitality leaders and touch tables and open doors and get to know the community and provide a higher level of hospitality in an unexpected place. But two, ideally there should be some efficiencies gained that should improve throughput, allowing us to have a higher food cost and using throughput as the answer to providing better quality ingredients for less.
Pete Newlin (27:56):
So that was at least the hypothesis. Now there’s a reason why there’s very few or if any other 10 or 11 unit restaurant groups with their own proprietary tech stack because probably was the silliest decision. But back then it was just Philippe and we were like, let’s do this. Let’s put half of this restaurant’s budget to technology and half of this restaurant’s budget to building out the concept. And it would never have happened. I flew out to San Francisco, I interviewed all these tech startups and incubators, and the only reason it happened is because I had a dear friend at Therapy Partners and a local tech startup who basically showed me the way and really she helped me navigate how to start a tech startup helped with resourcing and we were able to build a prototype. When we opened the first store, that prototype wasn’t quite ready.
Pete Newlin (28:48):
I still remember vividly the friends and family, usually friends and family, it’s like, invite your buddies, come down, eat and drink for free. Just tell us how great this restaurant is and then get out of here and we’ll open up tomorrow. But at least we got some reps and we’re better. We opened up Bird call. There was an error in our code. So every on the friends and family, every odd, odd total in the sum of the order wouldn’t go through to the kitchen display. Kitchen display is what allows team members to see what order to make. Either way half of the orders of these guests didn’t go through and people were waiting an hour and a half for a chicken sandwich. I still remember a buddy coming up to me and he says, he goes, Pete, dude, this is the worst restaurant I’ve ever been to.
Pete Newlin (29:28):
But we, we’ve learned from there and the tech has evolved. And early on in the tech, we had so many bugs, it’d be like just let the guests know that hey, they made a user error and let’s get them a sandwich as quickly as possible. But it’s allowed us to, the hasn’t changed Now how we’re going to accomplish that vision has what started as a front of the house experience. That’s no longer where the long-term vision of the tech is. It’s really like it started with how do we increase throughput in the dining room? If you can increase throughput in the dining room, you can cook high quality foods. Now it’s like how do we improve the lives of every team member that works at Bird Call and how do we use tech to really set people up to be successful? Because I know we’ve talked about in the past, Josh, but the hardest part of building a restaurant group is there’s a lot of team members and how do you provide them with the tool set to win and grow both their personal and professional careers over their time that you guys are working together.
Pete Newlin (30:23):
So I do think just back then we believed that there was an answer to have higher quality foods at less. Now we believe, we truly believe there’s a way to enrich the lives of team members through technology and really create a better tool to set people up to be successful.
Joshua Ross (30:39):
So your approach and really your goal to compete in this 10 billion fried chicken industry with heavyweights like Chick-fil-A and Cane’s and Popeye’s is really to add value and be more efficient using technology. Or walk me through how are you carving your niche?
Pete Newlin (30:59):
When I think about Bird Call, I think about this approach to, I think we’re really kind of attacking the casual dining. We’re trying to create this whole hospitality experience. We can’t, going back to our three guiding principles, we can’t let it purely be about function. We’re probably going to lose on function. You know what the fact is? And all these brands, they’ve got a what, 40, 50 year headstart on us on throughput. There’s no way we’re going to catch that, but we can catch it with the magic of hospitality. So I do think we’re constantly talking about it of yeah, how do we use technology and tools so that we can create a more chef-driven menu so that we can get to know the community so we can host these different community nights. And so I think that layers us in a place where there should be enough room for us all to succeed. And I see a world which you can have Chick-fil-A on a Monday and you can have Al on Tuesday, and that’s why we’ve always been big about just as much the salad as the chicken sandwich. But yeah, there’s some great bands out there for sure.
Joshua Ross (32:01):
There’s so many cool things you can do with the data and data-driven decisions, understanding your customer and your customer’s behavior. And I think that seems like the overarching goal. The more data you collect, the better you get to know behavior trends, your customer, and to make that experience that much better.
Pete Newlin (32:17):
For sure. I mean, I believe in that idea of how do you make real time adjustments to a customer’s journey? So it’s magical. Can you build just hospitality in tech?
Joshua Ross (32:31):
So you took a different approach to funding when you started burka, right? Gusta was internally funded, but you went out to raise money for Bird Call. Love to hear what drove that decision, if there were any stories you can share that were kind of interesting along the fundraising trail.
Pete Newlin (32:49):
Yeah, so Bird Call very, very early on. I mean the big fundamental difference between Gusta Group and Bird Call is like Bird Call. We’re building our own technology tech stack. So it has a different corporate overhead than that of like, Hey, I’ve got one restaurant that’s using white labeled solutions. Now at scale, of course it works and it opens up a lot of doors and other opportunities, but early on it was a crazy idea. So Philippe and I just were like, well, we can’t continue to fund this on our own. I mean, my bank account was empty. I dunno how many more credit cards I could have gotten. So we realized very, very quickly that we needed to find a partner who believed the same vision that we did. And the original idea was to take the tech outside of bird call and sell technology.
Pete Newlin (33:37):
Selling technology was incredibly challenging because the solution wasn’t built. What I love about building bird call is we’re focusing on that vision, the long-term vision of what we believe hospitality can be, but we’re not in a position to where we’ve got to sell that solution. And early on we were like, we got to sell this. And I remember trying to sell our tech and it wasn’t even a 10th built, I don’t even know what I was selling. And still one of the funny memories too, we went to a restaurant trade show and we had a booth and Philippe, this was before we raised money and we had a booth and we had a keg of beer and we had a guitar player and we couldn’t, neither of us knew what we were selling. We didn’t know if we were selling a franchise, selling the technology, trying to raise capital.
Pete Newlin (34:20):
And in the end of the day, the only thing that happened was we drank some beers and a lot of people stole our free sunglasses or took our free sunglasses. So hopefully they’re still out there. So either way, we had to raise money. I still remember to this day, this guy sat at the bar inside a bird call and he was just off of Wall Street. And I was like, so something about these forma things like these, I was like, can you help me build one? And I was like, what if I give you a couple grand? Can you help me build this pro forma? And we just spent afternoons and nights just working on building out a model for what the bird call brand could be. What the tech could be just
Joshua Ross (34:57):
Some random customer
Pete Newlin (34:58):
To a random customer. Yeah, we paid them though. I still are like, yeah, because Felipe and I had never raised money. And we look at a distance and we see Sweetgreen doing all this magical stuff and we’re like, they raise money, we can figure this thing out. And in concept it was pretty simple. Have pretty pictures, have some model that shows a really awesome picture, put it together with the leadership team and here we go. And it’s all about getting on the trail and knocking on doors. And if you believe in your vision, other people will believe in your vision. And to this day, I mean it’s like people invest in teams and people invest in leaders. And so I went out on that trail and ended up closing a raise within an incredible local family office and met a lot of great people. To this day, I am going to tell you the one story I do remember, we were trying to raise capital at this time, and the hardest part was going in and convincing yourself you could be that this was a great idea and it made sex and you would actually reach the end of the goal.
Pete Newlin (36:01):
So I still remember going to a local family office downtown. And when we walked in, I remember losing one of our engineers and at the time I was completely heartbroken and had no business to go in there and try to raise capital. And I still remember sitting down with a model that I don’t even know if it was accurate or right. I was still learning how to use Excel at the time. And then I’m trying to pitch this idea of building some robots and where I’m like, man, I’m a front counter hospitality dude. I’m not technologist. And I still remember I just had a nervous panic attack. And to this day it was pretty funny memory. I started just sweating bullets. And Philippe, my partner would always go with me to each one of these raises. I just couldn’t handle myself. And I walked out of the room and I’m like, Philippe, you got this. I don’t know what he was talking about to them still trying to raise capital. And when I came back in, a nice lady at the office put a big contraption in front of me and she goes, don’t worry, I’m here to help. We’re going to cool you down. And she turned on a heater full blast
Pete Newlin (37:00):
While I was sweating in the middle of a downtown Denver office having a panic attack, trying to tell people why we’re going to change the world with hospitality. And I mean ended up, the nice thing about those pitches is every pitch doesn’t see the previous pitch.
Pete Newlin (37:15):
So we would like to erase that one from our memory. And I still want to go back to that office and be like, do you guys remember? That was awesome. But the cool thing about it is Denver is such a supportive city. Everybody wants to build you up. And even if it’s not the right deal for someone, they’re going to introduce you to someone who might be more interested in it. And going through that process, the key to it was the grind. And when I was in college, I used to sell insurance, but I didn’t know what I was selling. And when you’re raising capital for a brand that you believe in, when you’re building something that you truly love, I mean the sales side is easy. So now it’s like I’m ready to go on the trail anytime because I know we can reach that final destination. It’s definitely not going to go to plan. We can do our best job of showing you what that plan might look like. But you got to have that confidence if you dove. I mean, it’s amazing what you can accomplish with a good idea.
Joshua Ross (38:08):
Alright, so we’re going to wrap this up with our lightning round and this is just quick answers off the top of your head on these questions. Nothing too crazy.
Pete Newlin (38:17):
Joshua Ross (38:20):
Where do you go to eat on date night? Boom. You didn’t even think twice about that one. Alright,
Pete Newlin (38:28):
Actually I take that back. I don’t know if I’ve ever taken my wife to Avernetta Sushi Den then Sushi Den Avernetta is still favorite restaurant in Denver.
Joshua Ross (38:37):
What’s the best piece of advice you received in your entrepreneurial journey?
Pete Newlin (38:42):
Ask more questions and listen.
Joshua Ross (38:44):
What do you tell your 22 year old self?
Pete Newlin (38:49):
Joshua Ross (38:50):
Patience. That’s great. And the final one, how does Pete Newland define success?
Pete Newlin (38:57):
I think we talk about this a lot and I mean one of the things that we didn’t talk about today is just how important community building really is. And frankly we didn’t talk about it at all. But at the core of these restaurants is restaurant exists to enlighten the community that has a privilege to operate in. And I’ll share one last story if that’s all right. When we opened up Park Burger Rhino, it’s in the heart of this beautiful art district, and this was early where Philippe gave me the opportunity to design the restaurants. And I don’t really watch sports, but in my head I was like, Denver’s a sports town. If we cover this thing with custom jerseys, say Park Burger and Nuggets and the Broncos and the X, Y, and Z, then it’s going to be a great Denver sports bar and people are going to love it.
Pete Newlin (39:42):
And we opened up this restaurant in the heart of Rhino and I had no idea what I was doing, but I remember opening the restaurant and there was even some Instagram people who put out there, they were get the Bross out of Rhino, which is actually pretty painful to hear. Nobody wants to hear that. But at the time I was so sad, I was so broken and I didn’t have the answers. And eventually it just led to the connection with the Rhino Arc District and it just led to a simple conversation about like, dude, this is who we are. And that conversation led to the reason why every bird call has a mural on the exterior because the importance of street and public art, but more importantly that it changed our soul. Because originally it was like, oh my gosh, we just got to fix where we just made this huge mistake.
Pete Newlin (40:30):
This was every penny I had just went into this restaurant and it’s a disaster. But what is so beautiful that came out of it was that we realized how magical that connection was. If you ask a community what’s important to them and how can we build a restaurant for you, which was a total shift from which we talked about earlier where it’s like, here’s a location, let’s put in something we think will be successful and let’s hope it will. It shifted to let’s go to the neighborhood meetings, let’s share who we are, let’s see what’s important, and let’s build something together. And what started with a couple jerseys on the wall, which are still in the office, not in any, there might be one in a restaurant somewhere, but has led to beautiful artwork led to these amazing relationships with some of the most incredible artists around the country. But it was just this awesome realization of how important it is to build a restaurant for that neighborhood and why it’s also important when new neighbors come into your community to share what’s important to set them up to be successful. Because there’s a better way, dude, I don’t even remember the question.
Joshua Ross (41:35):
What was the question? How do you define success?
Pete Newlin (41:37):
So that goes back to I think success for Gustavo Group. Berg Call will be determined by the impact that we’re able to make. And I think that’s what’s so beautiful, and I think that’s a journey that we all can get on board with. Because when I look back on the last 10 years, I remember that day when we hosted the first Denver deluxe and thousands of people were just dancing. And I’m like, holy, because of this beautiful hospitality group, we’re able to create this moment. Now what are these next moments? And let’s hold that energy and let’s bring it forward. So I think that is just, and just creating more of those magical moments because just like we have to create them for our guests, we got to create ’em for ourselves. We got to go to restaurants and we got to feel the power of magic. That’s why I go to Avernetta and I’m like, man, this is beautiful because then I go back in the next day and I’m so freaking inspired, I’m so jacked and whatever we do, if you can bring that level of inspiration in, it’s going to be some cool results are going to happen.
Joshua Ross (42:35):
Well, Pete Newland, thank you for your time today. I enjoyed this conversation.
Pete Newlin (42:38):
Yeah, thanks. Thank you for having me.
Joshua Ross (42:43):
The entrepreneurship at DU podcast was recorded at the University of Denver in Marjorie Reed Hall. You can find us on Instagram at du Entrepreneur on Twitter, x at DU entrepreneur, and on Facebook at entrepreneurship at du. This episode is edited, engineered, and produced by Sophia Holt.