This is Brigitte Saldarriaga, the Operations Manager at The Hummus & Pita Co., and Cristina Girbu, the Store Operations and Franchise Training Manager at The Hummus & Pita Co. Brigitte was born and raised in New York and has been working in the food industry for eleven years. She attributes her passion for food to her family, most of whom she says work in this business. Her dad was a waiter and a chef for seventeen years, her cousin is the executive chef at Gabriella’s and her uncle is a chef at Carmines, where her cousins also work. After starting her career as a cashier at Lenwich, she steadily moved up the ranks to take over the operations of their catering department before moving to The Green Summit Group, where she worked her way up to COO. She now runs the operations for The Hummus & Pita Co., a position that she took over this past January. Cristina, conversely, had no background in food before applying for the job of cashier at The Hummus & Pita Co. seven years ago. Originally from Moldova, a small Eastern European country between Romania and Ukraine, Cristina move to the U.S. after university because she wanted to work rather than get married, which her friends and family were telling her was her next step. At the time, she says, she never thought that she would become an integral part of such a huge team. She just applied to the job that she found on a hiring website to learn about the restaurant industry. In fact, she doesn’t even really like to cook. It was simply an opportunity that she took advantage of because she likes to learn and she’s good at understanding how things can operate effectively. She worked her way up to assistant manager then general manager and now does the company’s franchisee training, the highest position within the store operations. Although Brigitte and Cristina come from very different backgrounds, both have found a home at The Hummus & Pita Co., which they say operates like one big family, thanks to David Pesso, the co-owner of the business. The “mastermind” behind everything they do, David has used his family recipes to build a fast casual concept where they continue to create the home cooked food that his mother and grandmother used to make. Their focus on traditional, authentic recipes has lead The Hummus & Pita Co. to be known for their fresh, healthy and delicious menu items, which are made in house daily.
David was raised by a single mother in Brooklyn, NY. Like Cristina, he doesn’t have an “official” culinary background but growing up in Brooklyn enticed him to open up bagel stores and he had a few silent partnerships within the food industry over the years. However, he came up with the idea for The Hummus & Pita Co. when he was young and kept it in the back of his mind until he was able to bring the vision to life. The Hummus & Pita Co. is different from other Mediterranean restaurants because it’s a mixture of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences, just like David, who’s half Greek and half Israeli. He wanted to make sure that the food from his childhood was woven into the fabric of the business rather than only being something that they produced. So he worked with his mother to create the concept and execute it so that he could be sure that he was getting the culture of the restaurant right. Which is why in every location they have a shawarma next to a gyro, Turkish salad, Morccan carrots, Lebanese cauliflower, etc., all of which you very rarely see together. When the business first opened in 2012, Cristina says that it was mostly David, herself and the rest of the team figuring out operations together- seeing what worked and what didn’t work and adjusting from there. Everyone was learning together, slowly putting in the foundation of the operating system that they use today. David was very involved in the day to day operations, coming up with different ideas on how they could improve and asking her opinion on whether it could be executed or how she thought it could work better before trying it out. He used his team as a sounding board and welcomed their feedback if they saw a better way to do something because he wanted to make sure that he was constantly reviewing every part of the business for improvements. Being a feedback-driven owner is how Cristina believes that David has built the business so successfully.
Most of the recipes for the menu items at The Hummus & Pita Co. come from David’s grandmother, which is why he insists on making them the traditional way although they have modern technology now that would make it a lot quicker and easier. He doesn’t want to stray away from tradition and lose the flavor that handcrafting the food provides. Their main chef, who has been with The Hummus & Pita Co. since it opened and has twenty years of experience, has helped document all of these recipes and figure out how to mass produce them. Every recipe started, and continues to start, as a single serving recipe and then once David and his mother feel it’s up to par, the entire company will taste it and give it the okay. The chef then creates the proper ratios for each ingredient and the proper maintenance for the food so that it can be replicated and produced at each location. As the menu has grown, everything continues to be David’s recipes. From the seasonings to the spices, they use specific ingredients, a lot of which they have to import or special order, because almost all of their food is made in-house on a daily basis. They make their items fresh every day and don’t use any preservatives to keep the dishes as healthy as possible. Unlike other restaurants, nothing is prepackaged or mass produced. Everything is prepped to order and after so many years in business, they know how to forecast their volume each day so it’s rare that they have food left over. If they run out of something, they have preps that are there throughout the day and night that can make anything that they need. Because their kitchen team makes the food using traditional methods, there’s a lot of skill, dedication and patience that goes into the food creation every day. Not only does this allow you to taste the freshness and quality of their food, the love that they put into their craft makes it even more delicious.
Both Brigitte and Cristina agree that the most important piece of the business is customer service. They say that David is very particular with the people that he hires because he wants all of their employees to be a representation of the brand. The store employees specifically are the first people that a customer sees when they enter the store so he doesn’t want them pushing the customer along the line like they don’t care about the food, he wants them to be dedicated to what they’re selling. Which is why their training process takes about two weeks and has three different stages: shadowing, side-by-side and validation, eventually having the new employee take over a station on their own and get reviewed by a manager. But whether you work front of house or back of house, every employee has to know all of the recipes, allergens and how each item is made because they have such unique ingredients in their dishes. Using the wrong item, like black peppers instead of red peppers, completely changes the flavor profile of a dish, so the little details are the most important. However, most of their employees are very passionate about the business and their food. Cristina says that almost all of the employees from their original team are still working at The Hummus & Pita Co. and if they didn’t start with her, most have been working there for three to five years, so they’ve all known each other for a while. They spend more time together than they do with their actual families and have become a family themselves, the head of which is David. Brigitte says that David has become sort of a father figure to the company, they all want to impress him because he’s so hands-on and involved in the business. He leads by example, often jumping on the line to help serve people and supporting his team when they’re short-staffed. Being raised by a single mother and also being a parent himself, he’s very understanding that life happens sometimes and is very flexible with his employees in regards to childcare issues, always offering for them to bring their son(s) or daughter(s) to the restaurant to hang out while they work. He believes that the work he’s doing is for everyone to succeed together and wants his employees to be as passionate about the company as he is, because they’re contributing to that success. And that inclusive attitude has allowed his employees to create their own supportive, family dynamic.
As The Hummus & Pita Co. continues to grow, they’re putting a bigger emphasis on food allergies and dietary restrictions. When the business opened they had vegetarian and gluten free menu options but have since developed the menu to include vegan options as well, which they’re continuing to add more of. They’re always thinking outside of the box to come up with new ideas (like the chickpea chiller and the chickpea smears) to meet the different demographics and communicate with those communities to show that they’re a comprehensive restaurant where people with all different eating habits can come together for a delicious, healthy meal. They’re also looking to expand the business itself, now with franchises in Connecticut, New Jersey, Colorado and Michigan and planning for Atlanta and San Diego later this year. For Cristina, being the Franchise Training Manager, the most challenging part of the business is creating a team that supports one another, understands the brand and promotes it. Teaching others about the business is something that motivates her as a leader but she wants to make sure that the people she’s training are as engaged with the business as she is and are working with the same dedication that her team in New York does. But the more they expand, the more room there is for error, which is frustrating to her, since she helped build the business. Her goal is to train the franchisees to be able to speak about the brand as well as she and David can and she enjoys learning better ways to teach that. However, both Cristina and Brigitte agree that David is the motivating factor behind the business and the selling factor that gets a lot of franchisees on board. Seeing how hard he works and how dedicated he is to the business is inspiring and makes you want to be a part of the growth, no matter how tough it gets.
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