An Interview with Glenn Cybulski
“If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, do something else.”
That quote is the first thing one reads when visiting Glenn Cybulski’s website, and it’s clear from the moment you meet him that he has taken those words to heart.
Whether discussing his restaurant experience, his love for pizza, or his consulting projects, Glen’s passion and positivity shines through.
An Executive Chef with over 25 years of restaurant experience, Glenn has owned 13 restaurants in Northern California and consulted on 50+ restaurant concepts. Over the years, Glenn has also made a big name for himself in the world of professional pizzaioli. Having studied at the world-renowned Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli, Glen has been a speaker and columnist for Pizza Today Magazine, a lecturer at the International Pizza Expo, and has been voted into the “Top Ten Pizzaioli in America by PTM".
Recently, we had the pleasure of speaking to him to discuss past work, current projects, and the challenges of working in the restaurant industry during the Covid-19 era.
You are a restaurateur and chef, but how did you get into pizza making specifically?
I ate it! That’s the simplest answer. I actually met some Italians, Massimiliano and Luca, in Hawaii as my career was starting to take off. That ultimately turned into a 25-year friendship. I had spent a lot of time in Italy, and I have always loved pizza. So really, it was an easy transition for me to pursue pizza making.
Why pizza, opposed to other Italian culinary specialties? What is it that drives you?
For me pizza is related to family. It is such a big part of Italian culture, and from the moment I touched down in Italy I was struck by the familial dynamic. When I arrived in Fregene for the first time the first thing we did was have dinner with the whole family.
Also, my father loved to cook, as a home chef, and loved to cook for everybody. He wanted everyone to be a part of it and it has been that same passion that is behind all my work with pizza.
You studied at the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli: tell me about what you got from that experience?
It was a fantastic experience. I took so much away from a technical standpoint.
As an example, a couple years ago Larry Forgione called me and said he someone at Caputo had suggested he contact me to talk about developing a Pinza pizza recipe for his vinyards locations. At that time no one was talking about Pinza, but I had studied it quite a lot. Eventually, I met in person with Larry and his son, Iron Chef Marc Forgione came as well. Marc ended up asking me to talk to his baker in New York about some ideas.
It made me really sit back and say: “Wow, I really know what I am doing.”
Experiences like that proved to me that I had the technical skills, and that is an area that I developed through experiences like my time at the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli. Then, of course, my mindset is to always work to learn more, but that was a big moment for me at that time.
What is the consulting like? You have worked in kitchens and launched your own projects, but how is it to assist on projects and consult for other people’s restaurants?
This business is about numbers first. Period. It is a hard business to be in, but it is numbers driven. If the numbers are in line, then you can move on to the next challenge. But first you must know your demographics, ethnographic, medium income, how far you can deliver, etc. You need to know all the numbers before you make your first pie.
One example I will give you is a pizzeria in California that I took on as a client. The owners who ran the place realized they were in bad shape and reached out to me. They said they were not making enough money, and I could see the problems in my first visit. No recipes so their food costs were not in line, inconsistent product, the walk in and dry storage was terrible; just a lot of issues. But, even with all these big issues they were still generating over 2 million gross the previous year. I was shocked: that’s great revenue anywhere. So, I told them I can get you an 8% boost on the bottom line, but I need you to listen to me. The most difficult part of consulting is that sometimes people let their egos get in the way and don’t follow and stick to the advice I give. They agreed and we got to work. This was 2 years ago. Last time, I spoke to them they had showed a 13% boost to the bottom line just by fixing inefficiencies.
Of course not all of my projects work out that way, but one thing I live by is that if I don’t think I can make a positive impact, I won’t take the job. Because the fulfilling thing for me is being able to help, using my experience. I have had success but I have also had to close restaurants because I didn’t do it right.
I learned things the hard way and I love being able to share that experience.
I won’t make those mistakes again, and you don’t have to either.
A lot of people in the news are saying that the restaurant industry will change forever after COVID-19. What do you have to say to restaurant owners?
The restaurant industry got hit by a meteor. It’s never going to be the same. When the world changes that sharply, the repercussions are profound; it’s not going to just snap back.
Now, when this pandemic hit, it was definitely a bad time to own a restaurant. But today, after that first few months of complete shutdown, we are seeing what the new normal will look like. Masks are here to say, social distancing, increased delivery, curb side etc. It is certainly not easy, but the rules are clearer now. To that point, it is a very dynamic time in the restaurant business. You have to adapt or you will die.
If you have a restaurant, the key question is how can you pivot right now to stay viable?
What do you do if you can only have 25% capacity if your traditional restaurant model? If you have not focused on curbside or delivery what will you do? You have got to set yourself up for remote sales, partner with third-party delivery systems, structure curb side pick-up, and change your pricing to new buying patterns. That being said, on the other hand I believe we will see a renaissance of higher quality foods and greater efficiency.
If you are thinking to open a restaurant, it is actually a very exciting time. In a strange way, this may be the perfect opportunity to open a new restaurant or eatery because it is the perfect moment to differentiate. I think there will be less restaurant failures because we now we know what to do. The writing is on the wall so you can set yourself up by looking at the numbers behind this new way of operating.
Life—and business—have ups and downs. Can you share one peak moment and one low moment that stands out to you, looking back at your life and career in the world of pizza?
I think the one that springs to mind is when, in 2006, I had a brand called Fregene. It was going well and I opened 2 new locations. Then the recession hit. I was a single dad with 4 young kids and no money. I remember coming home one night, sent the babysitter home and I broke down. That was a definite low. At that point I could have quit. But I didn’t and I made some hard choices and big decisions to be in a position to have consistent revenue to support my family.
I think the high points happens to me every single day. When I talk to people I work with. When the California Milk Advisory board calls me because they appreciate the work I do and want my opinion. Or the work I did with Larry and Marc Forgione. That appreciation for good work and the relationships and friendships really make it all worth it.
You know, Tony Germiniani, who brought me on to the World Pizza Champion, the other day I called him up and told him ‘hey I am free tonight you need any help, hell I can wash the dishes if you need it.’ However I can help, you know?
Or Pete Lachapelle telling me ‘you know you are the first guy I see who talks to a group about how much you have screwed up just to help people.’ Those are highlights. Moments I am really proud of.
Swallow our pride, roll up our sleeves and help each other. That can resonate through the entire world. It doesn’t have to be just the pizza industry or restaurants. That’s powerful.
What's next for you? I saw on your website some new about your new project Tossed, Sauced & Baked....
Well, I have been working with cannabis for a long time but I have not talked about it much. And a couple years ago, the kids are growing up and moving around and I wanted to be home a little more. This new venture seemed like a good pivot to me. So, I have taken my culinary rewards and expertise, my technical basis with food and cannabis—although I am not a big user—and started to enter to this emerging market.
I started Tossed, Sauced & Baked with Mark Stolfe, my partner in this, who sadly passed away at the start of this year. So it has been a tough year for a lot of reasons but I am grateful we have been able to launch the first two products in California a couple weeks ago. I am very excited about this. We have the Sweet n’ Spicy BBQ and Caramel Sauces out. In December we will launch the cannabis-infused Marinara. Also, I am starting with 3 different cannabis seminars at the Pizza Expo in March to share some of my knowledge and insights.