“I was born in Chicago and grew up in Fort Lauderdale when it was much smaller. I surfed, fished, scuba dove and sailed. I worked in restaurants from the time I was 14. I worked on golf courses on the weekends and cut grass in the summer. I’ve always been able to fit in and roll with life.
We opened Panini Pete’s in Fairhope in 2006, almost 15 years ago. I was the corporate chef for a regional chain and worked for other people for a long time. I always wanted to do my own thing and needed to put up or shut up. I had a windfall access to $20,000, which I thought was a major payload of cash. It was barely enough to open a sandwich shop.
When we opened, we could have easily gone out of business. I walked away from a good salary to invest in me. My car was repoed and my credit went bad. We lived on my wife Jodi’s teaching salary to make it work, but we made it through. I am not scared of being broke. I have been broke and not afraid to work hard and get out of it. I was broke much longer than I wasn’t and that guides me. There is almost always a way out.
I have been where my employees are. We are always looking for young people who can be trained and excited about being part of something bigger than themselves. That is how it happened for me. I was 15 the first time I got out of the dish room and was asked to prep the salad bar. It was my big day and I got the biggest knife I could find, a prime rib slicer that looked like a machete. On the third green pepper ring, I took the tip right off of my thumb. I wrapped it in towels and duct tape, the standard medical procedure in a kitchen, and said I am good. I didn’t want them to find out because I thought I would get fired. They said get back to the dish pit where you belong. That is why training staff is so important to me. I want them prepared for the job they are doing and help them learn as they move up. Training others also sharpens my own technique.
We jumped on the Fly Creek property when it became available. It was just a little shack on sand, but it was on the water and I knew we could do something special with it. Opening Sunset Pointe was a game-changer because we served lunch, dinner and cocktails. I went from going broke, to getting by, to becoming a little more vital. I brought in Nick to build a restaurant company. We added Ed’s Seafood Shed and Squid Ink. I don’t like standing on the sidewalk. I like dodging traffic, intensity, and chaos. I like playing and getting knocked over.
Food has done phenomenal things in my life and much of it started with a phone call I got from the Food Network about Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, in November of 2007. It was the second year of Panini Pete’s and I thought it was a prank by Nick until they talked with me for an hour. They said if there was interest in us, they would call back in four to six weeks. It was months before I heard back. I was a nervous wreck waiting for that second call. They said they were coming and told me the dishes they wanted to do. I redid the kitchen to get ready. We shot the B-roll of cooking dishes the first day. The next day we shot with Guy Fieri, and the two of us hit it off. Being in my restaurant with my hands in my food was comforting. I couldn’t have scripted my time with him any better.
Season three of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives premiered that night and we went to Wentzel’s in Fairhope to watch it with some of the crew. Wentzel’s sent out oysters and appetizers and asked what we wanted for dinner. Guy said ‘Just give us the kitchen’ and then ‘Come on Panini.’ We drank beer, cooked for the table and had a blast. Even the crew was blown away. The next day, Guy asked me to show him the town before he left. I was exhausted because we had been prepping all week and the shoot was 22 hours of filming for six minutes of air time. He pulled up in his Camaro and told me I was going with him to Biloxi. Jodi said go, so I scraped together a few bucks and went. The crew wondered why I was still around. I was invited to other episodes Guy did and we became big buddies.
Life changes on a phone call. There are opportunities around us every day, a lot of them we miss. It’s an opportunity to be nice, to do the right thing and to help somebody. I maximized the opportunities from the shows and I won the lottery. Panini Pete’s became a destination. Guy started the Mess Lords where we would be in the trenches cooking and feeding the troops. We had a blast. Hundreds of thousands of meals later, cooking for troops has taken me around the world.
I’m working on two books right now. One is recipes that coincide with the stories of my culinary life. The other is the about a spatula, success and leadership. You can make it or break it with a spatula. They say trash cans are lined with gold in restaurants because there is so much left in containers that are thrown away. Much of this can be saved with a spatula. Saving the morsels can add up to a 20-gallon bucket of aioli by the end of the year. That is meaningful. In life, if you seek out the overlooked and insignificant tasks, or the thank yous and gratitude, and it becomes a life well-lived. It’s love and relationships. Then one day you are watching jets take off from an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Arabian Sea, pinching yourself and asking how did I get here? I make sandwiches. Abundance is out there if you pay attention and do the most with what you have right now.
The books will be heavily edited. I have written 2500 words for the leadership book. Writing is not my thing. I hated school and was terrible at English. I have to schedule writing or it will never happen. But once it’s done, I will be proud to hold that book.
Coronavirus was devastating. The loss of sales was huge and we’ll never get that back. The PPP money helped us over the hump to where we could start breaking even and maybe making money again. We don’t know what the future will bring, but we are doing all we can to have the correct protocols. Those costs add up. We’ve been very lucky to have three venues with outdoor seating. The city was good to us to allow us to put tables on Dauphin Street at Squid Ink.
I am not that good or smart, I am just old and have been around a long time. Restaurants are a hard business. They are labor-intensive with small margins. A place can run its course and you are left with little in your pocket. That is why we started looking for real estate and bought this building. We moved our accounting team here and made it our world headquarters. We ran through a couple of ideas that all focused on hospitality and good customer service and Mobtown Proper was born. It is haircuts and hospitality for men and women. Because of the uncertainty of COVID, we also had to pump the brakes on other new projects. We’re working on ideas for a food hall, a pizzeria, and maybe a coffee house for next door.
Who knows what is next? Real estate is what I am evolving into. Also more mentoring and leadership training. I want to give others the support and opportunities that were given to me.”