Live from the E&R Conference Part 5: Have Your Pie and Eat It Too

Author: Pam Bohanan | Source: HCI | Published: October 6, 2010

It is day two of HCI’s 2010 Engagement and Retention Conference in Waltham, Massachusetts! Our morning keynote speaker is Nick Sarillo, CEO and Founder of Nick’s Pizza and Pub. Nick currently owns two pizzerias in Northwest Illinois and has discovered the link between engaged employees and bottom line performance. Nick has been featured in Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, and Inc. Magazine for his incredible story Have Your Pie and Eat It Too: Building a Values-Driven, High-Performance Organization.

Nick’s Pizza and Pub is not your typical pizza joint. Each restaurant makes over 800 pizzas a night, they require 45 employees working per shift, and each location produces $3.5 million in sales each year. The atmosphere sounds hectic and stressful, but Nick’s goal is to make it fun. “In today’s market, you cannot compete on price and produce alone” Nick says, “The only way to stay competitive is through the people you work with.”

Nick has instituted a 5 step framework of employee engagement that includes:

  • Purpose & Values -
  • Trust ‘n Track
  • Leadership Behaviors
  • Feedback System
  • Creating Safe Space

Nick believes Purpose & Values are verbs, not just nouns. He has a clearly defined company purpose described as “The Nick’s Experience” that reads “Our dedicated family provides this community an unforgettable place; to connect with your family and friends, to have fun and to feel at home!” This purpose has become a shared expectation throughout the organization.

Their company values include treating everyone with dignity and respect, dedicating time to the learning, teaching, and ongoing development of each other, and to have fun while they work. Each of these company values are referenced when an issue arises. Putting a system in place that integrates company values into solutions allows Nick’s employees to formulate their own solutions and create a flatter, more incorporated company.


A major key to Nick’s success is creating a culture of trust. When you have trust within your company, your guests and clients will feel that trust. To create a trust culture you must be explicit about the culture you want to have, and track those behaviors throughout the organization.

Nick also instills leadership behaviors into potential employees before they are even hired. Nick see’s the application process as one way to instill company values into his employees. On the cover of Nick’s Pizza and Pub application, it clearly lists the shared values of the organization. Under the list of values, the application form asks applicants outright “If this sounds like the kind of place you would like to work, then promptly fill out the attached application. If this sounds like a place that you may not be interested in, then kindly save yourself the time, and do not complete the application.” Applicants are then instructed to choose their own interview time from a schedule of interviews that are conducted weekly. This process alone is just one way that Nice sets up accountability and leadership practices with his employees.

Once employees are hired they must attend a 2 day orientation covering purpose, values, and company culture. Next, everyone in the company (including company leaders) attends a 101level class in the heart of the restaurant making pizzas. After their 4 hours class in the kitchen, they are allowed to attend a 201 workgroup certification course on the job they were hired for. The last class offered at Nick’s Pizza is a 301 level course that covers “Leadership Passport” training. This class is open to everyone from servers to top management and teaches employees to train others using positive psychology methods on coaching and management.

Nick has also created a feedback model for his employees to follow. He uses a feedback loop to ask employees “What is one thing you did well?” He then asks “What is one thing I can do differently in my next shift to enhance my performance?” This loop is answered with performance feedback from the trainer who also recognizes something an employee did well, and something they can improve on. This feedback process consistently instills a performance culture that employees strive for.

Nick’s last employee engagement model involves creating a “Safe Space” for his workers. Nick recognizes that there are going to be conflicts in his organization, especially during a high volume shift. The safe space model allows people to use “I” statements as an effective communication model to eliminate the elephant in the room and lessen conflict throughout the company. All safe spaces are confidential and lead to high performance communication and action focused solutions.

These simple tools and best practices can be used by any business to build a value-driven, high-performing organization.

Stay tuned for more live blogs from HCI’s 2010 Engagement and Retention Conference! 

Photo by: Sebastian Mary