New Jersey native Joey Vanoni has a love for two things: his country and his pizza. Ever since he was a kid, Vanoni has wanted to open a pizzeria. After serving in the U.S. Navy for over seven years, he became a government contractor – but when the government shut down in 2013 he had trouble finding a position suited to his unique skill set. Little did he know, the skills he learned through his military service had perfectly prepared him for his dream job: CEO and founder of Pizza di Joey, a shop specializing in brick oven pizza, in Baltimore.
In celebration of Veteran’s Day, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sat down with Vanoni to learn how he transitioned from a Naval officer into a business owner, what advice he would give to aspiring veteran entrepreneurs, and his opinion on the best kind of pizza. Here’s what he had to say. (What follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity):
Q: What inspired you to start your business?
A: Making pizza has always been a passion of mine ever since I was a little kid. I always thought it was really cool to make pizzas, and I did it in high school as a part time job. When I joined the service, I made pizzas for my friends and whatnot on Sundays for football games – just to give everyone a small little piece of home. Pizza is one of those foods, you know, that brings everyone back home.
Once I'd come back from overseas in 2013, I was working as a defense contractor when the government was shut down. At that point I finished my undergraduate, I was halfway through my Master’s, and I had over 10 years of experience in my career field. I was a newly commissioned Naval officer in the reserves, and I couldn't find a job.
And so I was speaking with a buddy of mine who is an entrepreneur and also a veteran. He said, “You know, Joey, you've always talked about starting this pizzeria. Why don't you just do it now?” And I said, “Well, that was kind of my plan for retirement. I have no clue about business. I don't even know where to start.” And he told me I was a smart guy and could figure it out. The biggest step was just taking the first step.
I gave it some consideration. One of my best friends Tomas, who is also a minor business partner of mine said, “Joey, if you do it, do it on a food truck.” He’d been living in New York City at the time, where food trucks were really big. So, I did some research – like, if we did it, would we be able to put the kind of oven that I would want on the food truck? It looked viable. And I really just said to myself, “What's the opportunity cost here? I can continue to try to look for work that's probably not going to come to fruition, or I can start today building my own business and my success will be measured by my effort and my effort alone.” And that's when I decided that that was going to be the most efficient and effective way to be able to provide for myself.
Q: What skills from your military service have helped you as an entrepreneur?
A: In the military – from day one – they teach you to show up to work on time in a clean uniform, to be a good follower, and how to be a leader and take command of a situation. In the military you're often given these tasks, tasks that are pretty challenging, and you're generally not even given the tools to accomplish those tasks.
As an entrepreneur, that's par for the course. You have some type of business objective and you generally don't have the financial means. Sometimes it is the staffing or a material need to accomplish that objective. And in the military that happens all the time. A job that needs 10 people, you generally only have three. Or you’re assigned something that really takes a week to accomplish, but you’re given two days. Maybe you need a whole tool chest with the tools and they give you a hammer. If you talk to anybody in the military, no matter what their job field is, this happens all the time. And as an entrepreneur, you have to be ready for those circumstances.
Q: What are your goals for Pizza di Joey’s growth?
A: We went from a food truck to a brick and mortar store so I'm bringing different services online. As a business, you need to constantly be evolving, developing, and changing, otherwise you get stagnant or shrink. But once we get settled in, which I think we're just a few months away from, we'll be looking for our second location. The idea is to have a second location within the next couple of years and then continue to grow from there.
I am doing this with the intention of growing and scaling the business. The pizzas we make are not as easy as, you know, going into Domino’s. We make our pizzas with very particular processes with regards to food preparation. We need to ensure that we have those quality control mechanisms in place with the understanding that our goal is to make the best authentic brick oven pizza here in Baltimore.
Q: How do you hope to incorporate the veteran community into your business in the future?
A: You know, there are definitely people who do a lot more for the veteran community who aren't even veterans themselves. Personally, I just try to do what I can do with my capacity. I currently serve on the board of a veteran nonprofit and we're trying to bring one or two of the guys that are residents there on board as employees and provide them some part time work. That's a really important part of my business. I was a veteran who was unemployed in the past. The idea is to employ veterans like we've done in the past and provide them with meaningful work and good wages.
Q: What advice would you give to other veterans looking to start their own businesses?
A: Make sure you do your research. Build a business plan. That's what I did. I would also emphasize to them how the military has provided them opportunities to hone the skills that are absolutely essential to starting your own business and making it successful. The discipline you learn in the military is absolutely critical because you need to be disciplined. In business you have to be able to prioritize for yourself, manage yourself and your staff, and manage your assets. So, do your research, give it all you've got, and think back on how you can leverage the skills you learned in the military to make your business successful.
Q: If you had to pick your favorite pizza at Pizza di Joey, what would it be?
A: Cheese pizza! We make probably over 40 different kinds of pizzas. Cheese pizza is my favorite.
Q: Do you have any Veteran’s Day plans?
A: Yes. For Veteran’s Day we’re going to do a meal combo for $11.11 with proof of service, and that will include a 32-ounce beer and a slice of cheese or pepperoni pizza.
Q: That’s awesome. What about you personally? Are you celebrating Veteran’s Day in any way?
A: I'm going to be working. I feel like I'm living the American dream every day. I always wanted to join the Navy. And I always wanted to have a pizzeria. And I've gotten to do both of those things, you know? I think serving your country, not just in the military, and serving your community are critical to being a good citizen.
I feel like owning your own business and making your own way, pursuing your vision and being self-determined – that's what makes America, America. It's a great feeling.
Q: So Joey, what does business mean to you?
A: Business is responsibly, ethically making a profit. I tell people, in business, you have to make money. If you don't make money, you're not in business. But you have to do it the right way. You have to be able to turn a profit, and your business must be in good standing to be able to help other people. Only then can you provide more jobs and more opportunities and give back to the community.
Q: Any last thoughts?
A: For veteran entrepreneurs, I would say it's okay to turn the page in the book and move on to the next chapter. I recently resigned my commission in the reserves. I’m still going through the process, and it’s a pretty hard loss for me because I love serving in the military. I love being in the Navy. I love doing my job. I love doing all of that, and it's almost like getting a divorce. I joined the military when I was 18 years old, I have quite a few deployments under my belt, and my adult life has been dedicated to doing that kind of work. While owning Pizza di Joey over the last five years I’ve been working 100 hours per week trying to do everything – and to walk away from that and just solely focus on my business is hard because I just have so much love for being in the military and serving our country.
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