- March 1, 2019
Do you like hot oil on your pizza? What about an entire salad? If so, you’re probably a fan of Colony Grill, the New England restaurant chain that debuted in 1935 in Stamford, Connecticut, and has recently arrived in the Tampa Bay region.
With a four-leaf clover logo and interior décor reminiscent of an Irish tavern, Colony Grill isn’t your typical pizzeria — and forget about finding fish ‘n’ chips or bangers and mash on the menu. An abundance of beers are on tap, but if you’re hungry, you’ve got three choices: pizza, pizza and more pizza.
How has such an unusual restaurant concept lasted nearly nine decades?
“For any successful business, what makes it a successful business — and I don’t care if it’s a restaurant business, a technology company, a manufacturing company — it just comes down to people and the processes you have every day,” Colony Grill co-owner Paul Coniglio says. “For us, we had to figure out a way to develop our people and not have the typical high restaurant turnover.”
Coniglio and the other Colony Grill co-owners — Ken Martin, Chris Drury and Cody Lee — know well the importance of having a strong team. They were all members of the baseball squad from Trumbull, Connecticut who famously won the Little League World Series in 1989, going 15-1 during the tournament. (Tampa Bay Rays Manager Kevin Cash also competed that year, for the team from Tampa.)
Drury would go on to play in the NHL for the Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, retiring in 2011. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015 and is now the Rangers’ president and general manager.
Coniglio and Martin oversee the company’s day-to-day operations but always run big decisions, such as the Tampa Bay expansion, by Drury and Lee. “That’s something that all four guys are going to sit down and talk about,” Coniglio says. “That’s a big move.”
Branching out of their geographic comfort zone was also a big risk for the four partners, because only Martin had prior restaurant experience. One of the keys to their success? Start with the basics: When they acquired the original Colony Grill location in Stamford, they focused on improving and streamlining the processes that had made it a viable enterprise capable of withstanding economic ups and downs.
That effort included the creation of four guiding principles, or commandments, as the Colony Grill partners refer to them, that were intended to give both management and employees a shared sense of purpose as the restaurant’s footprint grew. The commandments are simple, sensible and written in plain English, not corporate jargon.
For example, “The Napkin is Yours” reads:
“Every day, without fail, a Colony customer will inadvertently drop a hot-oil stained napkin on the bar or dining room floor. The napkin is yours to pick up. It is all of ours to pick up. Even if the napkin is not near our section. Even if our shift just ended. Even if someone else should have already done it. If we choose to always ‘pick up the napkin’ — greet an unsure guest, explain our history to a first-time visitor, make the effort — we will continue to clear a path toward collective success.”
Coniglio and Martin came up with the four commandments in 2009, while writing a business plan for the Colony Grill. They didn’t hire a consultant or convene a focus group, nor did they borrow ideas from a business book.
“The cool thing is,” Coniglio says, “we wrote that mission statement early on, and it hasn’t changed at all in 13 years. It’s been a good way to always go back and ask ourselves, ‘What’s our north star? What are the things that we strive to be every day?’ As a restaurant group, on a day-to-day basis in our restaurants, it’s those commandments.”
Colony Grill might be new to Florida, but when customers step inside one of the restaurants and experience the cozy pub atmosphere and peruse the “Wall of Heroes” — a display of dozens of photos of local veterans, first responders and law enforcement personnel, submitted by their family members — they’ll likely feel good about their decision to dine there, and that’s no accident.
“People crave connection and nostalgia,” Martin says, “and it can be hard to find great nostalgic experiences in this country. We also have a unique pizza product and try to keep the beer cold, but beyond that, over this pizza, there are connections and memories that are being made every day.”
He adds, “Most of them are happy some, but there are some other instances … we see it all the time, people coming in after a funeral or some big life event. We want to be that place for all those experiences, whether it’s after a Little League game, or a business meeting, or catching up with family over the holidays.”
Although no one would confuse Colony Grill with a coffee shop, the restaurant’s owners have taken a page from the Starbucks playbook and aspired to make it a “third place” — not home, not work, but a space where people feel they belong and can participate in, and help build, their community.
“Every market needs that place,” Coniglio says, “that home away from home, whether you’re coming out of the office in a suit and tie or coming off a softball field, or the beach in shorts and a T-shirt. We want to be that place that’s comfortable for anybody, in any moment, when they crave that home away from home.”
Exporting Colony Grill to Florida hasn’t been without its challenges, however. It remains to be seen whether the restaurant’s unique take on pizza will thrive, but considering the state’s robust population of New England expats, chances are good it will catch on. Also, being in business with friends or family is always fraught with perils other partnerships usually don’t have to deal with.
“We were good at being friends — we’ve known each other since we were six years old,” Martin says. “But you have to learn to become business partners. It’s a totally different ballgame.”
It took years, Martin says, for the four partners to figure out what made the others tick when it comes to business processes and decisions. They all have different communication styles, “and everybody has egos,” Martin says.
“How do you navigate that?” he adds. “You can see why partnerships fall apart. There are tipping points along the way where you decide to go one way or another, and I think we’ve done a good job of navigating those, but it’s definitely something that takes time.”
Ignoring doubts and criticism has also served the Colony Grill partners well.
“Early on, we heard a lot of negativity,” Coniglio says. People questioned their decision to go into the risk-laden restaurant industry and feared the venture would destroy their friendship. “A lot of people were telling us it was a crazy idea.”
The doubters now have pizza pie on their face. Although Coniglio and Martin decline to disclose Colony Grill’s gross annual revenue, they’re already eyeing additional locations for expansion.
“Places like Wesley Chapel are great, and as far south as Sarasota and everywhere in between,” says Coniglio, who’s so committed to the region he moved his family to Tampa. “There are some some really great opportunities here.”