Paulie Gee & The Brotherhood of Pizza Entrepreneurs – Part II: The Beginning
This story is presented in five parts, read Part I here.
Part II: The Beginning
After working toward a BFA in Photography from SVA, Paulie Gee moved to Miami but missed New York and came back after just a short stint. “It must have been fate because that’s when I met my wife,” Paulie says. Having seen her on the train a couple of times, he saw her at a bar in Bay Ridge one night. “She was with friends and I said, ‘I know you.’ ‘No you don’t.’ ‘Yes, I do. You take the R train.’”
Proceeding to flirt with all her friends throughout the night, ignoring his future wife, Mary Ann. “Maybe I danced with her once,” Paulie says. “And at the end of the night, her girlfriend shoved her telephone number in my hand. That was basically it. In case she’s reading this, it was November 12th 1976.”
At the time, and through the early 1980s, Paulie Gee was working at the Port Authority in One World Trade Center. “I had an accounting job,” Paulie says. “I had started there in the mailroom, ya know, I had ambitions.”
“And so I wanted to do more, and I thought it would be cool to get into information technology because it was the future. I thought I was a geek because I was fairly good at math, I was in accounting, but that’s math, that’s not geeky. I didn’t realize that.”
So Paulie enrolled in night school and had a split major of information systems and accounting and left the Port Authority for a position at AT&T and eventually the spinoff Lucent Technologies and AVAYA where he worked for 18 years, though he was never quite satisfied. “I wasn’t a geek,” says Paulie. “And I was competing with geeks. I wasn’t getting as far as I liked to. I climbed my way somewhat up the corporate ladder but ya know it wasn’t right.”
Then one day Paulie accepted an offer for an early retirement and decided to work as a consultant. But he couldn’t find an assignment locally and eventually took a 7-week consulting gig in Houston. A week after he arrived there “the planes slammed into the towers and things got very tough,” Paulie says. For a number of years after 2001, Paulie was constantly on the hunt for the next assignment, taking jobs out of town to stay working: Syracuse, Greensboro, Philadelphia… “It was hell,” Paulie says. “There were times where I’d be out of a job for months on end and that wasn’t good, because ya know, we like to live a good life. I knew that my children would not get a chance to go back and be 10 years old again and ski with their father, ok? So I just kept doing what we wanted to do, we’d go out West every year. First with just one son, because the younger one was too young, then we all went out after that. And I figured I’d worry about it later, I’d figure out how to pay those bills. So I had this freight train coming at me, and I had to do something. I also knew I had do something because I wasn’t satisfied. People said I should open a restaurant and I was not interested. It didn’t appeal to me. Number one, it just made my head spin, trying to figure out how to coordinate everything and not throw out tons of food, but it kept gnawing at me, I had to do something.”
Paulie was considering moving his family to “ski country” where he could perhaps run a bed and breakfast when his friend and neighbor Russell approached him with a business proposal: Russell would bank Paulie to open up a franchise location of the breakfast and lunch restaurant Le Peep. “I wouldn’t have to put up any money,” Paulie says. “And I would give him 5% of the gross. Sounded like a great idea. We started looking at spots, thank God we didn’t find one because the more and more I thought about it, ya know, there’s no creativity in this at all. You have to make exactly what they do.”
But this initial consideration, opening up a Le Peep franchise, was what lead Paulie Gee back to one of his original passions: pizza.
“I was a pizza enthusiast,” Paulie says. “I’ve been a pizza enthusiast all my life. But I was a New York-style pizza enthusiast, had all my little favorite spots.” He hadn’t really branched out from the pizza that he knew and loved growing up. In many ways, Paulie was a prime example of the pizza cognition theory, which states that the first slice of pizza a child tastes and truly enjoys becomes for him, what all pizza is and should be. But then Paulie made a trip to Totonno’s pizzeria on Coney Island and discovered “a totally different kind of pizza and I really loved it,” Paulie says. “This pizza enthusiast thing really started blossoming and I started looking, going on pizza tours as a family, our friends would come, trying out four or five different places a day.”
It was then that Paulie chose not to open a Le Peep and decided he wanted to open a pizzeria. “I was emboldened,” Paulie says. “Ya know, a restaurant? That’s complicated. But going to all these pizzerias, I observed that was a lot simpler. It’s all very focused, you do everything the same way. And that emboldened me. It allowed me to be willing to take a risk. Because you gotta take risks in life to make things happen, ok? You can’t sit around, you can’t hope that you’re gonna get free health insurance, or that you’ll be paid forever if you can’t find a job. You can’t hope on any of these things. If you want to have a good life you have to take care of yourself and to do that you gotta take a risk. And I just decided that’s what I was gonna do.”
So Paulie Gee started telling people: sharing his desire and mission to open a pizzeria. He even spoke with some people about building a brick pizza oven at his home in New Jersey, but that was too expensive. “And finally I found free plans on a site called FornoBravo.com and I started doing this and I told my friend Russell, I’m opening up a pizzeria, and I thought he’d go along and was gonna invest in this pizzeria. But it turned out he didn’t really think that was a good idea. But he did have a passion for masonry and he wholeheartedly helped me build that oven and I may not be here without his help. I mean, I did a lot of it, you follow these plans, but, ya know, mixing cement, stuff like that… he was good at that.”
Paulie and his neighbor Russell built a traditional Neapolitan brick pizza oven in his backyard in New Jersey, but this wasn’t a hobby or a means to an end for Paulie to open his own pizzeria. For Paulie, it was much more than that. “Part of the reason I needed to do this was because I needed to show my children what they were made of,” Paulie says. “That you need to go out and do things for yourself, you gotta say you’re gonna do things, and you gotta do them. I said to my son, ya know, when he was 10 years old he said he wanted to be a pilot, and I told him he could do it and I encouraged him. At that point I was building the oven and he was attending the Air Force academy. He followed my words. Now I gotta walk the walk, right? And I had my other son and what did he see? ‘How did I get to be who I am?’ You look at your parents. I wanted my children to look at me, and know that they had something, like… Somebody once said to me, at one of these multi-level marketing conferences, ‘We all have seeds of greatness in us.’ And I wanted to show them how those seeds can become something. And I wanted to show my wife that she made a great decision, ya know, saying yes to me when I asked her to marry me. So those things were motivating me.”
And on Thanksgiving week 2007, with his son home visiting from the Air Force Academy, Paulie pulled the first pies out of his backyard pizza oven.
“There’s two things you need to accomplish things in life,” says Paulie. “A belief and commitment. You need to believe you can do something, because if you don’t really think that the effort you’re putting out is going to get what you want to accomplish, as soon as you run into a roadblock, you’re gonna bounce off it and you’re gonna say, ‘Eh, forget it.’ Why go through all of this if you don’t know that you could do it. You need the belief. The other thing is the commitment. When you start telling people you’re gonna do something, it makes it harder for you not to. You’re doing that for yourself. The belief was making that pie in that oven, but more importantly it was the belief that I saw other people doing it.”
One of Paulie’s inspirations was a man named Mark Iacono, owner of the famed Carroll Gardens pizzeria Lucali, which became an overnight sensation the day it opened in 2006, despite the fact that Iacono, had worked as a granite and marble fabricator for 20 years, had almost no restaurant or cooking experience.
“That gave me the belief that I could do that,” says Paulie. “I owe my life to people like Mark Iacono.” Others who gave Paulie the belief he needed include Mathieu Palombino of Motorino and Stalin Bedon and Tom Grim behind Nomad Pizza in Hopewell, New Jersey. And once Paulie committed, built the oven, and proved to himself that he could actually make a pizza in a wood-burning oven, he said to himself, “Ok, now I gotta work on a dough recipe.”
Part III: Backyard Pizza Tastings will be published at Greenpointers.com next week.