Panini Pete with Panini Pete Hospitality Group

Panini Pete with Panini Pete Hospitality Group

This week on The Mobile Alabama Business Podcast, we sit down with Chef "Panini" Pete with Panini Pete Hospitality Group. Listen in as we discuss the exciting things he has in store next for downtown Mobile!

Produced by Blue Fish


Panini Pete: Hey, my name is Panini Pete Blohme, and I am owner/operator of Panini Pete's, Sunset Pointe, Ed's Seafood Shed, Squid Ink, basically PP Hospitality. We also have a little barbershop on the side, Mob Town Proper.

Marcus Neto: There you go. I want to just warn everybody that I am sitting here with Mr. Panini himself, and there will be very little talking by me. I'll probably just be able to interject a question every once in a while. He's just going to talk for, I don't know, a good 30 or 40 minutes. So kick back, relax, grab a glass of your finest rosé or just enjoy the show because this man has a lot of knowledge.

Panini Pete: You know I'm shy, Marcus.

Marcus Neto: No, I mean we're joking with each other. But Pete was nice enough to come on the podcast when we were just getting started. We ran into each other recently, and we tried to get you in to record, but you were off traveling. So I do appreciate you being here. I know you are very busy. So thank you for making time.

Panini Pete: Man, thank you for having me here. Anytime you can get a chance to sit down, relax, talk with somebody like yourself. We don't hang out a lot, but I think we watch each other from afar. I see what you do, and I'm a big fan of what you do. I'm not saying necessarily even the product, just you believing in yourself, being out there. I know how tough it is to be an entrepreneur. A lot of people don't have the stomach for it. And then it's even tougher when you get there, to stay in it and then to grow-

Marcus Neto: Sometimes you question your sanity for staying in.

Panini Pete: Oh, absolutely.

Marcus Neto: Yeah, yeah.

Panini Pete: So I'm just glad to hang out with you because it's a good time. I don't spend enough time with cool creative entrepreneurs like you.

Marcus Neto: I appreciate that. Yeah. Well, I am also very appreciative of you for this standpoint. You and I were just talking, and you were talking about something that is coming in the future. Without a hesitation, you mentioned five or six guys that are in another area that are kicking ass. I think one of the things that people are afraid to do when they get some level of success is recognize the success of their peers around them.

Marcus Neto: But I always see you working with, celebrating, shouting out your peers when they achieve those successes. I think that is absolutely amazing. Does that come from someplace or is this a conscious thing? Or do you just-

Panini Pete: I mean I just feel like it's so collaborative. We all learn from each other. We all have other ideas. Sometimes we just motivate each other. It's crazy that some people are so competitive. I'm very competitive. I want to dominate in the market. I want to kick ass. I want to be the best I can be-

Marcus Neto: But you want to do it-

Panini Pete: ... in a way that I don't want to say, "You suck," or, "I'm going to beat you," whatever. I want to be my best and be recognized for that, but I celebrate everybody. Wins are wins, and our business is hard. Guess what? You're not going to eat with me every night. I don't need everything on the menu. I don't need to be everything to everybody. It's hard for me to sit down and have a meal in any of my restaurants because there's so much going on. I have to get out.

Panini Pete: I love going to other local places and supporting them and going, "Wow, this is really good." I may go somewhere and it may have an off night. If I know the person and I know they're a good operator and I know where they're at, I'm going to go, "Man, I understand how tough it is." We were out at Baldwin County Vo-Tech School with the principal, meeting with him. He's hiring a new culinary instructor and asked us to come and advise in the interview. So we're out there in Robertsdale, and we go eat at Gooroo's.

Panini Pete: I've never eaten in there, but I've heard of the guy. I know he's a grinder, and he's in there doing his thing. Lo and behold, there's the owner. I said, "Come on, man. Let's get a selfie." I put it up yesterday because we had a great meal. I had the salad with some grilled vegetables, and it was simple. But I was like, "Dude, this is delicious, man. So let's celebrate that." When I travel, I mean there's a lot of great people working hard out there and share it.

Marcus Neto: Life is too short to worry about putting other people down. The real competition is only with yourself and being the best that you can be, the best version of you. That's not a new idea. That's been around. So I'm more concerned about the level of quality of work that we do and just making sure that we're staying ahead of ourselves because I know what we're capable of. It seems like you very much are that same way.

Marcus Neto: You could be serving the same shrimp dish that somebody else is serving, but it's going to have your spin on it. That's what's going to matter to you, not whether one is better than the other. It's like, "Is this the best shrimp dish I can do?"

Panini Pete: Yeah. We have a voice. It's funny. I'm sure you know my business partner, Nick DeMario, now. We're having so much fun. Nick and I have worked together, known each other for over 30 years. We worked together at another restaurant company up in Tuscaloosa, and I left and did my own thing. As things go, boom, our paths got to collide again. Again, we're very competitive. But you look at dishes like that. I travel a lot, and it was five, six, seven years ago and I was like, "I cannot continue to experience these things and not try to bring some of that home." I'm like, "Why wouldn't I?"

Panini Pete: I'd go, "Oh my God, this place is amazing." I mean I've been to Japan and Guam and Spain and Italy, doing The Messlords stuff all over the globe. I've had these amazing foods and go, "Why wouldn't I try to ..." I want to make it familiar. I want to make it local. I want to use ingredients that are here and use different techniques, but get inspired by some of these really exciting dishes. Even sometimes in other restaurants locally, you might see something and go, "Man, this is really cool. if we took that and used shrimp instead of chicken."

Panini Pete: It may end up something completely different where somebody could look at this and look at this and go-

Marcus Neto: Inspired by.

Panini Pete: "... I don't even see the connection," but I'm like, "Dude, it's there. It's there. It's food, man. It's food."

Marcus Neto: Yeah. It's the difference between being inspired by and copying.

Panini Pete: Right, right.

Marcus Neto: Don't ever copy. But if you're inspired by something, then that's amazing. That's like some of the best artists in the world, and I would consider what you and I both do as art.

Panini Pete: Yeah. There's a level of art to it. Absolutely.

Marcus Neto: So you mentioned Messlords, and I'm just going to briefly ... This is an organization that you're involved in where you go and serve members that are active duty military. I know you give of your time very freely of that, and I know it's not easy. But you've been all over the world with this. What's your favorite place that you've ever been?

Panini Pete: Wow. I mean it's easy to say I don't know. They're all so different. Japan's got to be ... I mean it'd be hard to say. It's hard to pick one, but if you said you can only go back to one-

Marcus Neto: It'd be Japan?

Panini Pete: It would probably be Japan.

Marcus Neto: What was it?

Panini Pete: I mean Spain was amazing. For me, it's the food, but also the culture. The people there were so amazing. Everything was very clean. They're so humble. They take so much pride. We had a day off. We went and said, "We're going to Tokyo," and a bunch of us hopped on a train. We didn't know where we were going. We don't speak the language. I've been to some countries where people get turned off by that, but I don't want to talk about France right now. But they're not as helpful. They have to warm up to you, which is we're like that in America, too.

Panini Pete: Everywhere we went, there were people running to help us. I saw a lady just walking over an overpass, and I started to try to ask her a question where this Red Door Ramen was I was trying to find. I wasn't even sure if she understood. She took off running the other way. I said, "What happened?" She got down to the end, and she's going-

Marcus Neto: Come here. Come here.

Panini Pete: She's going, "Come here. Come here." She's waving her hands. I followed, and she's pointing to where it's all at. I'm like, "My God, I feel terrible. This lady's running around." Even things, you go shopping. You hand a credit card or you throw money on a counter. they have a little tray. Everything is two hands. They present it back. They've been around for centuries. It's just an amazing culture, and the food is lights out. It's so lights out.

Marcus Neto: So that's my next question for you. You have eaten all over the world as well. If I was to ask you what your single most favorite meal that you've ever had in a restaurant, where would that be?

Panini Pete: I don't know. In a restaurant? Okay. So it can't be my mom's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Marcus Neto: No, because that's an easy out. I'm not going to give that to you.

Panini Pete: You know what? Marcus, that's so hard to just go, "This-"

Marcus Neto: I don't want to hear how hard it is.

Panini Pete: It is, because there's so many amazing moments. There's so many things that go into it, the company you're with, the drinks you're having or the wine you're having and the music and the ambiance.

Marcus Neto: Absolutely.

Panini Pete: To me, that's why I love dining. It's an experience.

Marcus Neto: Absolutely.

Panini Pete: Whether you go into Squid Ink or whether you go into Sunset or whether you check out the new place, you're going to see that there's so much that goes into how you create a space, like where we're sitting right now. This is orchestrated, like it or not. There's a reason that that's blue.

Panini Pete: It is hard. It's like, "What's your favorite song in the world?" You're like, "God, I have so many great bands or even within the bands, what's the favorite one this week?"

Marcus Neto: Well, okay. Maybe not your favorite one, but what's one that stands out to you? That way all your chef buddies don't get mad at you.

Panini Pete: Yeah. We went to one of the funnest evenings I think I ever had. We went to a yakitori place in I think it was outside of Atsugi. This guy, he basically had the Japanese grill with their trademark charcoal, high flavor, high intensity, low smoke, high heat. He had this eight-course meal, and we sat around a bar and didn't speak the language, but we spoke the language of food. He knew we were chefs. We had a guy who brought us in, and he put on a show. I forget what the prices-

Marcus Neto: A masterclass in-

Panini Pete: It was 50 bucks a head or something maybe, whatever. It was all you could eat and drink. Well, all you could drink plus what he served. It was course by course. You got two skewers, and everything just came out perfectly. He had a lot of fun. He was very engaging. You could tell he was really into what he was doing with the food. Everything was seasoned properly, really good technique. We had everything from little grilled beef with scallions on skewers. We had these little chicken butts. You had all these little different things.

Panini Pete: They had these little chicken balls that were chopped and fried. And then they were served with this little cup with a pristine egg yolk just sitting there. It was just a clean yolk that you just dipped it in. You were like, "What the ..." This was 10 years ago, and I'm sitting there going, "What the heck is that?" Just an egg yolk sitting there, that was your dipping sauce. It was luxurious. He had hats he had everybody wearing. I'm with Gorilla and Stretch and Hodad, my boys. It was an experience.

Panini Pete: The food was amazing. It was just such an experience that you were like, "Wow." It was a little bit of shrimp, a little bit of scallop, a little bit of chicken, a little bit of beef, a little bit of pork.

Marcus Neto: Because you could tell the care that he was putting into that meal, and also the company. But yeah.

Panini Pete: Yeah. You talk about art. I heard a statement one time. It's not what else you can add. It's when do you get to the point that you can't take anything else away? it's just everything there is necessary. It's not overdone. That's what these little skewers were. It was just what was needed there to make it, "Ah," without a bunch of fluff.

Marcus Neto: Yeah, that's pretty cool. Okay. So next question, this is the easy one. Favorite meal that you've had, period. It can be your mom. It can be yours. When you think of something that just makes you feel good and is-

Panini Pete: I'll tell you, these days there's a lot over the course of life. When my mom used to make German pancakes, that was an experience. Barbecues up in Tennessee with my family, summer vacations when I was a kid. But for now, I'll tell you probably for the last 20 years, my wife's spaghetti and clams. When she calls and she goes, "I'm making linguini and clams," I'm like, "All right." Dude, I'm telling you, it's noodles, but not overcooked, a can of Progresso clams, and then to that, she adds some butter and some olive oil.

Panini Pete: Again, it's just, she calls and goes, [inaudible 00:12:29], because I know she loves it. I know she knows I love it, which makes her happy. I'm like, "Oh, man." I joke. But I'm like, "Let's go."

Marcus Neto: Does it really always have to be this elevated? Sometimes it is just a-

Panini Pete: Oh, absolutely not.

Marcus Neto: ... Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with hot dogs cut up into it or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on soft white bread. Because we were just talking with Lacey Evans from Dropout Bakery-

Panini Pete: Right on.

Marcus Neto: ... which I don't know if she's run across your radar yet, but you're going to hear her name a lot coming up. But sometimes those things, like a taste or a scent, have the ability to take us all the way back to our childhood.

Panini Pete: Oh, it's transformative. Yeah.

Marcus Neto: So a tall glass of whole cold milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut diagonally on ... There you go, PB&J.

Panini Pete: My PB&J tattoo.

Marcus Neto: You got the tattoo. There's just something about that that transforms me way back to an elementary school kid that ... I mean that's probably all I really knew how to make, but it was just something that I still really appreciate.

Panini Pete: It's those things that just trigger joy, and I think food has that ... Food is one of those things that has that ability. Music, there's certain smells. There's aromas. Like you said, a certain song comes on and I'm 14 years old in the skating rink doing my shuffle skate on a Friday night going-

Marcus Neto: I feel you, brother. I feel you.

Panini Pete: (singing) You're going, Yeah." It's joy comes over every fiber.

Marcus Neto: That's great.

Panini Pete: Food can do that.

Marcus Neto: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree 100%. Now, what would you say to somebody that was wanting to get started and feels like they're not going to be able to do those kinds of things, but they want to get started in the restaurant business? Is there any wisdom that you would give to them that ...

Panini Pete: Yeah. I mean a lot. I mean find a restaurant that you like and see if you can work there. Learn the business side of it. There's a lot of great chefs. There's a lot of chefs way better than I'll ever be that are bad business people and realize that it's a tough business. It's small margins. So you have to be a great business person as well, and you have to be a great leader. You have to be a great purchaser. Training is something that we don't do enough of in our industry.

Panini Pete: Hiring is more difficult, all these things. So find somewhere where you can learn the business because when you think you're ready, there's a huge chance that you're not even close to ready. You could lose a lot of money. People, a lot of times, will go in and spend-

Marcus Neto: A million.

Panini Pete: ... anywhere from 100 to a million dollars, I mean thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars and just tank and not know why and go, "People don't get me," or whatever. But it's a very tough business. Find somewhere you like that are willing to invest in you. We have people all the time. one of the things I was just talking about, the interview we were at, we have a very, very, very valued employee, one of our kitchen staff that I'm not going to go into all the details and spoil it.

Panini Pete: But basically, there was a position that opened up that we knew this person not only would be great at and right for, but we knew that was what they were passionate about.

Marcus Neto: It's an amazing thing.

Panini Pete: It was cutting off your arm to get out of the trap because we took him in there and put him up for the job knowing that we're going to help this person live their best life. You have to be able to help people for those stages. We have people that, "I want to open my own restaurant." Good, you're with the right place. Let us teach you all that we know and how to do it properly because there's a lot of people struggling, and we're thriving.

Panini Pete: We're getting ready to open four more brands in the next 18 months. A lot of people are going-

Marcus Neto: Holy crap.

Panini Pete: "... The pandemic got me." Well, I mean we got a food hall getting ready to go in Mobile. We've got a juice bar we're opening in Fairhope. We're adding dinners to Pete's, and we have the Causeway. We're relaunching Ed's at a new location, and we're rebranding the Causeway.

Marcus Neto: Say that again because you went over that a little bit too quick. I don't think people got what you were-

Panini Pete: Well, so it's been kind of suggested. It's been kind of hinted, but it's out there. We've signed some deals. So we are moving Ed's Seafood Shed into Spanish Fort proper. It's a great brand. I think it had a great legacy, but it was in a bad place when we bought it. Now I said, "I'll give it two years to see whether we can revive it or not." We did, and we got it back rolling strong. And then we had this devastating fire.

Panini Pete: The fact that we had put a lot of money into that building, the fact that we had put a lot of time and sweat and blood in returning that brand around, reviving it, giving it some fresh, making it kind of our own, taking what Ed and Barb had started, but adding our touch to it, it was a tough decision to go, "Well, we don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water." But I had to go, "It's 2022. We're standing on the Causeway." I told Nick, "We're opening a new restaurant in the Causeway. What do we need to do to dominate out here? What can we do to kick ass?"

Marcus Neto: Because at this level, you are starting from scratch because it's-

Panini Pete: Yeah. At that point it was like we're starting from scratch. Don't get me wrong. Ed's had a lot of intrinsic value. I think we built it strong where it was certainly a viable brand, but that's a tough spot out there. It's a small footprint. It's a small parking lot. How can we do the numbers we need to do to justify it? I felt like the businessman in me, it's like when I closed Panini Pete's in Mobile to open Squid Ink. People were like, "Well, that's not just a brand. It's an identity."

Marcus Neto: You think?

Panini Pete: It's like, "Oh, is that an ego hit?" I'm like, No. There's people out there probably go, "Oh." They don't even know I own that. "Panini Pete's had a place here. He failed." I don't worry about what they think or might think. I'm moving forward and trying to win the best I can. So with that, I said, "Let's do something that we can all be proud of. Let's find another space for Ed's." But this is a dynamic venue. One thing Ed and Barb had, they picked out the best spot on the Causeway, baby.

Marcus Neto: There's really no-

Panini Pete: Those views are exceptional. So we are going to reopen that. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. So that is actually going to be called Fire on the Causeway.

Marcus Neto: Nice. Yeah, I wasn't sure what you were going to call it.

Panini Pete: We're going to do a lot of live fire cooking.

Marcus Neto: Yeah. Go ahead.

Panini Pete: Whole roasted fish, heavy caramelization, great seafood, roast vegetables, sweet potatoes, carrots, all these different things that we're going to do. We'll still have a fryer in there and a sauté station, great bar. The whole east side of the building was all engine. That was offices, storeroom, kitchen. That's going to be a bar now and private dining. Where the north side that faces the road where there's no view, that's where all the kitchen will be and the bathrooms and those kind of things.

Marcus Neto: Very smart.

Panini Pete: So the view will be extended. it'll be still very familiar, similar footprint. We're not reimagining the whole space, just the engine part of it, the works part of it, the design element. And then we're moving up into Spanish Fort where Beef O'Brady's is building their own building, so they're not renewing their lease this year. We worked out a deal, so we'll probably take possession January, I think, of next year.

Marcus Neto: Fire is far off though because you guys are still-

Panini Pete: Fire is just so tough. It was a long time. I talked a little earlier. I won't go into details, but insurance, it wasn't as bad as people think, but it's so long. It was such a long process. We're used to three cooks didn't show up. The truck's late. Four fires are busted, and the grill's on fire-

Marcus Neto: Still got to serve.

Panini Pete: ... but the show must go on. Marcus is out there at the bar giving me a dirty look because it's been 12 minutes on his grouper sandwich and I'm going, "All right. Go, go, go." So we had to move forward, and I'm used to fast. It just took a long time. So we were kind of at a holding pattern. Once that got finalized and we came that hard decision of going, "We're going to rebrand it." So the plans, the electric, plumbing, everything's got to be redone. It pretty much burnt to the floorboards. It's going to be a brand-new facility when we're done.

Marcus Neto: I love that. I oftentimes tell people if they want to learn advertising or something like that like, "School? Eh." But if you can go and work at an advertising agency or if you want to be a photographer, go work with a photographer. Find somebody that's doing what you want to do at a high level and go and have them teach you their ways.

Marcus Neto: Is there one thing that you feel like is very difficult for people in the food industry? I will say that it is the one industry that I feel like is the hardest, but also can be very lucrative as well. Is there one thing that you feel like people just miss that when they start a restaurant, it's like ...

Panini Pete: I think that it's such a labor intensive business. It's so labor intensive. You look at tech industries and things that could generate millions or billions of dollars with a handful of people, and we need a cast of thousands. You need a place like Sunset, whatever. So the amount of revenue per person is very, very low in our industry. So you need a lot of very well-trained people. We're dealing with the public. They got to be hospitable. They've got to be efficient.

Panini Pete: I think training, taking the time to develop training manuals, taking the time to train your people is very, very hard. Some people, "I don't have time to train them. I need them today." So they want to do an abbreviated training or no training or, "You've got experience? Get in there and go." Too many people don't train their people right, and it's not fair. The work I do with the military, I see what young people are capable of when they're led well and they're trained well. It's amazing what they can do.

Marcus Neto: For sure.

Panini Pete: You see that and you go, "If you don't train somebody well, if they're ambitious, they're going to try to get it done. But they still may fail because you haven't laid out the groundwork." So I think too many of us take for granted, you're the cook, cook. You're the server, serve. You can't just take orders. That's the hardest part because you want them to be engaged. You want them to believe your vision, but they have to be able to execute it.

Panini Pete: It's a people business. If I can't have you be surrounded by a great team that's happy to be there and happy to do the job, I failed. I'm to the point now where I'm so relevant and irrelevant at the same time. You become this hood ornament for your brand. I'm the face of the brand, and I'm still busy and working hard. But there's 150 people that are in there working and doing the process of making guests happy every day.

Marcus Neto: My team would say the same about me. I'm just a hood ornament. They ran over me earlier. I don't serve any purpose.

Panini Pete: He's a license plate holder on the front.

Marcus Neto: Exactly. Again, I'm lost here because we've diverged from our normal script. But here's a question that I've asked in the past. Are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving you forward?

Panini Pete: There's been so many. You said it right there. Books, podcasts, people, you need mentors in life. You have to have mentors, whether they're people you know that help you in life or parents or whatever or just people in business, like-minded business or it could be different. Please find a mentor or somebody that can help you out. Podcasts are great because you could be driving in the car listening to them and pick up stuff.

Panini Pete: For me, Gary Vee I love. He's very motivational, and he's no BS. I connect well with him. Real estate is something else I'm playing in now or more than playing in, I shouldn't even say that.

Marcus Neto: I was going to say.

Panini Pete: I shouldn't even say that.

Marcus Neto: Playing in? I know your properties. You have quite a bit.

Panini Pete: When we closed down at Squid during COVID, I had these three cooks that lived together, and one of them left the state. The other two were basically homeless. He had the lease on the apartment, and they were staying in a really, really bad situation. We found out. Nick and I helped them get re-situated, but it kind of hit me. This was early 2020 and I said, "We've got X amount of crew members. This is our restaurant family." Every one of them rent.

Panini Pete: I knew property was important. We own the real estate at Squid Ink. We own the real estate at Ed's. We own the real estate at our office and some other stuff, but I was like, "Why couldn't we have some rental properties to help them out?" So I started educating myself, listening to BiggerPockets and Frank Cardone and these other things going, "I need to learn about real estate." So anyway, I just think that's important to have those mentors.

Panini Pete: I listen to a lot of varied stuff, less restaurant-specific than just business and entrepreneurship and mindset and just trying to ... I think we're all our own worst enemy. I think reality is every challenge that we face is some bump that we've put in the road. We don't want to get out of bed and work out or we don't want to eat right or we're going to stop drinking tomorrow or we're going to whatever. It's all these challenges that we have to fight through.

Panini Pete: So I think just that, where you said, "I give my crew books every Christmas," whether it's Think and Grow Rich, even the old schools, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, whatever. Just try to mindset because there's so much we can do if we learn-

Marcus Neto: But I would hope that by hanging out with you or being under your tutelage, I guess, that they would see what you're accomplishing and be hungry for that information. Do you find that's the case or is it still hit or miss?

Panini Pete: It was, but it's less and less because, as you grow, you get less and less face time with everybody, quality face time. There were people I worked with for years in the early years opening Panini Pete's. We were elbow to elbow all day, every day, whether it's learning cooking technique, whether it's learning cleaning, high standards, uniforms, whatever. It was entrenched in them.

Panini Pete: Well, then as I grow and then they're teaching the next generation and things get diluted. And then it's crazy. I mean people see me now and some of the people that work, and I'll be up fixing something. They're like, "Oh, I can't believe you're up there doing that." They think here's this rich guy doing this. They don't see the struggle. They think I was born with a silver spoon, and I have all these restaurants because whatever-

Marcus Neto: [inaudible 00:26:43]-

Panini Pete: ... they were gifted to me and so-

Marcus Neto: That's insane that anybody would think that about you because very few people that I know hustle like you hustle. So that's-

Panini Pete: We're always trying to inspire and do that, but sometimes they don't realize because I'm not as dirty as I used to be.

Marcus Neto: Yeah. Well, so the short version, Culinary Institute of America, I don't remember what you did after that though. You went and worked at some restaurants, did you not?

Panini Pete: Yeah. Initially, I graduated from the CIA in 1986. that's how long I've been doing this.

Marcus Neto: We're about the same age. You got me by a couple years.

Panini Pete: Yes. They were dog years, believe me. So I actually went to work on a cruise ship right out of chef school. I've worked in some big chains, little chains, independents, hotels. I've done the whole gambit. And then as fate would have it, my older sister, Leslie married a guy named Bob Baumhower who used to play for the Dolphins. They met in South Florida. So when he retired and wanted to get in the restaurant business, I ended up ... He's like, "Dude, you need to come work with me. We're going to build a company."

Panini Pete: So I was reluctant. I went from South Florida, running a restaurant in the intercoastal that was doing about 15 million a year to Northport, Alabama, to sell chicken wings and catfish. Come on. Believe it or not, I fell in love with it, man. I actually moved back to South Florida in 2000, and we missed it, my wife and I both. She was a South Florida girl. Even though I met her, she went to the University of Alabama.

Marcus Neto: Nice.

Panini Pete: So we moved back and I was working for Bob at the time, but I was ready. I was ready mentally to open my own place. I probably really wasn't ready, but I had [inaudible 00:28:24]-

Marcus Neto: But that's the way it always is. You can prepare and prepare. It's like having a child. You think you're ready, but you're never really ready.

Panini Pete: You can wait for the right time. When's the right time?

Marcus Neto: You may be ready because you're braced and ready for the impact. But at the same time, you don't know what you don't know. So that's where the real adventure dives in. What's the most important thing that you've learned about running a business?

Panini Pete: Planning, having goals, having plans that are constantly changing and they're constantly adapting, but you can't ... There are times when I just take on the day, and there are times when I've just taken on the months or the years. It's just a slow road. It's harder to get things accomplished, and it's hard to even realize what you're capable of or what you might be able to achieve when you start setting some plans and goals and then putting some action to it.

Panini Pete: It's hard. I'm a very free-thinking, wild guy. Structure doesn't come natural to me, but it's so effective. So I think having those goals and then being true to it, decide what you want to be and stay in your lane and be true to the brand. Be true to the culture. Be true to the product, whatever it is, the messaging. Try to define it as best you can so you can stay on track. So as you do get ricocheted and pulled in different directions, you could always have somewhere to come back to, that road that goes home.

Panini Pete: That's the road you go to get home, man. You may get lost in traffic and have to take detours, but as long as you can get back on that road.

Marcus Neto: But you know every bump and pothole on that road to home. Okay. So barbershop?

Panini Pete: Mobtown Proper, baby.

Marcus Neto: What were you, I mean-

Panini Pete: Who wouldn't want to open a barbershop?

Marcus Neto: Well, actually I've thought about it in the past, and you beat me to it because I mean Mobtown Proper is a lot of the things that I would have done if I was opening a barbershop. But where did that come from?

Panini Pete: We bought that property.

Marcus Neto: Because I was not expecting that.

Panini Pete: We bought that property. We drove by it one day. I was with Nick and said, "Hey, what's this?" It was-

Marcus Neto: Waterfront.

Panini Pete: ... affordable and we got it. We ended up going, "This would be cool. We could put our office here." Because at the time, I had my office upstairs in a little mezzanine at Panini Pete's and cramped up. I said, "We could put our office here. And then we have these other two bays we could rent and have income property. Wouldn't that be cool? What if there was a yoga shop or a coffee shop or a barbershop or a tattoo parlor?" We're thinking of all these cool things that would be there.

Panini Pete: Lo and behold, when we finally put the for lease up, some guy wanted to open a discount liquor store and somebody wanted to open up a couple of crazy ... We really didn't have a lot of bites, and the bites we had were pretty out there. We talked about it, "So let's just open a barbershop. Let's open our own." I have a good eye for brand and style and things.

Marcus Neto: Absolutely do.

Panini Pete: I travel a lot, and I blueprint stuff and so does Nick. We said, "Let's do it. We just got to find a good barber, a good stylist." So that's where Mobtown Proper came from. Get proper. I was like, "I want all this cool stuff. We're going to do the old jukebox and expose the brick." What I love is the TVs going down the wall. I said, "I want visual art." I was telling everybody, "We got to have TVs going down the wall." "Oh yeah, sports."

Panini Pete: I'm like, "No, it's going to be no sound. It's going to be visual art. It's going to be Little Rascals, Bruce Lee, Godzilla, Three Stooges, Speed Racer, Lord of the Rings. It's just Sandlot."

Marcus Neto: I love it.

Panini Pete: It's just there's random movies playing. It's just a cool vibe. So that's how it happened. And then, heck, we've done. Well, we got a big writeup at 2000 barbershops around the state were going, "Who the heck are these guys? What the heck?" We're not shy from cameras or microphones. We run out and try to promote our business.

Marcus Neto: I hadn't noticed that about you.

Panini Pete: We try to promote our business.

Marcus Neto: Well, no, I just thought it was excellent because it just goes to show that business principles applied in one industry also can be applied in another industry.

Panini Pete: You hit it right there because haircuts and hospitality is our approach. So it's customer service. I don't know how to cut hair, but I know how to create a positive experience. I have some form of knowledge because I've had my hair cut my whole life.

Marcus Neto: Excellent hair, by the way.

Panini Pete: When we decided to do that, I mean we went to barbershops everywhere. We got more haircuts. Nick was bald. We got haircuts in Havana, Cuba. We got haircuts in Portland and Houston and South Beach and Chicago and New York and everywhere we could and go, "What do we like about this place? What are they doing well? Or what are they not doing well?" Most places, the only time I ever have a problem with a place is when they're snobby.

Marcus Neto: Yeah.

Panini Pete: I'm like, "If we could just be nice to people, man."

Marcus Neto: You want to be treated well. I mean it's just like, "Well, why are you even here if you don't want ... You're here offering a service. I'm here to pay you for that service. Can't you just treat me with some decency?"

Panini Pete: Do you have a reservation? Do you have an appointment? Be gone.

Marcus Neto: Yeah, I know.

Panini Pete: I'm like, whatever.

Marcus Neto: One question, then we'll wrap up. You and I both have a lot of tattoos. I've got a theme, and I'm hoping to finish this out soon. I think I got to find a new artist. But mine all have a theme. They're all family or important people in my life. Yours are collected from various places around the world. Is there one that stands out to you that has a lot of meaning?

Panini Pete: I mean there's a lot of drunk and stupids. They're all very meaningful in their own way. I have a butter down here, which is a tribute to my mom and dad. Here are the blue skies and that, which is really, really a big deal. I had a Gold Star mom send me a card when she saw one of our Food Network shows and what I do for the military. The Daruma I got right after Ed's burnt down and that signifies you fall down seven times, you get up. Hodad, my buddy. I have some tribute tattoos that I lost a good friend, Mike Harding and Brooke Brantley and Carl Ruiz.

Panini Pete: They all mean a lot, and they're fun. Some of them are travels. Sometimes we're in Vegas, and chefs are like, "Let's go get a tattoo." I'm like, "Okay. What are we going to get?" That's where the crab claw comes in. I mean some of these are from Italy, Puerto Rico, Guam, Bahrain, Portland. But they all have meaning to me. My first tattoo I got in the early '80s before it was a thing. I had to make sure it was high enough up my sleeve where, God forbid, nobody saw it, never get a job.

Panini Pete: I have a buddy, Robert Kabakov, who's a business partner of mine. He's also a partner in the PR Foundation, which we got some amazing things going on with that. He showed up to culinary school with a few skate punk tattoos. He had this little yin yang with a sun that I was like, "Dude, it was so epic." I was like, "Oh my God, that's the most amazing tattoo I've seen in my life." Lo and behold, three or four years later, I get this yin yang tattoo.

Panini Pete: I was up in Newport, Rhode Island, working on a cruise ship. I went out with one of the funky other chefs who was all carnie tatted up. He's like, "Yeah, you ain't going to get a tattoo." So I get it. Then I run into Robert 10 years later probably and I was like, "Oh man, you're not going to believe this. I got the tattoo." He's like, "Oh, that's cool." I was like, "Where's yours?" He lifts up his sleeve, and it was like the size of a nickel.

Panini Pete: I was like, "What is that, dude? That's the tattoo that inspired me?" I mean it was so lame. I was like, "Man, mine's 10 times that big." I remembered it as this billboard, this epic thing. This was supposedly to be more of my family arm. I just got a great one for my wife.

Marcus Neto: Wonder Woman.

Panini Pete: She's a breast cancer survivor.

Marcus Neto: Yeah. That's amazing.

Panini Pete: I got the PB&J, which is not just PB&J. That's Pete, Bella, Arnold, and Jody. So that's my family initials.

Marcus Neto: That's cool.

Panini Pete: That's one of our LLCs. Nick pointed out the ND is ... He's like, "Oh, you got my initials right in the middle." I'm like, "Oh, dang it."

Marcus Neto: That's true. I didn't think about that.

Panini Pete: I was like, "Really?" Because I had to do the And for the A for my son. But I think they're important. The cool thing is everybody's got a story, and everybody's got that meaning, like you said. It's always there. those little reminders are cool.

Marcus Neto: That is so cool. I've always thought it was really ... I find that people either go one of two ways. They either do the pieces, individual work, and they've got a bunch of them that all mean something. Or oftentimes they do what I've done, which is I've got an idea of where I'm going and just got to execute on it.

Panini Pete: Mine was spitting in and out. There's different milestones that we did with fundraising and stuff. Everyone kind of had a good reason.

Marcus Neto: Yeah. That's way cool.

Panini Pete: Down to the scotch egg and the pint.

Marcus Neto: Well, Pete, tell people where they can find out more about your restaurants and what might be going on in the future, especially Fire and Ed's.

Panini Pete: Yeah. Chefpanini, is the website. Follow me on Instagram, Chef Panini Pete, or on social media. All the restaurants have their own social media. Hopefully, we'll be doing better. is more of a landing spot for everything. The cool thing is, as we grow, The Messlords is a cool thing. I need to do PR Foundation. We're building a home right now for a young couple in Fairhope. We had a big event last week. I raised over $40,000. I brought in nine celebrity chefs and a celebrity bartender.

Panini Pete: Baldwin County Home Builders have been onboard with us, and we're building a $250,000 house, just raising money and raising awareness. So to get a chance to do things like that and this was a foundation Robert and I just started with money I won on Grocery Games. We've continued to raise money and give stuff away and do good things. and, like I said, Instagram's probably the least path of resistance. I'm on there the most, because it's easy.

Panini Pete: I'll always do my best to try to not keep secrets, get out there and say, "Hey, we're opening this. We're doing this." The Fairhope Squeeze, the juice bar and fruteria, is going to be a blast. Dinner at Pete's, we're going to add pasta and pizza. That's going to be a blast. Fire's going to be something I hope we can all be proud of. Bringing back Ed's is going to be awesome, too.

Marcus Neto: Well-

Panini Pete: Food Hall, we're doing in Mobile. I barely touched base on that. We're doing a really cool food hall down there.

Marcus Neto: Well, I said this to you before, and I'll say it to you now in front of everybody as well. I want to thank you for being someone who is constantly thinking outside of the box and bringing really awesome ideas to Mobile because it's very easy for people here to just go, "Well, that's just the way that it's always been done, and so we're just going to keep doing it that way." But I think it's people like you that have a vision and bring really cool and exciting stuff here. I just think that we need more folks like you. So I'm very appreciative.

Panini Pete: And you as well. I totally agree. Mobile is a great city.

Marcus Neto: It is.

Panini Pete: The more we push it forward and the more people get these ideas to go, "Wow," I mean it's fun. It's fun to see it grow, and it's fun to see it thrive. It's fun to try to be part of it. I feel like I got a front row seat and on the roller coaster and I get to just ... I get to see it. I get the thrills. I get the bugs in my teeth. I get the nausea-

Marcus Neto: Don't smile, as Fonzie used to say.

Panini Pete: ... the whole thing.

Marcus Neto: Yeah. Don't smile while you're riding a motorcycle was Fonzie's advice. So I'll say, "Don't smile while riding the roller coaster," because it probably holds true. You don't want to get bugs in your teeth.

Panini Pete: Absolutely.

Marcus Neto: Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?

Panini Pete: Man, just thank you for taking some time out and putting me on here and getting me a chance to share stories because it's always good. You never know who you know. Every time I interview friends, I find out stuff about them that I didn't know, and it's fun. Everybody's got their thing going on and there's so many people out there doing good things. Just help anybody you can. Do what you can do to be out there and be a positive influence in your family and your circle of friends and in your community. Eat at one of my restaurants as often as you can.

Marcus Neto: Help pay the bills, yeah. Well, Pete, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It's been great talking with you, man.

Panini Pete: Bravo.

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