June 13, 2016 | by S.A. Whitehead

"It tastes like our camping trips!"  That was the enthusiastic verdict of a 6-year-old diner at Persona Pizzeria, according to the chain's co-founder and chef, Glen Cybulski. And it was all the award-winning pizziaola needed to know the chance he had taken to make and sell handmade, wood-fired dessert pizzas was well worth it. 

"Hearing him say that was like I got $1 million," said Cybulski. "I mean that's what food is supposed to do — remind you of something great and fun." 

The youngster's enthusiastic proclamation came after he had taken a few bites of the "S'more" dessert pizzas on a trip with grandparents to the chain'sSanta Rosa, California, location. Cybulski, who was at the location that night, developed the wood-fired dessert pizzas as part of the chain's ethos to develop and make its own menu offerings. 

After all, Cybulski has a bit of a reputation to uphold as a chef, who not only trained at the world's oldest pizza school in Naples, Italy — Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli — but is also the 2009 World Pizza Champ and winner of 112 culinary awards. He said his entire menu and much of the burgeoning chain's popularity is based on the original items he concocts. 

As such, he said, it just didn't make sense any longer to continue offering guests desserts made off-site. Wood-firing, originality, innovation and great ingredients are some of the main components of this brand so it was only natural that he extend those qualities to the desserts. 

Granted, no restaurant makes much of its money from its desserts, but in Cybulski's mind, the sweet endings to a meal should reflect everything that has gone before. He took a calculated risk and created the 6-inch wood-fired sweets to sell as handheld desserts. They come in a bevy of varieties, like that S'more version initially made famous by Scouts everywhere, as well as a double fudge brownie, gluten-free chocolate chip, salted caramel and other tantalizing varieties. 

But Cybulski said the important thing was that they all reflect the restaurant's approach to food, including cooking via wood fire and dough made with super-fine imported Italian 00 Caputo flour, like the chain's pizza doughs. 

The risk pays off
"Everybody has a packaged cookie or something a third-party vendor made because desserts are just not a great revenue source. But, I do things from a culinary standpoint where I can't put out crappy food. I just can't," Cybulski said. "In the past (with vendor-provided desserts), the most we could expect to make was around 4 percent (of sales). But these handhelds are proving to be the best … because, for instance, now we have desserts next to the cash register where they can be very tempting to just grab and go. And that's particularly true when people find they are made in-house. That's really just the way our industry is going — toward higher-quality food that's quick and still at good price points."

The clear passion and commitment to quality that Cybulski holds for his new dessert product is likely the same stuff that's driving the success of this relatively new chain. Although it has three locations in South Carolina and California, Cybulski said the chain is  readying for take-off, beginning with three more soon-to-open locations in Chicago, Dallas and Houston. 

Success = Passion + Innovation + Risk
That recipe of blending an inherent passion for food, with a great and unusual idea and a healthy tolerance for risk is the same one that seems to drive so many successful fast casual chains, particularly those with chefs at the helm. It's a way of doing business that is particularly apropos in today's environment where millennials increasingly demand that even the old standbys of pizza or dessert be just a little bit upscale and offbeat before they'll plunk down their hard-earned cash or even harder-earned spare time to savor. 

"We take a little extra care and time," Cybulski said of his staff's approach to the menu. "Like I do take a little offense when people don't take the time to source things locally because if you don't look locally for things like produce and specialty toppings you're not only missing the opportunity to connect with guests, but you really look like just another brand that wants to take their money and go out of town. … I think that's really what the youth coming up today are demanding."

For people like Cybulski, who also have a clear emotional connection to the food they serve, it's the kind of passion that they want to spark in their customers, too. That is likely part of his delight in that previously mentioned 6-year-old's response to his dessert pizza. For Cybulski, it's the kind of connection that drove him to work in this field in the first place, as well as the motivation that keeps him and others in food service going through the tough and often exhausting times when money and patience are low and stress is off the charts. 

"I'm a chef. I cook," he said. "It might be a little selfish on my part, but if I can create better recipes for my menu, that's what charges me. I still get excited when, after 20 tries, I get something and it comes out perfect.
Then when the guests tastes it, that's worth all the money in the world. ... If you have passion. If you never quit. It pays off. … The bad times mold us into what we become in the good times." 

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Food & Beverage, Franchising & Growth

S.A. Whitehead
Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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