Ray Villaman

Restaurant Owner

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Business, Golden Rule

Ray Villaman is Owner/CEO/President of the family-oriented Fireside Pizza Co. in Squaw Valley, CA, and has held various positions in the restaurant industry. During our interview, he shared ideas and characteristics, which helped him rise to the top; why he believes that managing requires appreciation and respect; how he's turned to God to lead him through challenges and help him learn from mistakes; and what he thinks about responsibility, confrontation, customer service, and giving back to your community.

How did you get interested in the restaurant industry?
I took time off from college and started bussing tables out of a financial need so I could finish college. Some of my friends were in restaurants, and as I'm very social, I thought it would be fun and financially rewarding. I was very fortunate to have a career path that went from bus-boy to board room.

How did you go from bus-boy to board room?
I think in any venture in life, your foundation, approach, and outlook have a lot to do with your success. My foundation and approach are based on doing good. I could probably sum up my business philosophy with, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). My mother taught me to improve or uplift every situation. So whatever situation I'm in, I'm always looking for ways to bring more good to it and make it a better place. I also think I'm conscious of my surroundings, intentionally so. I try hard to think of ways I might influence and impact others, and I'm aware of their impact on me. In the restaurant business, the quality of your interactions with others is especially important. I think I use the Golden Rule on a daily basis: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matt. 7:12). My management and leadership philosophy deal directly with respect for others. Leadership should serve others, and a "service above self" attitude touches everyone positively. I strive to lead by example.

What have been some of the challenges you've had in the restaurant industry?
One of the requirements of those in leadership is to hire and fire people in large numbers. Initially it was very challenging to terminate employees, but for me, it became a matter of principle, especially if it was an integrity-related issue. But it's also principled for the rest of the staff to have harmony in the work place if someone is disruptive and needs to be removed. The industry requires leadership to take action on a daily basis and often times to address confrontation. I think that's hard for a lot of people, who want to avoid confrontation. But confrontation isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Why isn't confrontation a bad thing?
I think confrontation provides an opportunity for growth, constructive criticism, and feed-back. I always want those I have to fire to learn and grow from the experience. I've really had to find a clear approach and learn to connect with people so that they receive the message I'm sending, which is desired growth. Often times it's not about being creative with communication skills; it's about relying on inspiration outside yourself. So I rely on the Bible and prayer. I take time out to pray about what words I need for a particular conversation, how I can terminate someone so he or she feels compassion and respect and still maintains a sense of dignity. I want the termination of an employee to benefit everyone, which has happened many times. People have thanked me for terminating them, telling me they've grown from it and never would have received the success from other ventures had I not severed our business relationship. Jesus directed us: "Love thy neighbour" (Matt. 22:39) no matter what the situation. "Love thy employee" applies in the same way.

What has owning Fireside Pizza Co. been like for you?
It's been both the most rewarding and the most challenging venture in which I've ever participated -- mostly because I felt a huge sense of responsibility for the investors, employees, guests, and the personal needs of my family. The greatest revelation has been the importance of finding balance between business and my family. I have two incredible boys, and my wife is a constant reminder of God's love for me. Though I have made many mistakes (working too many hours), it is very easy for me to see that family must come first. I count my blessings for the quality time I spend with my family and the things I have learned. When I learned how to let go of a false sense of responsibility, it became one of the most progressive times for me, giving me the freedom of peace.

What do you mean by a "false sense of responsibility"?
I think the false sense of responsibility for me had to do with a label I placed on myself as owner, leader, and father. You could humanly reason that the success of this venture depended upon me and my abilities and skill sets. People were relying on me to meet payroll and provide for my family. In the past, I worked for a company, so everything didn't fall to me to meet the demands of the business; whereas at Fireside, I was the one to take the helm. At a very critical point in our first year of operation (when it wasn't clear to me, financially, that Fireside would be a success), I found myself turning the business over to God because 1) the weight was much too heavy for me, and 2) I knew He'd do a much better job than I would. In reality, God was running the business. It has been an opportunity to focus on what qualities or characteristics God wants me to express.

Did any Bible stories help you through the early stages of Fireside?
I connected the start of Fireside with the story of Noah building the ark. He had such faith and trust, which was required of him. It's been very inspirational for me to know that God has a plan for me, just like he had for Noah, and if I'm listening, the plan unfolds. Even when fear presented itself, I was able to place my confidence in God and His direction, knowing that this project was based on principle and trust. So the direction and answers were clear every step of the way. I just simply listened and followed God's directions. Jesus is the clearest example for me in the Bible of someone who turned everything over to God, which is what you have to do in business and in your personal life. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount expresses the love that he had for us and expected us to have for others. The love that's expressed in this venture comes from God. That's why Fireside has been a success. When you really focus on expressing love, you find that love is very contagious, and only good can come from it.

What good things have come about as a result of Fireside?
We have Local Heroes Days on Mondays in May, June, Oct., and Nov, which are slower months of a seasonal resort, when police officers, teachers, nurses, and firefighters eat for free at the restaurant. We're big supporters of children's programs and school fundraisers. We've been big sponsors for the last three years of a bike ride that raised money for the local schools' music programs. We fed 600-700 people at this last event. We have supported scholarship programs. We're involved with the local non-profits, Rotary, Kiwanis clubs, etc. I always think we can do more. The employees donated their time for disaster relief for Katrina, and the sales that day went towards the relief effort. They felt good about donating their time. The employees like being involved, and they end up volunteering quite a bit. For all of our efforts, the community has given us numerous awards and recognized Fireside Pizza Co. as one of the top restaurants in Lake Tahoe.

As an owner, manager, leader, how do you work with your employees?
My sense of leadership, which is based on adhering to the Golden Rule, is to express compassion, respect, passion for the business, and interest in my employees' lives. I greet the employees with a smile and try to bring a sense of joy to the workplace by finding joy in the smallest of things. I take on the role of coach, teacher, and friend. But most importantly, I try to set an example so that my staff can feel good about who they work with and our company culture. People at tables will ask them, "What's it like to work here?" and, "What's Ray like?" They've told others that they feel good about working here and that their owner has integrity and a great work ethic. They have a better sense of themselves and others. They've been able to see that the restaurant doesn't give away money and food strictly for marketing and PR. Rather, we are charitable and support the community because it's the right thing to do to give back to a community that supports us. I think they've also learned not to fear making mistakes because you learn from them, and that it's okay to go against common beliefs.

What would be an example of going against a common belief?
In retail, in restaurants, everyone always says that the customer comes first, so the staff has to bend over backwards to do whatever the customer wants. There's nothing wrong with this, but in many years of working with restaurant concepts and in management, I've adopted a different philosophy of who the customer is. There are two customers for any venture -- the external customer who walks through the door and the internal customer you employ. My staff knows very well that they are my customers, as well. Management has to focus on the needs of the staff, making them feel respected, in order for the outside customer to reap the rewards of a prepared and engaged staff. If the staff is unhappy, they'll deliver poorer service and quality because of a poor attitude. So essentially, the staff comes first, well before the customer ever arrives.

You mentioned learning from mistakes. Would you give an example?
I actually think one of the reasons why I've found success is that I've done a good job at not repeating mistakes but learning from them and focusing on growth. Early on in my career, I saw many managers, my direct reports, manage through intimidation and fear. So, because it was what I was familiar with and because this style seemed the path of least resistance, when I first started managing others, I would often rely on a stern look or quick temper to get a desired result or gain respect. But at one point in my career, I noticed it was easy for me to see what people responded to and what improved performance versus what discouraged it. I was an assistant manager at a restaurant and would overhear conversations of the staff. I found it curious that as soon as they would come onto a shift, they'd ask who the manager was, and depending on the answer, they were either pleased or displeased. As I asked why they were asking, it became clear to me why they enjoyed working for some people and not others. Very quickly, I came to understand that we have an impact on people's lives. So in order to turn the very natural tendency to manage by intimidation (much like Saul's transformation to Paul, but not as instantaneously), I decided to express love, gratitude, recognition, and appreciation for what each individual brought to the job. The more I looked for good, the more I found. The more loving I could be, the greater they embraced the challenges at work; loyalty ensued. The results were dramatically different. There was higher turnover in one instance, and greater harmony in the work place in the other instance, which improved sales and profitability. I tried to create an atmosphere of joy: even though it was work, it was fun. It sounds pretty simple, but there are many work environments that are not very harmonious. Harmony is especially helpful in countering stress in the restaurant business where every guest and every table is critiquing us, and our success is determined by each person's daily experience.

Did prayer play a role in your ability to change your management style?
The turning point from intimidation to appreciation came when I was very focused on my spiritual growth and on praying daily. As a result, employees would come to me and start asking me questions about my personal beliefs, which I didn't find coincidental at all. They would ask me questions like, "Why are you happy? How do you come into work every day with a smile? How do you have the work ethic you do?" Our conversations would ultimately lead to my belief system, my study of the Bible, and the importance I place on keeping my thought focused on expressing God. As I've taken on more responsibilities as owner, CEO, or board member, I've continued to rely on the Bible to help me understand who is truly responsible for the business leadership -- it's God. (Removing ego is key, Jesus being the greatest example.) There have been many instances where I've consistently had to pray for inspiration for the next steps and completely tune out what the human picture was presenting. For instance, I was asked to take over the CEO position at Blimpie International in order to turn it around and sell it. One person was being particularly difficult. At one point during the process, I labeled him as deceptive, dishonest, disruptive, etc. But I realized that this was getting me nowhere. So, I asked myself, "What would Jesus have done?" I remembered the story of Jesus healing the ear of the servant of the high priest, which one of Jesus' followers had cut off (Luke 22:48-51). Jesus told us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). When I changed my view of this person, he gave in (contrary to what everyone was expecting), did an about-face, and allowed the sale to go through rather harmoniously, which no one could believe because he was fighting it the whole time. It was a surreal situation, but it really came about from honest motives and turning away from the human picture.

What would you say to people who are interested in the restaurant industry?
Whether it's the restaurant industry or any other industry, really establish your spiritual foundation. Know what you are seeking and what's at the heart of your intentions. When you go into a venture with the right intentions (which are based on principle); with the desire to express love and reflect God; and with a passion for what you are doing, you'll be led down the path you have to take. In any business, you'll be forced to face challenges, interact with people, and learn and grow from mistakes. That's why the statement, "To thine own self be true" (Shakespeare), is so important. You want to be firmly grounded in what you believe because your beliefs will be challenged. I've found that these guidelines truly encourage success:

  • Focus on personal growth (learn every aspect of a business, but remove ego).
  • Trust and surround your business with quality -- high standards and ethical people.
  • Don't make the same mistake twice, but learn from mistakes.
  • Understand your "purpose" behind the business as well as your life.
  • Make every place better than how you found it.
  • Love what you do.
  • Manage by love, appreciation, and by example.
  • Live by the Golden Rule.
  • Understand that no business is more important than family.

About Ray Villaman

Ray is currently CEO/President Fireside Pizza Company and consultant to three venture capital and private equity firms, representing more than $400 million in assests. In addition, Ray is a board member/venture partner for United Enterprise Fund (NYC- private equity), specializing in restaurant franchise investments . Ray has assisted with deal flow, due diligence, and participated with deal structure and financing for over 2000 restaurant related investments.

Most recently (October 2005-January 2006), Ray was the Interim CEO/President for Blimpie International, a 1600 unit franchisor based in Atlanta, Georgia. Ray was responsible for it's recent corporate restructuring, return to a cash flow positive position, and sale of Blimpie franchising assets to Kahala Corporation.

Additionally (May 1999-May 2001), Ray was the Executive Director for the California Restaurant Association, the largest state restaurant association representing more than 15,000 operators. Ray oversaw the Educational Foundation at the CRA, and was responsible for strategic partnerships, educational programs, corporate sponsorship, business development, fundraising, scholarships, exposition programs, restaurant consulting, and assisting with lobbying/legislative support.

As a veteran restaurant executive, Ray's twenty years in operations include more than 150 store openings nationwide and direct responsibility for strategic growth. Ray has held corporate and senior management positions with several national chains: Bennigan's, California Pizza Kitchen, Boston Market, Blimpie International and World Wrapps.

In addition, Ray was Founder/CEO of The Customer's View, Inc., a firm specializing in restaurant evaluations for more than 1200 restaurants nationally.

Current & Former Board of Director/Advisory seats include:

  • United Enterprise Fund (Franchise Restaurant Private Equity Fund-NYC, 2001-present)
  • Blimpie International (1600 unit Franchisor, Atlanta, 2002-present)
  • California Restaurant Association, Educational Foundation (Secretary, 1999-2001)
  • Menus.com (a restaurant portal, internet company- Los Angeles, 1999-2001)
  • The Customer's View, Inc.- (San Francisco, 1996-1999)

Professional Affiliations:

  • International Society of Restaurant Association Executives
  • Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance
  • National Restaurant Association & California Restaurant Association
  • Hospitality Business Alliance

Principia College: Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Minor in Physics Rice University/Texas Southern University: Awarded five year, Minority Dual Degree Scholarship

Concept Awards:
Fireside Pizza Co. - Voted "Best of Lake Tahoe" 2003: New Restaurant and Family Dining
- Voted "Favorite Restaurant" 2004 - Squaw Valley Institute
World Wrapps "Hot Concept" of the Year, 1996 (Nation's Restaurant News)
Boston Market Franchise Area Developer of the Year 1994 and 1995