Love At First Bite

It took Ray Ettenborough, owner of Foodee's Pizza in Essex, one taste of the franchise pizza to convince him to open up a restaurant of his own - despite knowing nothing about the business and searching for a life less stressful.

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

After suffering a heart attack at the age of 42, Ray Ettenborough, owner of Foodee's Pizza in the Essex Outlet Fair, sold his contracting company in western New Hampshire to build pizzas in Vermont.

For a man who came to Vermont in search of a quiet life, Ray Ettenborough is decidedly busy. As owner of Foodee's Pizza, a restaurant in the Essex Outlet Fair, he's baking, cooking and serving customers from morning 'til night, seven days a week. And this is a business he knew nothing about a decade ago.

Now in its ninth year, Foodee's had to ride out adversity in the early years. "I opened my doors on September 23, 1992," remembers Ettenborough. "That same day they worked on the bridge over 289 (the Vermont 15 overpass) and stopped traffic in both directions. The next day a gas main leaked, and they stopped all traffic again. I began to think that perhaps this wasn't such a good idea." At the time, the retail complex then known as Lang Farm Center was different from the bustling commercial center it is today. "There were very few stores here," says Ettenborough. "Showtime Video was here, and one or two others; but, mainly it was empty. Now the Outlet center is about 80 percent full."

Ettenborough had been searching for a location for his franchise, and had been persuaded to choose Lang Farm by maps showing the Circumferential Highway as a soon-to-be-completed road, he remembers ruefully. "The 'Circumvented Highway', as I call it," he laughs. "Ten years later, and it's only a third finished, but at the time, I thought it was a done deal. I was living in New Hampshire, devolving my contracting business, making sure my customers had parachutes, setting them up with other contractors. Plus, I was busy with the franchisers, who were trying to teach me how to run a restaurant, as I didn't know how. I only found out about the highway's funding problems after I'd signed the contract with Finard, the Boston banking firm that owned the site and bought my equipment. Basically, I stepped into the bear trap; that's the analogy I still use."

Bill Lunderville started working at Foodee's in high school more than seven years ago. A manager for the past four years, Lunderville says his boss is "more like a friend ... He's easy-going, doesn't put on any pressure."

Ettenborough has an intimate knowledge of the sometimes tortuous path the shopping complex has followed to its current state. "I was sold on the idea by Finard," he explains. "They also owned University Mall in South Burlington. Then the place was owned by IBM Credit Union for a while, who wanted to run it as a combined office/retail space but realized it wouldn't work. They sold it to Eurowest, who owns the Inn at Essex. That was in 1993. They said, 'We're going to be an outlet mall, and we're not going to rent to locals. I thought, 'Oh, great! I'm going to be stuck here in a big bankrupt mall.'" Things did pick up and, "After about six months, they signed up Levi's, Polo Ralph Lauren, Samsonite. That got the ball rolling, but slowly, because the economy was still soft here in Vermont."

Before opening Foodee's, Ettenborough was a contractor in western New Hampshire. To explain such a drastic career change, he opens his shirt to display a neat surgical scar in the center of his chest. "I had my first heart attack at 42," he explains, "which was a little scary – especially as I have a wife and two kids. The building business is very competitive, and I had become very busy, really on a treadmill. I was doing maintenance on a 160-unit condo complex as well. So I thought I'd get into a real business that wouldn't be totally dependent on me. I had my bypass at Christmas, two years ago. I was in the hospital the week of the ice storm."

Before his move to Vermont, Ettenborough had no restaurant experience. "The manager of the condo complex I maintained was married to a CPA whom owned the Hanover Foodee's franchise," he explains. "He asked me to build the restaurant, which I was too busy to do, although I recommended a friend. At that time, Foodee's was like the Ben & Jerry's of pizza, and all these people were raving about it. I would say, 'Pizza's pizza," he continues, "until one day we picked up a Foodee's pizza on the way home from a family trip to Boston. Then, I changed my mind."

The shift from builder to pizza maker proved to be almost as stressful as Ettenborough's previous life. "It was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire," he grins. "People thought I was nuts, but I had a lot of faith in my franchisers. Then, six months in, I was out of finance, and laying people off. My wife and kids worked here. My daughter knew how to run the register at the age of 10 and my 8-year-old son was in back pressing dough."

Ettenborough's building experience came in handy. "What you see here, I built," he says, gesturing around the dining area. "I paid for the build-up, the kitchen, cooler – I was invested to the tune of $160,000, just to sell pizza. In the end I took out a (Small Business Association) loan at Chittenden Bank. A lot of businesses fail from being under-capitalized, and for me, it took a lot longer than I expected to get the word out there that this was a pretty good place to eat. Now we have people who've been coming here since the first week. You have to concentrate on quality. And maintain your local client base. Eighty percent of your business as a restaurant comes from a 2 1/2 mile radius."

Kristen Gilbert and David Irwin, high school students who earn pocket money with part-time work at Foodee's. Six months after the pizza parlor opened, the owner was laying off people and running the show with the help of his wife, 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. Today, Ettenborough has 20 employees.

Despite the shaky start, Foodee's has been growing ever since. "We've always beaten our sales figures from the previous year," Ettenborough says proudly. His early frustrations with the restaurant's location have long since vanished. "From my perspective as a builder and now a restaurateur, the location's great," he says. "For the long haul, it's superb. Although if you'd asked me seven years ago, I'd probably have sold it for a song and gone back to building custom homes in New Hampshire," he adds.

"Tourists who come to Vermont want to see the mountains, the lake and Burlington," Ettenborough continues. "Here we are on Route 15, the scenic corridor between them. I came out here looking to do something closer to Burlington, which was where I envisioned a place like this working best. In hindsight, choosing this place was probably the luckiest thing I ever did. I wasn't equipped to deal with being hugely successful straight away; I'd have been swamped. Out here, the concept works. The demographics in Burlington are finite. Out here is where the growth is."

The restaurant does benefit from its position astride the route from the ski resorts of Cambridge and Smugglers Notch to the Queen City. "We get lots of tourists," says Ettenborough. "Sometimes a lot of Japanese people will come in. Sometimes we'll get lots of British people who come and shop at the outlets. It all depends on Smuggs who they are offering packages to. We get them on an overflow basis." The British connection shows in the Foodee's beer menu, which offers a number of hard-to-find English brews. "Because of that, we have a lot of home brewers as customers, and they bring in their beer for me to try, as well," he says.

"It was like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire," Ettenborough says of his restaurant venture. "People thought I was nuts."

Although Foodee's is a franchise, Ettenborough keeps his operation surprisingly independent. "We make our own dough here. We have a proofer the heating cabinet used for controlling humidity and all the other equipment," he explains. "My franchiser ships frozen dough balls through a distributor. I don't use them because I think our dough is better and I can control it." The same goes for the tomato sauce. "We could use the franchiser's sauce, but we prefer ours, which we make from scratch, and the customers prefer it, too. If we bought sauce and it varied, we'd start losing customers. They wouldn't say anything, they just wouldn't come back after a while. You really have to listen to your customers," he continues. "It's little things that you learn, like how they like their pizza cooked on the inside or the outside of the oven's conveyor belt. It cooks darker or lighter depending on whether it goes on the inside or outside of the belt."

Ettenborough is less inclined to spend time or money on coupon advertising, however. "We don't have to," he declares, "and we don't do coupons or two-for-ones. We couldn't offer a quality product if we did. When Little Caesars opened nearby," he explains by way of illustration, "they were selling pizza for $2. It killed me for two months; we lost a ton of customers. But they all came back and told me, 'Now I know why they charge $2.' I'm pretty firm with people," he continues, grinning. "I'll tell them, 'If you want to spend $2 on food, go to the supermarket, buy day-old bread and generic peanut butter and eat for a week.' So I don't coupon; I don't deliver; I don't do a lot of things that other pizza businesses do. And people think, 'Who is this crazy guy?' It makes them curious."

A pizza place that doesn't deliver? "Delivery has its own logistics," Ettenborough points out. "I just can't get into that business. Lots of our customers live too far out anyway. Those people are our regular 'Take & Bake' customers." Take & Bakes are a Foodee's specialty: freshly made pizza, ready to bake at home. "Far superior to frozen," Ettenborough insists. "We have people who live out in Jeffersonville, Cambridge, Fairfax too far away for take-out. This is a great alternative for them." There is one kind of delivery that Ettenborough does make, however. He sells Take & Bake pizzas to the Essex and Williston school systems, and makes regular morning delivery runs. "I was supplying Shelburne and Hinesburg schools for a couple of years," he says, "but that's a long drive, and our lunch period has gotten very busy, so I scaled down."

Ettenborough lives in Essex with wife Tina, daughter Caitlin Ann and son Raymond Joseph. These days, the restaurant serves in excess of 40,000 pizzas a year. He has about 20 employees, mostly high school students. "My manager, Bill Lunderville, worked for me in high school and wasn't sure if he wanted to go to college," Ettenborough says . "I told him I'd teach him what I knew about the restaurant business, and now he's manager." Lunderville has worked at Foodee's for 7 1/2 years, 4 1/2 as manager. "Ray's not really like a boss," he says. "More like a friend, everyone who works here agrees. He's easy-going, doesn't put on any pressure."

Originally published in April 2001 Business People-Vermont