Fired-up pizza entrepreneur beat recession with real taste of Italy
Shane Crilly's dream to grab a slice of the gourmet market hasn't disappointed
Shane Crilly, who founded Base Wood-fired Pizza in 2008, in his Glenageary shop — one of five stores in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
'The first time I heard the word 'recession' was in August 2008. I was listening to Ryan Tubridy and he said we were officially in recession, and I thought 'Wow'." Shane Crilly was just weeks away from opening the doors on his dream business when it became official that the Irish economy was in trouble. "I thought, 'Well, if I get too bogged down in this we're not going to survive it, so we need to focus on the product and the service'. Looking back I was quite naive, but it has been totally worth it."
Shane grew up in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, where his father had a thriving legal practice that Shane expected to join. After boarding in Clongowes Wood he went to study law. He had a few doubts that this was what he wanted to do and during a gap year in Australia his doubts grew.
But still he completed his law studies in London, after which he had a placement in a large, corporate law firm. "There were certain aspects I really enjoyed but I suppose I found it a bit daunting, a bit terrifying." He moved back to Ireland in 2006 to work in his father's practice. "Within my first six months there I thought, 'This really isn't for me'. I really wasn't enjoying the work and I just felt law wasn't the right fit for me and I wasn't the right fit for it."
The eureka moment was, in fact, a quiet night in with his wife. "In London, because I was on a trainee solicitor's wage and she was a student doing her masters in psychotherapy we were broke and we stayed in all the time. We ordered in instead and there were wood-fired pizza-delivery businesses that were really high quality." Not so in Ireland, where it was mostly American-style generic brands. "I was giving out, 'I can't believe that you can't get really good quality pizza', and my wife, who knew I was unhappy in my job, said 'So why don't you do something about it?' Within a week I had a flight booked to London and just started knocking on doors of people who were in the industry doing what I felt was a really good job."
After several months of research he decided it was time to make his plan official. "My dad took it really well, my mum would be more cautious and her dream was that we'd all be down in the practice, myself and my sisters. But she was still very supportive and Dad knew that I wasn't enjoying it. They saw that I had put a lot of thought and effort into it so they were both really supportive from day one.
"My dad sent me up to an accountant in Dublin who set me up with a business plan. Entry to this kind of market is expensive. To open a store, depending on location, is €250,000 to €300,000 - a big investment. I had always planned to get a partner because I didn't have the money to do it myself." Early plans fell through and there were worrying moments but the business was set up as a 50-50 partnership.
Shane's mission was very simple. "I wanted to bring pizza back to basics, design a brand around this, back it up with customer service," he says. He was also sure that he wanted to do takeaway, not open a restaurant.
However, getting a property proved challenging. "It was early 2007, the market was at its peak, people were looking for ridiculous key money and rents were through the roof." When they found one in Terenure there were further obstacles, this time around refining their product.
"We hit a bit of a brick wall because some of the ingredients we were trying to source here at the time were just not up to par." The brand hinged on the quality of the ingredients, so they ended up going to Italy to get exactly what they wanted. "We found two producers down in Naples who provide us with our fleur de latte mozzarella, cured beef and our 00 grade flour." They didn't want anything to be frozen or tinned, from peppers to pineapples they were - and still are - delivered fresh daily and prepared in the stores. "The first Base Wood-Fired Pizza opened in November 2008, just after the bank guarantee. Our sales were so low that it was all hands on deck. It was actually the best thing that happened because I gained a lot of new knowledge in the business, making the dough, running the shop, delivering the pizzas."
It also taught him to run a very tight business ship. "I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we had opened a few years earlier and it had been a big success in the beginning, because it wasn't a big success in the beginning, it was really, really hard work."
They were pushing against not only the recession, but against perception. "It was testing to try get people to buy what was perceived as a premium product." The assumption was that gourmet pizza would be more expensive pizza, "but if you compare prices like for like we are actually cheaper". Deals are what change price perception.
"If we had gone down the discounting route it would have been a race to the bottom, so we decided to stick to our guns and offer the highest standard possible."
Shane was working far more hours than he ever had in law, but still it felt worth it. "I was working seven days a week and we didn't pay ourselves for the first two years but I totally got the satisfaction I had hoped for, especially when we had a really good night and we had people ringing up saying 'Wow, that was amazing!'
"It was very much a slow burn and I see the business in two halves, from 2008 to 2013, and from 2013 to now."
The recession was a baptism of fire for the business but it taught valuable lessons and allowed them to get a second premises in Ballsbridge, near the Aviva stadium in 2012. "A few years earlier we could never have got it but we got a 25-year lease in a rent that we could afford in probably the best location in Dublin." In 2013 new business partners came in and with that "a new lease of life".
And then economic circumstances changed too. "I can pinpoint it. In September 2013 there was an increase in sales in Terenure, and again the week after, the same in Ballsbridge and it just started gaining traction." Base now has five shops in Dublin and a 3000 sq ft production facility in Kimmage where a team of chefs prepare all the ingredients." It means we have much more consistency across the business. We have a refrigerated van and everything is delivered out every day - the dough in the morning for the hand-rolling by the chef then the toppings and ingredients are delivered in the afternoon."
They employ 96 people, closer to 150 including delivery drivers. There are great possibilities for the future and although Shane is not keen on the idea of franchising, there are other possibilities in concessions and retail, as well as opening more stores. He no longer works in the shops himself. "I found that quite challenging to extract myself and I know it's a cliché but I knew I needed to work on the business as opposed to in the business."
Despite the baptism of fire and the hard work Shane says it has been worth it. "I wake up every day and I love going into work. I have been on the other side of it where I was dragging myself out of bed so it's very, very rewarding and I've really been proud of the business and of the people that are involved in it. It's been a great journey."
Base Wood-Fired Pizza www.basewfp.com
Sunday Indo Business