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L.A. restaurant has the links to success

Caitlan Reeg Sep 15, 2009

L.A. restaurant has the links to success

Caitlan Reeg Sep 15, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Maybe it’s just me, ’cause I hear the show every day, but it seems like we’re constantly bringing you news of businesses that are struggling to get by. So how ’bout something completely different today. A success story from an industry where it is notoriously tough to break even.

From the Marketplace Entrepreneurship desk, Caitlan Carroll reports that good ideas can sizzle even when the economy cools.

CAITLAN CARROLL: A line snakes around the block in a gritty part of Los Angeles. Hipsters, families and tourists are all waiting to get into a restaurant whose name they can’t even pronounce.

The name isn’t the only unusual thing about Wurstkuche, German for sausage kitchen.

Last fall, as many other restaurants were closing, Joseph Pitruzzelli and his cousin Tyler Wilson, were opening Wurstkuche for fries, beer and, oh yeah, sausage.

JOSEPH PITRUZZELLI: We’ve got 22 I think in the case today. They range from the traditional brautwurst and botwurst and into the exotics like rattlesnake and rabbit. Buffalo beef and pork.

Wurstkuche also offers an array of international beers and Belgian fries. But there’s nothing exotic about the restaurant’s business plan. The menu’s simple and pretty cheap. And the cousins know how to contain labor costs.

Here’s Tyler Wilson describing his cousin.

TYLER WILSON: Joseph can work harder than anybody you’ve ever met and longer and all the time.

Pitruzzelli: Like even if I’m out to dinner. I’ll still go look through their kitchen.

It’s hard to tell if Wurstkuche even has a kitchen when you walk in. It looks like just a takeout counter. But turn the corner and a hallway leads you to a football field-sized room filled with long, communal tables.

PITRUZZELLI: You walk in, and the place is so small, and the line will be out the door. And then they’ll walk around and this and they’ll go ‘oh my God.’

The cousins had a few “oh my god” moments of their own last fall.

PITRUZZELLI: We couldn’t believe the opening day. We couldn’t believe making $700. The original model I built was for 25 sausages per day.

Now Wurstkuche often turns out 800 sausages a night. The business is growing fast, and everyone has an opinion about how to manage it.

CHRIS HARRER: Every time he sees me walk in I think he cringes a little bit.

Chris Harrer teaches entrepreneurship studies at the University of Southern California. Wilson was one of his students. When he told him he wanted to open a restaurant, Harrer reminded him of the risk. More than half of restaurants fail in the first three years.

HARRER: A lot of restaurants will start off with good momentum. The trick is to keep that going in years three, four, five, and 10.

The cousins, both in their twenties, are still focused on making through year one. They’re busy spreading the word on food blogs and social networks. They also tell everyone they meet about their restaurant. Entrepreneurship expert Barry Moltz says it’s all about building buzz.

BARRY MOLTZ: The most important things people need to do is go out and find customers right away. I find that many entrepreneurs spend far too much time thinking about it, writing their business plan.

Wurstkuche’s on track to make $3 million this year. But Pitruzzelli still watches every dime, following the advice of a family friend who’s built his own successful business.

PITRUZZELLI: He just goes ‘Pitruzzelli be a lean cat in lean times,’ and it makes sense to me. And I get it and that was my lesson. And I know where to go from there.

Wherever that is, Pitruzzelli and Wilson know the worst is behind them.

In Los Angeles, I’m Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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