Co-Op Students Get a Taste of the Small Business World

Students in Huntley High School’s Cooperative Education (Co-Op) program got to experience a slice of the small business world with a field trip to Nick’s Pizza and Pub in Crystal Lake on March 6.

Nick’s, the popular 350-seat restaurant with locations in both Crystal Lake and Elgin, is one of the highest-volume independent pizza restaurants in the country. Its owner, Nick Sarillo, is a sought-after speaker who has been featured in The New York Times, Inc. Magazine, and The Economist,among other publications, for his distinctive success story and management style.

Sarillo recently began offering classes to small business owners through “Nick’s University,” and students got a taste of the lessons from that program during a two-hour tour and discussion.

The Co-Op program allows seniors to gain real-world experience by working part-time with local employers while developing career and life-skills including networking, interviewing, and personal finance.

“I’m a big believer that we should all wake up excited to go about our day,” Sarillo told the class in his introduction. “It’s not about the how, but the why that motivates you to do your job.”

That philosophy underlies all aspects of the operation of Nick’s, which Sarillo started when he realized there was a need for a family-friendly restaurant that provided a great experience.

Drawing on his experiences working in his father’s restaurants and owning a construction company with his brother, Sarillo set out to build the restaurant with his own two hands, using his master carpentry skills and his eye for detail. In a tour of the restaurant, Sarillo proudly pointed out the design features of every aspect of the building from the salvaged barn beams to the sturdy front door.

Co-Op at Nicks pizzaSarillo stressed the importance of having a strong network, saying that friends and connections he had made in his previous work were invaluable in building the restaurant.

While he said he didn’t even have enough money to finish building, he continued to push forward, relying on his network and his passion. Without a college degree and as a first-time restaurant owner, he said it was difficult to secure additional funding for the business.

“There’s nothing that can replace passion,” he said.

He completed the building in 1995, opening to almost immediate success, using many recipes from his father’s previous restaurants. He said he quickly had to figure out how to sustain that success.
“I opened the doors and I had a business, but I wanted it to be a company. What I needed was a business plan that focused on my objectives of providing my guests with a good experience and my employees a good place to work,” he said.

Over time he developed processes and codified a set of values that defined the contributions of each team member. Those systems empower employees to take responsibility for their work, to develop and prove their skills to earn raises and promotions, and to contribute creative ideas to solve problems.

All aspects of running the restaurant are transparent, with employees being invited to review monthly profit and loss statements and to exchange feedback daily with both co-workers and managers.

That message of encouraging and rewarding workers behind a set of common values resonated with the students, about half of whom either are working or previously have worked in restaurants.

“It helps so much to see real-world experience from someone who’s lived it inside and out,” said student Samantha Davalos, who is planning a career in hospitality and tourism. “I think that encouraging employees to advance themselves shows that are trusted and appreciated, and I think that helps them have more pride and success.”

While others told him that he couldn’t trust employees, especially in an industry notorious for skimming, Sarillo said he believes that 98 percent of people are good, and that a good business should build processes around that 98 percent, instead of the 2 percent who may be dishonest.

“As long as you set people up for success, they will do a good job,” he said.

Co-Op at Nick's PizzaNick’s has kept staff turnover to about 25 percent each year, a remarkable number in an industry that typically sees turnover between 150 and 200 percent annually.

It wasn’t all success for Sarillo. After opening his second location, the economic downturn in 2008 put his business at risk. He turned to the community for help, offering discounted specials and maintaining his commitment to return 5 percent of sales to the community.

Sarillo provided a very strong message to the Co-Op students, encouraging them to buckle down in school and continue on to college, adding that a stronger education in business could have saved him a lot of money on mistakes in his earlier years.

He also stressed to students not to let a fear of failure deter them from pursuing their dreams. The company embraces this philosophy, encouraging staff to learn from their mistakes by recapping nightly what went well and what they could improve upon.

“I really enjoyed hearing about how important it is to learn from your mistakes and to use that going forward,” said senior Patrick Klseyk. It’s a lesson that applies directly to his planned career path as a software engineer. “It lets you really see how the future workplace should be. You get the experience of how real life really is.”

It’s that experience of learning—both in school and in the workplace—that will help students understand their own passions and values. Sarillo said those should be the most important guides as students decide on career paths.

“As they go out into the world, I’d like them to pay attention to who they are and what their values are,” he said. “Because those values matter, and who they are matters most.”

View more photos from the trip on the District 158 Facebook page.