Mike Keon, a former commercial fisherman originally from Lowell, Mass., and Anthony Allen, who grew up in Nantucket, Mass., started Otto Pizza on Congress Street in Portland in 2009. Their pizza — including their signature mashed potato, bacon and scallion — has since won national recognition, including a rating as Maine’s best in Food Network Magazine’s “50 States, 50 Pizzas” list.
Otto Pizza, which employs 215 people, now has five locations and will have eight by this fall. Keon and Allen declined to disclose their sales, annual revenue, income or their compensation.
Q: How did you meet?
A: Allen: I was leasing a nightclub in Haverhill, Mass., and Mike had opened his own restaurant there and we ran into each other. We started talking about pizza and opening up a place and we looked at a couple of places in Boston, but just couldn’t make things fit. Mike wanted to come to Portland and he found a place and said it was perfect, and indeed it was. We combined forces and we knew where we wanted to end up.
Q: After operating on your own, were there any issues about going into a partnership?
A: Keon: There really wasn’t, with us. We just got along well and wanted to see what we could do as a team. We heard all the warnings about partnerships being better for dancing than business. We listened to that — and did the opposite. We each still bring to it the thing that the other does not. It’s the yin and yang thing. Anthony’s more tech-savvy and handles the administration stuff and I get involved in the more creative things, like the food and the shops. We talk about all the ideas and I tend to run with some of that stuff, and Anthony just has a lot of hustle and is good at arranging meetings and talking to banks and dealing with leases.
It’s been working that way from day one.
A: Allen: I think we both respect each other and each other’s opinions, and if something doesn’t feel right or sound right or taste right, we come to a consensus on it. Our lifestyle is a lot different than it was three or four years ago and we still try to get in front of our general managers (of each location) weekly. We still care about how the place settings look and how the product is presented and how it’s served and the quality of our staff. We put a lot of energy into it. We share an aesthetic and are just a lot more in alignment on most things. We don’t run into things we can’t solve very often.
Q: Where did the name come from? Why Otto?
A: Keon: We had a list of names — a couple of pages — that we had come up with when he had looked at spaces in Boston and had chosen names for those before we settled on Portland. We narrowed it down, and Enzo was a name we were going to go with, and that’s what we called the wine bar (next to Otto Pizza on Congress Street). We started working with a designer and Otto was in the final round of names and he put it in the logo. It looked great, and we fell in love with it.
A: Allen: It means eight in Italian, and there’s eight slices to a pizza.
Q: You have some unusual pizzas, including the mashed potato. Why did you decide to branch out from traditional toppings?
A: Keon: We had some ideas, going into it, that were not traditional. I guess we thought it just doesn’t have to be pepperoni and green peppers, and we were looking at food combinations that work well on a plate as well as on a pizza. It just made it more interesting to us and allowed us to stand out. Right away, it was a big hit and it inspired us to do more. We have a new menu coming out with a few changes — not a lot, because there are so many favorites out there.
A: Allen: It would be nice to say that we had a 30-page business plan when we started up, but it was looking at things like, “Why don’t we do something with potatoes? We’re in Maine.” It was an evolution and we’re really careful not to become faddy or to do it just to make noise about it.
A: Keon: We really didn’t want to be recognized just because we were doing unusual things. We weren’t going to put Froot Loops on the pizza.
Q: Many business owners say that making the decision to expand is the most stressful for them. Was that the case for you? And why did you expand such a short distance away — less than a mile — on Munjoy Hill in Portland?
A: Keon: Enzo was really the first move, the little shop next to us. That became available and we put a bar in it and broke through the wall. Then the North Star Cafe on Munjoy Hill went out of business and it felt right. It’s a whole other neighborhood and we really target good neighborhoods where there’s a lot of foot traffic. When you’re done with work and you’re back home, you don’t want to jump in your car and go somewhere, you look for something in your neighborhood.
A: Allen: From working the counter at the original Otto, we got continual requests: “When are you guys going to open in our neighborhood?” There’s no real pizza down there (on Munjoy Hill) in that whole neighborhood, so it seemed kind of obvious.
A: Keon: We were lucky with a sort of a built-in crowd when we expanded on the East End. We went back and forth and we definitely felt the pain of dividing our time, and then we put in a manager who wasn’t really prepared for that size of a shop. He did pretty well with the tools that we gave him, but that ended up being painful and it wasn’t really a smooth beginning.
We had to find a manager who will take on the role of an owner. That’s hard and we had to make our peace with that.
We’ll be open in South Portland in a month or so and have another north of Boston. It will be eight shops in October. The management of things doesn’t concern us as much as filling the hourly slots. It’s tough to find people in the restaurant industry. We pay good wages and have a lot of extra perks, but some ads don’t produce any (job candidates) at all, and it’s not just us.
A: Allen: There’s about zero percent unemployment in Boston and apparently not much more than that up in Portland. It’s definitely a challenge.
Q: What’s next for Otto Pizza?
A: Allen: We like what we do now, but the idea of growing bigger probably means we’d be working for someone else, and we look at each other and say, “Why do we want to do that?” We added four locations last year, and this year we’re down to two and next year is going to be for retrenching and making sure every line on our notepad gets more attention and every product gets more scrutiny. It’s time to just fine-tune things.
We’re a little tired and we’re feeling it, but we see some things across the shop that could be done better. We’re not absentee owners, but we are getting spread thin, so we want to focus on the quality of everything. Service is probably at the top of the list, and the product can always be better and we’re excited to just do better things.
We don’t ever sit back and say, “We’ve got it all wired.” Every aspect gets scrutiny and we decide which ones we want to tackle on a day-to-day basis. Neither of us has ever run a company with a couple of hundred employees. There are a lot of nuts and bolts, but we’re all in.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: