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Sam Solomon: Food Entrepreneurship from Pizza to Ice Cream
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Sam Solomon believes he was in the right place at the right time. When he was a sophomore at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, he was a finalist for the annual Pitch competition. Together with a friend, Gloria, he pitched a honey business. They had a business plan and presented their business to the whole school during the finals. And they lost.
Two years later, Solomon won The Pitch with his idea for Pizza Posto, a wood-fired pizza restaurant using local fresh ingredients from the Finger Lakes in New York. He later changed gears from wanting a restaurant and decided to start a local food truck. The truck was a huge success, but Solomon decided to pivot in late 2020 and bought Spotted Duck Creamery, a duck egg custard shop in the Finger Lakes he had collaborated with before.
Now, five years after winning The Pitch, Business.org spoke with Solomon to learn about how his business has evolved, his time as an entrepreneur, and learning to bake pizzas in Italy.
Starting the journey in college
To hear Solomon tell it, losing The Pitch back in 2015 was ultimately a good thing. It allowed him to understand the competition and “take away that kind of unknown fear factor,” he said. It also gave him the opportunity to prepare a new pitch.
Pizza Posto came about after Solomon studied abroad in Rome, on a trip led by his advisor and sociology professor, Jack Harris. In Rome, Solomon was able to craft an independent study on the sociology of pizza and learned how to make authentic pizzas. Solomon had grown up surrounded by great pizza on Long Island and found that he wasn’t satisfied with options in the Finger Lakes—especially with local ingredients everywhere and no local pizza shop using them. When he came back to campus, Solomon took advantage of the nascent entrepreneurial studies minor and conducted research on customer demographics, where he discovered a strong interest in buying artisanal and locally sourced wood-fired pizza.
When the time came to pitch again, Solomon remembered his previous experience. He implemented what past winners did well into his own pitch for pizza. Solomon won The Pitch in 2017, his senior year, and set to work building his business.
Starting a restaurant is harder than it looks
“Right after I won The Pitch, I flew to Las Vegas for the International Pizza Expo,” Solomon told Business.org. “I had never worked in a pizzeria or really any kitchen, for that matter. So, I had a lot to learn.” At the Expo, Solomon met a restaurateur who was going to be opening a “small wood fire Neapolitan pizza place” in the Berkshires of Massachusetts—“he needed someone to run his pizza place,” Solomon said, “and I needed to learn how to run a pizza place.”
For six months, Solomon lived in the Berkshires, but he never made a single pizza. “I watched these two people with a lot of restaurant experience and capital fail to open the pizza place on time and on budget,” Solomon said.
On a trip back to the Finger Lakes, Solomon was talking to the owner of Billsboro Winery who mentioned that there weren’t enough food trucks for the summer season. “And after that, I decided I was going to buy a food truck and try and start the business with much less overhead and much less risk,” Solomon recalled.
The Finger Lakes’ only pizza food truck
Now that he was ready to start Pizza Posto, Solomon calculated that he needed $50,000 for a truck and equipment. He got a $25,000 loan from a local bank and paired it with a $25,000 matching loan from the City of Geneva, where he would be launching his business. He raised another $5,000 from GoFundMe and had $5,000 left from winning The Pitch.
“All of that together got me to $60,000, which was also one of the best things I ever did,” Solomon said, “and I tell anyone who’s starting a business now to borrow more money than you think you need because you will need it. Thank God I did because we definitely needed it.”
In the first season, Solomon took Pizza Posto to wineries and breweries all over the Finger Lakes. (The Finger Lakes wine region is world-renowned with over 400 wineries and vineyards.) He said yes to everywhere but didn’t know about asking for guarantees to cover costs.
“That whole first season was spent just trying to figure things out,” Solomon said. “It was very stressful.” Pizza Posto didn’t make a lot of money at all, but it broke even, which Solomon considered to be a huge success. And then it grew from there.
From pizza to ice cream
The first year of Pizza Posto did offer a hint of what was to come. While visiting Spotted Duck Creamery with his parents, Solomon told them about his food truck and they told him they were looking for food trucks with local ingredients that made everything from scratch, like they did. Luckily, Pizza Posto was already doing that.
“They were really happy when I told them about Pizza Posto,” Solomon recalled, “and we started going there and they noticed that they were much busier on days when the pizza truck was there.”
The following year, Daniel Hoover, a co-owner of Spotted Duck, approached Solomon about opening a joint location in Geneva. “I was honored,” Solomon told Business.org. Spotted Duck had been really busy and Solomon thought, “If my pizza spot is in the same location as their ice cream, there's no doubt we're going to be successful.”
Even without a joint location, Spotted Duck and Pizza Posto did really well during the COVID-19 pandemic because of outdoor dining requirements. After that summer, Solomon found a place in Geneva and brought it to the owners of Spotted Duck. They told him they were moving and selling the ice cream business.
After thinking about it, Solomon found an investor to buy Spotted Duck with him. Solomon is now in his second season owning Spotted Duck Creamery.
When Solomon first bought Spotted Duck, he kept the Pizza Posto food truck permanently parked at Spotted Duck and served pizza Friday to Sunday. “I was running the pizza and running the ice cream and it was, by far, one of the most stressful times in my life,” Solomon recalled. “Running two businesses that are labor intensive and customer-facing is very difficult.”
So, he decided to sell the food truck while retaining the rights and recipes to Pizza Posto. The plan still is to bring back Pizza Posto as a physical location in the Finger Lakes.
Looking back on his entrepreneurship
“The sooner you can start the better,” Solomon offered as advice. “If you really believe in yourself enough to start a business, then it is worth trying. It will be one of the hardest and most rewarding endeavors you ever take. The reason to start sooner is because the older you get, the harder it can be to leave the stability of a full time job to take the risk of running your own business. Entrepreneurship comes with a lot of uncertainty, and it can be hard to take that on when you have a mortgage and family. Not impossible by any means, but hard.”
Having started his own business in school, Solomon noted that students have less expenses and less responsibilities. Said Solomon: “You're really only responsible for yourself and if your business makes very little money—that's okay.”
Looking back on his entrepreneurial journey, Solomon also emphasized the importance of “leveraging your network and asking for help.” It started for him with Professor Harris, and Solomon’s added more people to his network as his business endeavors have grown.
“I think it shows a lot of strength to be asking for help and people are generally honored when you ask them,” Solomon explained. “You’re coming to them because you think that they have the knowledge and skills that you need—it's quite complimentary.”
“Every day is different”
Solomon no longer drives his food truck around the Finger Lakes. “I can focus more on actually running the business,” Solomon told Business.org, “which is really important for scaling.”
But for now, Solomon is focusing on the day-to-day. “I really love that every day is different,” Solomon said. “Really no two days are the same. I love that I'm constantly running around and on my feet moving.”
Spotted Duck also allows Solomon to continue the work he began at Pizza Posto: serving “real food with good ingredients.” It’s one of the things he loves about the business, he told Business.org, “It really means a lot to me to be able to offer a really high-quality, clean product in a market that’s very much made up of young kids.”
But make no mistake, this isn’t the end for Solomon. “I love just thinking about the future and building a business that people really enjoy and love to come to,” he said.
After owning two successful food restaurants in the Finger Lakes, Solomon has proved his student pitch worked.
To learn more about Spotted Duck and visit the creamery, check them out online.