Tune Out Doubters

There was nothing I wouldn't try, nothing I wouldn't do, to make enough money to open that restaurant. I was that committed, that passionate. When an idea is fuelled by hunger and conviction, it grows muscles and stands a much better chance of working. Besides, my only thought was, what's the worse thing that could happen? That I'd land in the hospital? Done. I survived. That I'd get fired? That happened too. Big deal. There was always another job around the corner. No matter what, I always had a sense that this idea to open a Boston Pizza franchise was a winning idea. The business was growing, wasn't it? I wasn't buying blindly into a dream. I had spent hours and hours at Boston Pizza and at Gus's home. I played poker with him and got to know his family. His friends became my friends. Don's and my principles lined up with his. We wanted to make a good solid business out of the restaurant, and make enough money to pay people working wages and provide a good time for the folks who ate there. Our goals were simple and similar. And if Penticton worked out, we'd grow it somewhere else. We weren't doing this to drive fancy cars or to sock away wads of cash. We were looking for a new adventure. I always kept that in mind, even when doubts crept in, mine or other people's. One time, a force member saw me at Sears selling refrigerators. After taking in my cheap suit, he shook his head at me and asked with real concern, “Treliving? What the hell are you doing, buddy?”

“Just trying to scratch out a living,” I said, shrugging. I tried to keep the attitude that those odd jobs were temporary, and for a greater cause. I'd remind myself that I was learning skills and meeting new people. I never sneered at any of the work I got or at any of the people I met along the way. I was grateful for every dime I earned during those months. Plus I always hoped I'd meet someone who might consider financing our dream, a silent partner, someone who didn't want to work in the pizza business themselves but had the money to back a couple of guys who did.

By day, Don and I also collected restaurant equipment — an oven or a stockpot here, a dough mixer there — storing it all in our garages until it was time to make the big move to Penticton. By night, we were learning how to run a restaurant. We did every job, from washing dishes to waiting tables to bussing and setting them. But the biggest adjustment was losing my “ice face” when working the front of the house. Friends pointed out that I was greeting customers like they were suspects. Without even realizing it, I'd be scoping them out, looking them up and down — so you can just imagine my expression. It's not something I could just shut off, but I've learned over the years to camouflage it with a smile. I've had lapses on Dragons' Den, when I'm so tuned in to a pitcher's body language, paying attention to where their eyes shift, how their feet shuffle, watching for evidence of deceit or exaggeration, that my “ice face” resurfaces; I see flashes of it when I watch the shows on TV. I don't apologize for it — it's a useful skill. But you can't show it at a restaurant.

Around the time I was training at Boston Pizza, my marriage with Elaine entered the stage that many entrepreneurs experience when they start out on a new venture. It's an all-consuming time, and though you tell yourself that it's for the greater good, for the family and its security, deep down you know it's not good for a marriage to just pass each other in the night. But that's what was beginning to happen. Elaine was busy with the baby, and I was busy building a business. If I wasn't at one of my various jobs, I was at Boston Pizza, training and learning. Time was ticking. But back then you didn't sit down and talk through things. Instead, you ploughed ahead and hoped for better times.

Gus charged his brother George with the task of teaching me how to cook the Boston Pizza way. Though I was a bad student in my teens, I was an avid student in my late 20s, hovering over a big pot of sauce while George walked me through the recipes. But as soon as the so-called training began, I knew I was in trouble. I can still see myself standing in that hot kitchen, wearing an apron, notebook in hand, eager to learn the ropes.

“Okay, George. Meat sauce. Show me how to make it. What goes into it?”

George looked at me sternly, his thick eyebrows raised.

“What's doze for?” he asked, pointing at my hands.

“It's a pen and a notebook, George. I wanna write everything down so we can duplicate the recipes.”

“No. You doan need to write anyting-a down, Jeem. I no like.”

“George, I gotta. How else am I going to make it exactly how you make it?”

“You gonna watch.”

And off he went, throwing “a little-a bit a dis, and a little-a bit a dat” into a giant vat of simmering meat sauce. His hands were a blur, tossing a pinch of this herb and that spice into the pot, stirring all the while.

“That's how you make-a da meat sauce. You got it, Jeem?”

“I … think so.”

For rolling out pizza dough, it was more of the same. I'd mimic George slapping at the warm dough.

“Like this?”

“No, Jeem, you go like-a dis.” Slap, slap, slap. “Den you take-a dis hand and go like-a-dat. Den you pudda dis and pudda dat. Done.”

“Done. So then it goes in the oven, right? For how long?”

“Until it looks-a like a dis,” he'd say, proudly pulling out a piping hot pizza, its crust perfectly browned.

We paid $5,000 for “a little-a bit a dis, and a little-a bit a dat, you pudda the meat, you adda the onion, go like a-dat, do like a-dis.” That was the extent of our Boston Pizza cooking lessons. Don and I would just have to wing the rules, recipes and regulations. And yet, we happily paid the franchise fee because there was still a Boston Pizza flavour and a certain feel to the place we knew we could duplicate. Today, all Boston Pizza recipes are standardized. We've perfected a flavour, and we replicate that taste in all our stores. But when I cook at home, I rarely use a measuring cup. I like to throw things together like George taught me — and, let me assure you, I'm a pretty good cook.

It was the middle of January 1968 when I loaded up a U-Haul with our restaurant equipment and hitched it to the back of my station wagon. I felt like a homesteader creeping along the snowy highway, crossing provincial lines. It was pretty treacherous driving, with a few memorable fishtails to keep me alert. Both Elaine and Don were staying behind in Edmonton until I got settled and took possession of the building that would house the restaurant. After another near-deadly spinout I saw red lights flashing behind me, beckoning me to pull over. Perfect, I thought. That's just what I need — an RCMP officer's lecture about safety. One more final humiliation before I got to Penticton. The officer took one look at my licence and registration and handed it back to me with a grin.

“Treliving, what the hell are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere with all this crap hitched to your car? And where in the hell are you going?”

It was Barry Hughes, a recruit I knew from RCMP training. I told him I had quit my job and was opening up a little pizza place in Penticton.

He shook his head and tipped his hat.

“You're out of your freaking mind, Jim,” he said. “But good luck to you, man.”

Truth be told, I had no real idea what lay ahead for us, or how hard the next two years were going to be and how close I'd come to financial disaster. And I consider that a blessing. In fact, if I had known all the pitfalls before hitching that U-Haul to my station wagon and still went ahead with it, the decision would have had more to do with insanity than courage. I did not know it at the time, but the next couple of years would test every entrepreneurial muscle I had.

By the way, Barry waived the ticket. I told him to come visit me and I'd buy him dinner. A few months later, he did. Eventually, he came to work for Boston Pizza, after I drove out to Kelowna to persuade him to join us. His wife wasn't a fan of the idea. She chased me out of the house with a hot iron that afternoon. But he became one of my closest friends — I caught the golf bug from him — and he eventually became Boston Pizza's chief contractor. In fact, he built Boston Pizza's venues for Expo '86, an event that secured the company's future. A few years later, Barry was killed by a drunk driver as he headed home from my 50th birthday party. I'll never forget his goodbye to me that night. It was the first time he had ever hugged me. He was halfway down the driveway when he turned and ran back. “Big!” he said — that was his nickname for me. “We made it to 50. Can you believe it?” He was dead an hour later, a tragedy I've never really gotten over.

It was five o'clock in the afternoon when I rolled into Penticton and parked my car and trailer in front of my Uncle Jack's place. He and my Aunt Edna were putting me up for the next few months, until I got a place of my own. Now the real work would begin. Not the building, not the cooking, cleaning or serving. That was nothing. The hardest part about starting a business, as anyone who's ever appeared on Dragons' Den will attest to, is finding the money to finance your dream. That's the whole premise of the TV show, and it's the essence of entrepreneurship — raising capital. Don and I had some money, but we'd need a lot more. I had big plans for that giant empty basement below the restaurant. I even had a name for it: Boston's Bottom. A nightclub wasn't part of the deal with Gus, but it became a crucial financial support when, a year later, we found ourselves waist deep in debt and desperately looking for help from a young accountant named George Melville.

Checklist for Becoming a Decision Maker

Leaving a sure thing for a big maybe was one of the biggest decisions I'd ever made in my life. It was a total life change. But I felt I had no choice. I was a young man. I had just begun to understand myself — and I wanted to have more control over my life. I wanted to become a decision maker, an entrepreneur. How do I know a big decision needs to be made? When I no longer feel effective, when, despite all efforts on my part, I can't seem to make a bad situation better. Here are a few other tips that can guide you in making a big decision:

1. Surround Yourself with People Who Want You to Succeed.

This is tricky. Sometimes people with bad ideas continue down a destructive path because they're surrounded by people who tell them only what they want to hear. That's not what I'm talking about. If a big decision has passed your head, heart and gut test, and you know you're on the right path, you have to tune out the naysayers. As happy as some of my fellow officers were for me when I told them I was leaving the force, many weren't. Some tried talking me out of it. Some dropped subtle hints that I might not be cut out for the work of running a restaurant. Maybe it was jealousy, I don't know. But it's a crucial stage when you've made a big decision. I've come to realize the fundamental importance of surrounding yourself with people who genuinely want you to succeed. They can oftentimes carry your enthusiasm for you in those moments when it all gets to be too much.

2. A Decision Isn't an Action; It's Just a Decision. Think of the old adage about three birds sitting on a wire. One makes the decision to fly away. How many birds are left? Lots of people answer “two,” but it's actually three. The bird made only a decision. The point is, get cracking. This goes back to my police training. Always do something.

3. Develop Stamina. I lost count of the number of jobs I held between the time I left the RCMP and when I moved to Penticton. The goal was to make as much money as possible, but I was also cultivating important entrepreneurial muscles because I was constantly making decisions, then revising them. I was learning about flexibility and resilience. I was learning to set goals and then execute them. I was learning how to manage my time and maintain momentum. After all, the worst decision you can make in difficult times is no decision. And the worst thing you can do after making a big decision such as changing careers or moving to a new city is to sit around and think about it. You've made the decision, so take the action, then move on to the next decision and the action after that.

4. Assume You'll Second-Guess Big Decisions. My first big decision was to become an RCMP officer. I thought it would be the last big decision I'd make about my life. But that decision set into motion a series of events, until I made the leap into an entirely different field. Now I never think of my decisions as final ones. They simply send me in a certain direction with a lot of momentum. If things turn out, it doesn't necessarily mean it was the right decision. And if things don't turn out as planned, it means I have to get in front of the dilemma and make yet another decision, followed by more action. It's a relentless life, being an entrepreneur. It's also really rewarding. But it's not for everyone.

5. Don't Count on Consensus. It's nice when consensus happens, when everyone's on the same page. But it may never come. Here's the thing: a decision maker makes a decision and then takes responsibility for the outcome, especially if it's a bad one. However, if it's a good outcome, you shouldn't take the credit. Sounds tough, but that's how I feel. In my partnerships, I've always strived for consensus. Sometimes we reach it. Sometimes we don't. But at the end of the day, when a decision must be made, it's made.

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