Cradle of Entrepreneurs Re-cap: SPIN! Pizza's Gail Lozoff

With its sleek décor and warm, bustling atmosphere, SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza is the model blend of modern fast casual and classic family dining. Not suprisignly, the KC restaurant chain’s owner, Gail Lozoff, is herself a study in progressive entrepreneurialism informed by deeply rooted family tradition.

Lozoff was all of five years old when she got her first job – an appointment as bakery-box folder at the Cake Box in Brookside, for which she earned a penny per folded box. Taking the Dickensian edge off the job was the fact that the shop was founded by her grandfather, a Russian immigrant who had sold sugar to bootleggers during Prohibition. Lozoff’s grandfather and father grew the Cake Box into a massive local chain, with over a dozen storefronts around the KC metro, plus products on the shelves at more than 50 grocery stores.

Family business was an overriding theme last night at Central, where Lozoff joined Library Director Crosby Kemper III for a public conversation about the triumphs and trials of life as an entrepreneur.

Held in Helzberg Auditorium – with ample samples of SPIN! pizza at hand – the discussion marked the first in a series of public forums with some of KC’s finest self-starters, titled Kansas City – Cradle of Entrepreneurs. (Look for talks with Ollie Gates, Manny Lopez, Danny O’Neill and others in the coming months.)

Borrowed from an address by Kauffman Foundation president Carl Schramm, “cradle” is an appropriate term for Lozoff. She’s a third-generation entrepreneur who dispenses wisdom earned from a lifetime of successes as well as failures.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until you don’t know it – that’s my motto,” Lozoff told the crowd at the Library last night. 

Having been through two bankruptcies of her own and consulted another business through its own tough times, Lozoff knows about not knowing. After her first venture, a jewelry company, went bankrupt, Lozoff and her family embarked on a ski trip to brainstorm a new family business. It was on their last day in the mountains that Lozoff’s sister came up with the idea to make and sell real Jewish bagels – a rare commodity in Kansas City.

Soon, Lozoff and her husband would find themselves – completely by chance – setting up shop in the same location where she had folded bakery boxes as a child. In 1988, Bagel & Bagel opened for business in the very same Brookside storefront where the first Cake Box had operated decades before.

Selling $700 worth of 35-cent bagels on their first day of business, the Lozoff clan stayed up the entire next night baking. Bagel & Bagel grew exponentially, opening nine stores in Kansas City. In 1995, it became one of three chains purchased by Boston Chicken (now Boston Market) and formed into the Einstein Bros. Bagels chain. Lozoff and her fellow bagel barons had three months to come up with the first prototype Einstein Bros. restaurant. Their vision was a success, as within two years, 650 restaurants had opened nationwide. (Fun fact: The Einstein Bros. mascots, “Melvin” and “Elmo,” are patterned after Lozoff’s husband and brother-in-law.)

Success proved fleeting, however, as Boston Chicken experienced numerous financial difficulties following an ill-planned IPO. Einstein Bros. was auctioned to a hostile competitor, and Lozoff and her fellow bagel execs resigned.

They were soon scooped up, however, by the KC-based Houlihan’s restaurant, which was going through bankruptcy and needed Lozoff’s help rebuilding and rebranding.

Lozoff’s work with Gilbert-Robinson, the firm that owns the 35-year-old Houlihan’s (along with the Bristol Seafood Grill and J. Gilbert’s Wood-Fired Steaks), was very influential on her development as a restaurateur.

“Gilbert-Robinson set the standard for customer experience nationwide, and they had a huge impact on me,” Lozoff said.

Customer experience was at the fore when Lozoff opened the first SPIN! in 2005 at 119th and Metcalf in Overland Park. And that’s where it has remained through the openings of three more locations – all of which offer the same welcoming, relaxed, “third place” vibe that characterized Bagel & Bagel over 20 years ago.

A happy and dedicated staff is essential to maintaining good customer experience, Lozoff explained. That’s why she and her SPIN! managers hold weekly meetings to discuss customer service, and why they’ve established multiple channels for soliciting customer feedback.

SPIN! further defines its brand and identity in the community by holding weekly organized bike rides at three of its locations, as well as participating in charity rides. (It was Lozoff and her husband’s love of biking from pizzeria to pizzeria across the Italian countryside that inspired the SPIN! concept.)

As for her views on the Kansas City restaurant community, Lozoff is realistic about competition, but she also welcomes diversity.

Lozoff and Crosby Kemper III spoke before a crowd of 115 in Helzberg Auditorium.

“Every other restaurant in town is a competitor – it’s true,” she said. “But it’s good for a city to have more restaurants, so that people can have different experiences and a more sophisticated palate.”

As for her own tastes, when Lozoff was asked what her plans were for the future, she answered, “Drinks at Extra Virgin!”

In all seriousness, Lozoff intends to grow SPIN! in the area, with no plans to ever go public.

After all, she’s an entrepreneur who’s learned what she knows.

Stay tuned for more information on the Kansas City – Cradle of Entrepreneurs public discussion series, which continues in 2011 and 2012.

If you or someone you know is an aspiring entrepreneur, check out the many free business resources available in-person and online at the Library’s H&R Block Business & Career Center.

-- Jason Harper