Often in life, people are not ready for the perfect opportunity. For reasons that usually aren’t clear at the time, the steps simply can’t be taken, the hand can’t be shaken, or the risk must be forsaken because we don’t have the vision to see over the next hill.
But sometimes, in very brief instances a combination of luck, hard work, and persistence comes together to open a door that changes how we think, feel, and operate on our day-to-day basis.
That all happened for Chad Calongne the day he finally got to make the call to Mitch Rotolo, founder of Rotolo’s Pizzeria, to inquire about opening his first store, signing the paperwork, and borrowing a few dollars to make it all real.
But the road to that crossing in his life had not been easy. Surprisingly, he had already spoken to Rotolo once at a chance meeting but had been unable to reconnect with him for six months before that fateful conversation that pushed him into the Italian food business. A few more pieces had to fall into place before Calongne was ready for that leap, but he remained diligent and persistent – traits he had learned from his humble upbringing.
Chad Calongne was born in New Orleans and raised in Metairie. Unfortunately, both his grandfather and father passed in rapid succession when Calongne was young, leaving his family in tough economic conditions. Thankfully, that changed somewhat for the better when Calongne’s step-father came into the picture.
Calongne held his step-father in high regard; he treated Calongne and his family well and taught him the lessons that would eventually lead him to the University of New Orleans (UNO), where he graduated in the late 1990s with a degree in finance with a focus on real estate.
During his time at UNO, Calongne served in the Army National Guard which provided him with financial assistance for school, but his service and experience went well beyond just a monetary benefit.
“I’m very proud of my time in the national guard,” Calongne recalled. “You see those Blackhawk (helicopters) flying around? That’s my unit.”
The National Guard helped hone several skills that Calongne had picked up during his modest upbringing – discipline, team work, and practice. Those three things would help tremendously for the upcoming battle, because Calongne’s adult life would begin with a bit of a… rough patch.
THE NEXT BIG DEVELOPER
Calongne’s major in finance, with a focus on real estate, was driving him into the commercial sector. His big dreams and hard work at UNO had drawn the attention of some, and eventually his name landed in the ear of Quentin Dastugue.
Dastugue, a four-time United States Congressman from the New Orleans area and CEO of Property ONE Inc., was still in the early stages of his career. After Calongne’s name was given to him, he gave the young upstart a call.
“He said to me over the phone ‘This is Quentin Dastugue, I hear you’re interested in the commercial real estate business,’ to which I responded ‘Yes, who is this again?’ to which he replied back, very seriously, ‘This is Quentin Dastugue,’” Calongne recalled with a chuckle. “If you knew Quentin, he’s a very serious guy, very salesman, so once I got to know him the response made sense.”
Calongne was on his way, and within a few weeks of graduating he was shipped up river to Baton Rouge to be mentored by an older commercial real estate agent and run a development brokerage in the capital city.
Just one problem – in 2000 the .dot com bubble ‘burst’ leading to a contraction in the NASDAQ index and a slowing of commercial property transactions. Before long, Calongne was learning the hard way what it meant to ‘make ends meet,’ even going so far as to work a second job as a night shift security officer for a local retailer.
“I literally sat there and watched cameras,” Calongne said. “I worked from 7 a.m. until about 5 (p.m.), went to any real estate networking functions I needed to attend – usually chamber or real estate mixers – and then from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. I’d go sit in a booth and watch people walk around.”
Things dipped so low for Calongne that eventually he went to a credit agency that promised to fix his financial woes. The lady across the desk took one look at his financial paperwork and told him something he’d never forget.
“’You need to make more money’ she told me, ‘I can’t help you,’” Calongne said with a laugh.
While the advice was somewhat blunt, the lesson was not lost on Calongne. He found his way out sometime later and into a salaried job working commercial real estate negotiation and investment for an orthodontic company. From there, he elevated to a leasing company where he eventually worked himself right out of a job – signing out all his contracts for the Northshore Square Mall in Slidell and the majority of Hammond’s Mall.
So, having aced his former assignment, Calongne returned to the orthodontic company for a brief time before getting on with a franchise opportunity that was in its growth stage at the time – Planet Beach. Calongne handled commercial leasing and locations for the company for a few years, growing his finances, experience, and confidence - opening nearly 160 Planet Beaches in 2 years - and it was during that time, when things were really booming, he was able to first meet Mitch Rotolo, not too far from his home.
THE PERFECT ALIGNMENT
Calongne and his wife had visited the French Quarter Festival every year, and every year Calongne had to have pieces of Rotolo’s pizza. So, it came as a surprise one Saturday afternoon when Calongne’s wife returned from the cleaners and announced, ‘They’ve opened a Rotolo’s in Destrehan.’ According to Calongne, the distance to the Rotolo’s from his home is roughly the trip from Denham Springs to Walker, so he was out the door before she could finish her next sentence.
As fate would have it, the Destrehan store was so new – and one of the newer franchises outside of the Greater New Orleans area – that Mitch Rotolo himself was there that day managing the training. Calongne took a shot, asked to speak to him, and after about a 20-minute conversation Rotolo gave him his card and asked Calongne to give him a call the next week.
Next week turned into six months, but Calongne would not be deterred and, finally, Rotolo picked up.
“’You’re a persistent guy,’ he said to me. ‘Yes sir, I know what I like and you have a great concept,” Calongne remembered. “It was very important to me to be involved with a Louisiana concept, and I really wanted to be involved on the ground floor – so Rotolo’s just aligned with everything I wanted. The price point was right, the product is awesome, the company is a Louisiana company, they were in their infancy stage of their business cycle.
“Everything lined up for me in this chance meeting in August of 2007.”
The luck didn’t stop there. Calongne returned to his office at Planet Beach the next day and asking his business partner if he knew about Rotolo’s. As it turned out, he did – he worked for Mitch Rotolo in college. The stage was set – Calongne and his business partner came up with a business plan, borrowed some money, and entered the Rotolo’s Pizza business.
“It’s just good – we make our dough in house, every day, from scratch,” Calongne said. “Everything you eat is home made.”
Calongne was sold on Rotolo’s product model since it was explained by Mitch himself. The ingredients are fresh, everything uses as few preservatives as possible, and the food is prepared in a way not for efficiency, but for taste.
“A real differentiator for us is that we’re competing in the space of a full-service restaurant, with bar,” Calongne explained. “Even our beer selection is great – we try to have at least 14 taps, rotating weekly, in each store.
“All of that has become extremely important, especially with Livingston Parish adding as many restaurants as it has.”
But the love for his new business didn’t stop there – the menu size caught Calongne’s eye, as well. Rotolo’s goes beyond pizza, into the world of an Italian restaurant, by offering calzones, pastas, appetizers, salads, and sandwiches. Rotolo’s is even capable of catering events, large and small, having fed teachers and law enforcement with ease.
“There’s something for everyone,” Calongne exclaimed. “You could feed a family for a good price, and the food is good – and it’s real.”
CONVENIENCE IS NOT A MODEL FOR SUCCESS
“In my early days of commercial real estate, I saw a lot of these franchise guys wanting to set up shop right around the corner from their house,” Calongne said. “My business partner and I had all this demographic information, so we set out to decide where we were going to go – where did it make sense, not where was it convenient.”
In its inception, Rotolo’s was a small-market eatery, so Calongne focused on emerging markets. Around that time, Bass Pro Shops was introduced to the Denham Springs area and Cabela’s was built in Ascension.
“Ascension and Livingston (parishes) just made sense,” Calongne said. “We thought Prairieville would be our first shop, but a law suit put that on hold, so I worked minimum wage in the Destrehan store and learned the business.
“Finally, we found a spot in Gonzales in 2009, opened there, and then got our Prairieville store open and things started to move.”
Calongne learned a lot from those initial stores and, combined with a little luck, was ready for Mitch Rotolo’s next offer – he was going to purchase and develop land on Highway 16 and Arnold Road, in Watson, and gave them the first shot at opening a Rotolo’s. Calongne and his business partner already had their eyes on Livingston so, the decision was easy, and it didn’t take long for the store to catch fire.
After, Calongne and his partner parlayed that success into a store in Walker. Then Mayor Bobby Font had heard of the eatery – and its popularity – and worked diligently to help the new franchise open. As Bass Pro took hold, Calongne opened a store there, rounding out his three in Livingston Parish.
“Within 44 months, my partner and I had opened six restaurants – not bad for two guys using traditional bank financing and a little hard work,” Calongne bragged.
IT WAS JUST A BAD SCENE
Calongne’s day-to-day life at Beach Pizza Management is similar to that of a fireman – six stores provide plenty of obstacles which need to be overcome on a daily basis. Aside from those normal process issues, Calongne also has to think about his business from 30,000 feet – is the accounting right? How’s our insurance? Do we have maintenance needs?
Some of those maintenance needs are culture-based, making sure that everything from greeting customers and seating them, food service, to making sure the food is well-prepared and out on time are all ideals that Calongne always has to pass through his management.
If there’s a problem with any piece of his culture, however he discovered it, Calongne will find a way to reach out to the customer.
“I’m the owner of six restaurants,” Calongne stated, “the buck stops with me.
“When I first got into this business, complaints kept me up all night – I wasn’t upset with the customer, I blamed myself since we didn’t get it right, 100% of the time.”
Calongne admits the service industry is tough, but he works hard with his management to make sure that – at the very least – he and his team are prepared for any complaint or issue that may come from a customer.
But nothing could prepare Calongne for August of 2016.
“When the flood hit, I was scared,” Calongne said, shaken. “We had places in the area that didn’t need flood insurance, and one of my stores flooded. My area manager flooded, most of our staff flooded… it was just a bad scene.”
But, Calongne’s training kicked in and he decided to just keep working. Once he was able to get back into Livingston Parish, he and his business partner returned to take inventory – and start cooking for his staff and the community.
“We rallied the troops, told our employees as soon as we can get you back to work we will, and started finding out who in our business family needed help,” Calongne said. “Whatever we could do, we were going to do it.”
Calongne was busy in the days following the flood – feeding employees, their families, even donating or purchasing beds for those in need. Eventually, he started to cook for those who weren’t just part of Rotolo’s – handing out 1500 plates of spaghetti to anyone who was stopped at the light of Arnold Road and Highway 16.
“That store flooded, but my gas worked, so we boiled water and made pasta and handed it out to anyone who would take a bowl, or five.”
All his previous life experiences came to a head in those days following the flood, when Calongne got up, went to work, and made it happen for his employees and community. It was another opportunity for him to do what he loved, and do it for the community in which he believed.
THERE’S AN ENTIRE SECTION ON COMMUNITY
In 2008, when developing his business plan, Calongne took the advice of Mitch Rotolo and included community development participation within the language. He believes in giving back and makes that a part of the culture in his stores.
“The word community to me, means so much,” Calongne said. “These are more than just stores, they’re places in a network that give so much, so we want to give back.”
In speaking with a teacher from the Denham Springs school district, who had entered his Bass Pro store one evening, Calongne learned that many children either lost or could not afford new pencils after the Christmas holidays. Calongne had his marketing department purchase 10,000 pencils for distribution after the holidays.
After his Walker Rotolo’s opened, Chief of Operations Fred Raiford contacted Calongne to raise money for body cameras for their police department. While Calongne lamented he couldn’t ‘stroke a check’ for the entire amount, he was able to donate a several hundred dollars to the effort.
Calongne also assisted Walker with their Christmas Parades and 4th of July Celebrations. Through fundraisers, school donations, and feeding teachers Rotolo’s averaged roughly $10-$15,000 annually into the community.
“I’m not going to wait for people to come to me, we’re going to give back,” Calongne stated. “I wish I had a checkbook that could stroke million-dollar checks, but whatever we can do for the community – we will.”
MAKING MY OWN WAY IN LIFE
“I love being a Louisiana company. 10 years ago, I left my job with the intention to open as many restaurants as I could,” Calongne said. “I want to employ Louisiana people and I’m going to live here for the rest of my life.”
Calongne says he came up poor, he has a family, and hell-or-high water he will provide. Being in business is fun, he mused, but in the end, it comes down to his family.
But, Calongne said, he hopes people won’t look past his local investment with his stores. Each pays property tax, and sales tax, into local economics while also employing at least 20 people. Both his Walker and Watson stores continue to host fund raisers for school activities and families with needs, usually on Thursday nights.
“We’re in our 8th year of business in Livingston Parish, and we hope that many of our regular customers still enjoy our food – and that maybe some new customers will give us a try,” Calongne said proudly.
McHugh David is publisher and editor of the News. He is also a real estate agent. He can be reached at email@example.com, or you can follow him on Twitter @mchughdavid41.