We catch up with JP Teti, founder of Liberty Cheesesteak, London's first and only producers of the authentic Philly Cheesesteak sandwich.
Introducing an iconic part of American cuisine to the streets of London, the new Spitalfields eatery combines quality and flavour in the true American tradition. Liberty Cheesesteak wanted to share this delectable slice of the Philadelphian dining and indeed culture, to the UK food market. We catch up with Philadelphia raised founder JP Teti to find out more...
The biggest challenge is… Educating the London food public about what a Philly Cheesesteak is and why it is culturally significant. Then, getting them to suspend use of the Queen’s English for a couple moments to order one like a Philadelphian. The tricky bit is that the ingredients are seemingly simple - steak, cheese and bread - but it’s a bit more complicated than that as Philadelphians tend to be very protective of this part of their culture. Most attempts at a Philly Cheesesteak outside of Philly are not right, which is why most Philadelphians won’t order cheesesteaks much more than an hours drive in any direction outside of the City. We’ve been meticulous in our work and the result is a cheesesteak that Philadelphians would actually identify as legit. We’ve had Philadelphians confirm this. We like to say it is a simple set of ingredients, combined in a precise way to create a very uncommon experience for the consumer, especially in a country where the public is not accustomed to sandwiches as epic as the cheesesteak.
The average day is spent… I typically visit our Spitalfields location at least once a day for a couple hours to oversee the operation there, socialise with members of the team and help them to troubleshoot any issues that may develop. I usually find a quiet place to work with my laptop and mobile, during which time I will try to advance several business development initiatives, pay bills, speak to vendors, catch up on email correspondence, pour over the numbers so I am always on top of how we are tracking and generally brainstorm about where we could take the business in the next six months. I come up with some crazy and not so crazy ideas during these sessions and then I work to link them back to our strategy. The ideas that have some strategic coherence may see the light of day at some point soon, the others get a special page in the back of my notebook reserved for ideas that could be new businesses some day. There is no such thing as a bad idea. There are just ideas whose time has not yet come, so I am careful never to discard any of them.
The team consists of… Our team consists of a diverse and overqualified group of people, who have all decided that putting cheesesteaks on the London culinary map and growing our young company is something they find very exhilarating and fulfilling. Thirty percent of the team have earned masters degrees in business or economics and we have six different countries represented in our company including Canada, Romania, St. Helena, Brazil, USA and of course England - not bad considering we currently employ eight members of staff. The team has grown organically, by people seeking us out because they experienced our company somewhere, they really like what we did and wanted to be a part of it. These are the best kinds of people to have in a company because their motivations are predominantly intrinsic. Something within them has caused them to pursue a relationship with our company, which means they are highly motivated and driven to succeed. It makes our relationship with them far less transactional and hopefully far more meaningful to them. Everyone in our company is focused on building something novel on the basis of really unique and authentic experiences for our customers.
My favourite quote… Upon graduating with highest honours from university my Dad (a great entrepreneur in his own right) wisely reminded me “This degree and a buck fifty will get you on the subway”. That was his old-school Italian way of reminding me - at a time of great personal accomplishment - that there will never be any substitute for hard work. Nothing worth having ever comes easily.
I am where I am today because of… Passion. My parents created an environment in our family where apathy and indifference were not really an option. Growing up, we would have family dinners every night and these dinners were always fuelled by a debate of some kind. Often the topics were political, as both of my parents are very civic-minded people and were always engaged in service to our community in one way or another. My brother, sister and I were taught to think, take positions and engage in debate. Caring deeply about something stimulates action.
I am who I am because of… My wife. She enables, encourages and unconditionally supports my creativity and ambition and the risk-taking that flows from them.
The best advice I’ve been given… Be careful whose foot you step on today, because it could be connected to the ass you're kissing tomorrow.
In five years I’d like to be… Widely acknowledged as the "Cheesesteak King of London".
The thing no one ever tells you about running your own business online… Is that you only control a small part of the conversation, so try your best to position your company as you would like it viewed by others, then hang on tight for the ride that follows. The online world is the great leveller that enables everyone to participate equally in defining you and your business. The only thing you have control over is how your company and your employees conduct themselves. Hopefully, this results in the experiences you are endeavouring to create for your customers and they feel motivated enough to tell people about it.
Our biggest mistake and what it taught us… Not planning for growth from the beginning, which has meant our systems, processes and infrastructure have lagged behind the needs of the business. If you’re going to spend the time, effort and money to start a business, commit to it completely and build it from day one with a view towards what it will need to operate successfully in two years time.
The most rewarding experience we’ve had to date… Is having our regular British customers speak "Philly English" to us every time the come see us for a cheesesteak. They carry themselves in a way that says, "we got in on the ground level of something really cool here and we’re psyched to be a part of it." Also, every once and awhile a Philly expat will find us and get a bit emotional about what we’re doing. It’s gratifying to have built something that connects with people on such a visceral human level.