Miki Agrawal: What's Your Definition Of Success?

For Miki Agrawal, the decision to become an entrepreneur sprung from a simple question: “What do I want my lifestyle to be like?” At age 25, she had already cycled through three mini-careers: soccer player for the NY Magic, investment banker at Deutsche Bank, and producer in the film and TV world. She had been working 100+ hours a week for years, and knew it was time for a change.

The result was Slice, the Perfect Food, a completely unorthodox take on the classic pizza experience: It’s healthy, it’s organic, and it’s beautifully presented. Since opening the first Slice outpost on the Upper East Side in November of 2005, Miki has built a booming wholesale business in pizza kits and opened a sister storefront in the West Village, this time featuring a wine bar with all local NY State wines and craft beers.

We sat down with her at Slice’s new Hudson Street location to chat about how she became a restaurateur, why you should always soft launch a new product, and the art of making a great pitch.

What was the catalyst for starting Slice?

When I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, obviously, the thought wasn’t pizza, or being a restaurateur. My first question was “What do I want my lifestyle to be like?”

It’s an interesting question. I don’t think many people take that approach.

It was just figuring out what my definition of success was. My definition is “freedom of time.” I want to be able to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. At the same time, I started having a lot of stomach issues, which correlates to what’s going on in the food industry – everything is just getting more and more processed as the years go by. And my body was saying no.

So I started to look at alternatives. It was mainly dairy – dairy was killing me. One in five Americans are lactose-intolerant. Eighty percent of the world is lactose-intolerant, and it’s getting worse. I said, “Let me try organic, and see if that might change something.” And it really did. So, I thought, “This is interesting, here’s a business opportunity.” I had had to give up pizza because of the dairy, and always having stomach aches, which was intolerable.

The other question was, every time I ate, I had to make the decision, “Do I eat healthy? Or do I eat tasty?” If you eat healthfully, you have to give up on flavor. If you eat for taste, you have to give up on health. It was always one or the other. But I thought, “Why can’t there be a marriage?” It was an interesting concept: Healthy, organic pizza that tastes amazing and rich and flavorful and doesn’t compromise on the flavor even if it is healthier.

It was figuring out what my definition of success was. My definition is ‘freedom of time.’

So what was the incubation period before the launch?

I had no business background, no food background. I barely knew how to chop an onion. I had no skill set. The only skill set I had was finance for two years with investment banking – so learning how to put a pitch book together, and how to present something. I had also worked in film and I produced commercials, so I had gained the project management skills. You put together a budget, you hire people, you produce a project, you pay people. And those two skill sets are very transferable to running a restaurant, or running a business.

I also brought together a really brilliant team of friends. In the 5 years I’d been in New York, I had met a bunch of random people – one was a branding guy, one was an architect, one was a designer, one was a foodie/restaurateur. So I gave them all a little piece of the business, and said, “I need your help.” We all just moonlighted and put the business plan together. The hardest part was raising the money. It was all angel investors. Friends, or friends of friends, etc.

What was the biggest problem you ran into during that early launch phase?

I can be pretty persuasive in PR, and I managed to get Daily Candy, the New York Times, and Time Out to write about us before we even opened, or on opening week.

I made these little packages with my branding team: I put an IV bag in each box and a note that said, “The perfect food will be arriving on November 27th. Until then, don’t eat anything.” I put a sticker on the IV bag that said, “Should a lack of sustenance prove debilitating, please insert tube into vein.” Then below that there was our weird, 21-page menu with a bunch of strange line drawings.

I put a map together of all the editors in the city, and I rode my bike around and hand delivered them. So then we were swamped with responses. It was actually a big strategic mistake. I didn’t have a soft opening and needed to iron out the kinks before we received so much press.

So you guys didn’t know what you were doing yet?

No. Little things like our plates weren’t within an arm’s reach. We had a line out the door the first week – which was great, but not great. People had to wait 45 minutes for a slice. So it was a big, uphill battle after the first few months, where we had just pissed off customers with slow service because we were so clueless. Having a testing period, or a soft opening, is really important.

The other thing was I didn’t really know parameters for how much things should cost. I had asked around. But we had overpaid on so much stuff – rags you wipe the table with, just everything. Eventually, I thought, “This doesn’t make sense!” I went to a few people, and they said, “You’re crazy. You’re paying four times what you should be paying.” So it was just living and learning, you know, figuring it out as you go. We were profitable right off the bat, but we could have been significantly more profitable.

Having a testing period, or a soft opening, is really important.

After you got the store running smoothly, what happened next?

That was the first two years. The next two years, we built a wholesale business. We’re at the Grand Hyatt now, and Roger Williams Hotel, and the Blind Pig, and Central Park. Either kiosk, or part of their menu. At the Grand Hyatt, we’re part of their room service menu. At Central Park, we’re at the Ball Fields Café as one of their menu items. So we built that over the last few years, which is great. There’s no overhead.

Where did the idea for wholesaling come from?

It was really to mitigate slow time in the neighborhood – the summertime, and the winter. So where do people go in the summer and the winter? There are tourists that come and stay in hotels, and in the summer everyone’s in Central Park. So I just walked around Central Park, and said, “Hey, you want to carry organic pizza as a menu item? We’ll provide the crust, cheese, and toppings as separate components. When an order comes in, all you need to do is assemble it, put it in the oven, and you’re done. We’ll even provide you with the oven. It’s a no-brainer. We’ll sell it to you for $3.50, you mark it up 3 times…” Our Central Park account sold 700 pizzas a week. It’s foolproof. We just sold it wherever there were populations during our slow periods at the store.

What have you learned about pitching?

It’s a dance. You’re reading someone: if they’re really outgoing, you take one approach; if they’re really subdued, you go a different way. If they’re professional, you act professionally. I always come in with some joke, something to break the ice, start the conversation. For me, it’s just relating. The hard sell, that comes after.

Most of the time, it’s great to find someone who’s not the Food & Beverage Director. So let’s say that’s who I want to approach. I’m going to pinpoint someone who’s not that person. And then I can pitch the friend or the associate, and then they can internally pitch it. Because the Food & Beverage director gets pitched a million times a day by people who want their business. Whereas if I pitch, say, the outside sales guy, and say, “Hey come in for a pie; I’ll treat you to whatever; bring your friends, hang out. And then by the way, can you give this to the guy and tell him you think it’s awesome?” So they do it, then immediately it’s like you have an in.

It’s really basic stuff that sounds obvious. But it’s true, it works. I think it’s all about being relatable, and being likable, and – of course – coming with a great product. If someone likes you, they’ll do anything for you.

For me, pitching is just relating. The hard sell, that comes after.

What’s your marketing strategy?

It’s about being unorthodox, it’s about how you stand out. When you think about branding, you have to think about every touch point of a business. You can’t just change the ingredients because that’s not enough. You have to change the packaging, the marketing materials, the web experience. Everything has to change to create an impactful experience.

So we try to NOT look like a pizza place, but still have that familiar feeling. Our packaging is long, rectangular boxes; we serve the piece in four bite-sized pieces on a sushi plate. It’s a neat and clean, pristine experience; it’s not like you’re picking up this giant pizza slice. It slows down your eating. You’re not shoveling something into your mouth. You allow your stomach to catch up to your brain. It also promotes sharing. I can order a different pizza from you, and we can share.

So those are three differentiating elements: it’s neater and cleaner, it slows down eating, and it promotes sharing. So it’s a different experience.

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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