Michele DiMeo of Squisito Pizza & Pasta

    We Spoke to Michele DiMeo of Squisito Pizza & Pasta on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Michele DiMeo, the Principal-Franchise Operations and President of Squisito Franchise Enterprises, INC since its inception in May 2010.

    Since July 2008, she has also been Chief Operating Officer for MONTE Restaurant Development Group which is headquartered in Annapolis, Maryland. Since January 2009, she has owned and operated three Squisito NY Pizza and Pasta Restaurants in Maryland. From February 2006 to April 2008, she was National Strategic Sourcing Operations Manager for The Siegfried Group location in Wilmington, Delaware. From 1996 to January 2006, she was Regional Vice President/Director for LA Weight Loss Centers in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

    Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?

    My story starts off with a bit of a crazy beginning. My father died of a brain aneurysm when I was just 10-years-old, leaving my mother (age 30) needing to go back to school and get a college degree and find a career to care for my brother and I who were two young children. I spent most of my teenage years working and going to school. I am a classic Type A personality to the “T”, making things happen, moving and shaking since I was a teenager. Coincidentally, later in life, Squisito, as a group, won not just once, but twice “Top Movers and Shakers”!

    I worked full-time at Merry Go Round, a retail clothing company, and worked my way up from a salesperson on the floor that hustled and worked on commission at the age of 14 to an area manager/trainer for the company while attending college full-time studying Psychology of Corporate Law at Michigan State University (later to graduate with a degree in Psychology and Biology). While attending college, I opened many stores for the company and juggled 18 credits and worked 50–55 hours per week- a strong work ethic for sure! As I continued my studies, I fell into my career at LA Weight Loss where I worked for over 10 years changing lives and assisting thousands of people lose weight and get healthy which was my passion for sure. In my teenage years and throughout my twenties, I taught Aerobics and competed in fitness while continuing to work out and focus on health and wellness, which has carried over to today now at the young age of 50. Before meeting Gennaro, my partner in both business and life, I left LA Weight Loss and begin my corporate career with The Siegfried Group, traveling the country focusing on recruiting sweet spot candidates for the firm and of course, business development. I was coined the nickname, “the mouth of the firm”, which was used quite frequently. After leaving the firm in 2008, I began my career and my life today with Gennaro and the Monte Restaurant Development Group as COO/ Director of stores. We built our company that it is today along with Squisito Franchise Enterprises, INC, the franchisor for our fast casual concept Squisito Pizza & Pasta, which I hold the title of President. Additionally, I focus on commercial real estate as I am licensed in the state of Maryland and negotiate all of our deals for the brand.

    However, my proudest title in life is “Mom/ Mama”. I am the mother of three amazing daughters Alanna 22, MoriElle, 17 and Aviva, 21 months.

    What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?

    At the age of 12, I decided I wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice after watching the movie ‘First Monday in October’ — not a lofty aspiration at all at the age of 12, huh? I set out on my journey to reach that goal. Along the way after graduating from college, I fell in love with the weight loss/health and fitness industry and retail where I was very successful and assisted in opening many stores and growing the footprint of both corporate and franchised locations. As they say, “it got into my blood and the rest is history.” Today, I’m still hustling- moving and shaking, getting things done and growing our restaurant empire.

    Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

    I am not sure any mistake is funny per se at the time it occurred, but each of them should be learning tools for sure — good, bad or ugly. My quote in life is: “If you keep doing what you have always done, you will always get the same result you have always gotten!”. I am sure if you ask my husband and partner, Gennaro, he would say that we could write the book on what not to do as we have made many mistakes throughout the years, fallen, and got right back up and continue to try our best every day not to repeat the same mistakes.

    The lesson I’ve learned is definitely to “stay in your space” as the strong survive and the weak will be eliminated in such an environment as we saw in 2020. So many brands will be a memory in 2021; the restaurant industry was definitely hit the hardest as it affects so many areas of industry.

    Do not fight change- change is healthy to stay on top of your game!

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    Lesia Petrisio — 100%! She was the Vice President of LA Weight Loss for many years when I first started with the company as a consultant way back when. She was hard-working, hands-on, high energy, and pushed me to be the best that I could be, and she did not settle with mediocrity or failure. She saw something in me from the beginning and pushed me every day until I became her prodigy and friend and was able to take on her role on a daily basis within the company. I learned from the best and continue to push myself each day to be better and more successful than the day before in everything that I do both personally and professionally. I instilled the same work ethic in my older daughters since they were little girls and in turn, they too have grown to become overachievers in their space and just as successful as their Mama, if not more. The little one (my youngest daughter who is 20-months-old) will absolutely follow in her older sisters’ and Mama’s footsteps. She is starting young for sure!

    Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

    I will discuss my journey of when I started with The Siegfried Group in a new field that I had never worked within in the past, Professional Accounting Resource Services. I was recruited from LA Weight Loss for a corporate senior position with a national accounting firm. I took on the challenge and went full steam ahead leaving an industry that I loved behind, but ready for the change and to learn something new and to gain more experience. It was one that was challenging and met every day with resistance. I was asked daily and questioned by many senior employees why I deserved such a role, why I was hired with little to no resource accounting experience, and left every day for the first six months of employment with the firm practically in tears. I was determined to beat this, them, and win; I was strong, I was determined and as I just explained in the previous question, not ready to fail and not to accept failure. I joined many professional networks, worked long hours, traveled to many of the offices to meet and work side-by-side with other like-minded professionals, and prove that I was hired for my skill, personality and experience. I said every day to myself that I will not let this beat me down and not to mention that my direct report was amazing and motivating to work for. I did just that and stayed with the firm for an additional 1.5 years until we parted ways for a final step towards my forever home to work with my partner and husband and grow “our” company and restaurant group both corporately and through franchising.

    Every successful professional has hard times to overcome or they would not be the successful leader that they are today. Hard times create tough skin and teach valuable lessons in success.

    Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

    Drive! It is an instilled-within, intrinsic quality one that is born with. I was born a leader and not a follower; I welcome challenge and thrive on. My daily motto is “Bring it on!”. When the times get tough, the tough get stronger- the survivors win.

    So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

    Things are great within our restaurant group, “knock on wood”! 2020 was a rebuilding year and one that was successful for our sector in the industry as pizza and pasta thrives in a challenged economy and the coronavirus did just that. We regrouped and brought on a franchise sales director in-house to assist in growing our franchise locations. We partnered with a strong operations leader in the New York market to assist us in the expansion of our corporate footprint. We are going to double our number of stores by 2022 as we have seven slated to open this year alone. So, drive and pushing ahead is finally paying off for our team and the Squisito brand. We have a new full-service venture opening the end of 2021 as well. To circle back, things are good, but that pushes us to work harder!

    What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

    What really sets us apart is the community alignment, the fresh authentic recipes straight from Naples, and the drive to stay on top of what is next for the industry and staying true to our brand. The kids love us, the families love us and we are “the neighborhood gathering place.”

    Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

    - Self-worth and Confidence — Have a work/life balance and mentality of work hard, play harder.

    - Perseverance — get up and never give up. If you want something, find a way to get it.

    - Never lose site of the guest (or customer depending on the industry). Start small, think big with your vision and mission and stay true to that focus whether its three stores, 79 stores or 1,500 stores. When you lose sight of your beginnings, the end is near. Stay true to your brand and what made it successful.

    - Passion and ownership — make your staff want your job.

    - Never lose sight of the “WHY”.

    How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

    Absolutely! To be humble and giving is the #1 indicator of success because the more you give, the more you get back. Our motto is to never use the word “NO” in our stores, we participate in every fundraiser, donation request or sponsorship. We deliver food to those in need, giving out gift certificates to feed the needy and less-fortunate.

    2020 left myself as well as other leaders in our company committed to something as old and familiar to restaurateurs as the food itself: the need for community. We learned and confirmed at Squisito that our philosophy to support our local community is the lifeline to our success: “Communities support local!”. Take care of your guests and they take care of you.

    Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

    To answer this question, I am a hardhead and a true skeptic (like the old theory “trust, but verify” and “believe it when you see it”) and need to learn and experience for myself. Therefore, not listening and/or not experiencing something firsthand, I am not sure it would have been enough to sway a discussion or footpath in business. I am a true believer to run not walk, take risks, find inner happiness which yields business happiness, and organize your own success and chaos. You are 100% in control of your future so make it happen!

    1. Organized “Chaos”
    2. Structure, structure, structure — Create what works for you and use procedures
    3. Accountability and reports — Numbers are the end result of behavior
    4. Opportunity in weakness and learn from mistakes — Write your book on what not to do again and promote and strengthen success and build upon strengths.
    5. Culture — People, people, people; relationships are everything. People work for People (Community)

    You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

    Right now, everyone needs equality in our world and peace, both inside and out! It starts with the young, so we need to get them on board to believe they are something larger than themselves because they are our future. My goal would be to get to the schools and teach what we want the future to look like. We can mold our world if we start at the right place. Our nation is so divided right now, so to bring everyone back together again would be an ultimate goal. How we do that I have not thought through or we would have a miracle for sure, but the idea is there and needs to happen.

    The second movement I would love to see is for restaurants to get on board and feed the hungry- especially the kids that lost lunches during the closure of schools in 2020. They relied on the daily public schools lunch program. We donated lunch as a restaurant group every week on Mondays to the schools and fed hundreds of kids during the pandemic, but that is just one school and one county. There are thousands out there still in need. To create a movement to feed the kids, whether in school or not, we could change lives for sure.

    How can our readers further follow your work online?

    And coming soon….. The Restaurant Diva (