In 1972, with interest rates nearly at 20% making the real estate industry the antithesis of the unstoppable force that it is today, Mill Valley realtor Bob Valentino was on the hunt for a career change.
He found it by buying Stefano’s Pizza at 8 East Blithedale Avenue from John Butler in 1972. “I’m an Italian kid from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” he says. “But I didn’t have a clue about making pizza. John’s employees were all students from Tam High. They showed me the ropes, how to place the pepperoni on the pizzas, everything. I was so afraid to fail that I worked 80 hours a week.”
Stefano’s later moved across the street to its current 11 East Blithedale location, and Valentino subsequently opened 15 different restaurants over the intervening nearly 40 years, with Stefano’s six locations thriving to this day. Valentino says he’s never forgotten the power of surrounding yourself with great employees, and empowering them.
Fast forward to the present day and Valentino has made the managers of all six of Stefano’s locations – Mill Valley, Corte Madera, San Anselmo, Terra Linda, Novato and Petaluma – partners in the Stefano’s Pizza Inc.
“We have very high quality staff and employees that have been with us for more than 30 years,” says Valentino, who in 2004 spearheaded the Mill Valley location’s transformation into Stefano’s Solar-Powered Pizza, decades before solar panels were such a common feature on local rooftops.
“They are the backbone of our success and they deserve a piece of the action.
“It’s been in my mind for quite a long while,” Valentino says of the move. “I had planned to do this for some time, and then I figured out how to do it. It has worked out tremendously well for them and for me. All of the stores are run incredibly well. I get so many great comments from customers about our staff. That really makes me feel good. They really pay attention to running the business.”
“And the employees and their families are a big part of the business and I love when we go out all together and the wives come and we have a party. The wives really appreciate what the guys have done over all these years.”
Sometimes that empowerment meant letting a great manager fly the coop, as happened about 10 years ago when longtime Stefano’s manager Luciano Faria bought Valentino’s Rocco’s Pizza in the Alto Plaza shopping center.
Valentino says he’s stepped back a bit from the business because it is in such good hands, but has no intention of completely letting go.
“I’ve definitely stepped back a bit,” says Valentino, who now lives in Novato. “I used to be so into the business that I couldn’t even take my friends to the restaurant – I’d be so distracted. But I never want to retire – I have to have some action.”
Valentino loves recalling his friend’s then-10-year-old son, who would tell his dad each time he wanted to go get pizza: “let’s go to Paulo’s pizza restaurant!” – a reference to Mill Valley store manager Paulo Silva. “Paulo would give the kid a quarter to get a gumball and the kid would just be beaming. That’s the way I always want to keep it.”