Chef Michael Hanna spent years honing his culinary skills in kitchens across Nashville before launching St. Vito Focacceria in 2020. He started selling sfincione-style pizza from his home during the pandemic, but it didn’t take long to outgrow those humble origins. As word-of-mouth spread, St. Vito bounced around the city, setting up shop in a food hall and a boutique hotel. Eventually it landed in Hathorne, an acclaimed local restaurant founded by Nashville hospitality veteran John Stephenson, who helped Hanna navigate the overwhelming process of securing the capital needed to find a permanent home. In May, the wildly successful pop-up opened the doors to its first brick-and-mortar restaurant. The space pays tribute to St. Vito’s roots with a small footprint and intimate atmosphere, anchored by the Sicilian street food that started it all.
REVIVING SFINCIONE-STYLE PIZZA
“I remembered eating sfincione pizza as a child, and I remembered reading about its history in a cookbook. When the pandemic hit, it all clicked. I thought, “This is something that’s different enough to keep me on my toes creatively, but also simple and familiar enough for people right now.” Traditionally, it’s going to be a dense bread that’s layered with cheese and sauce and covered in breadcrumbs. I wanted to take that and put my own character into it by making the dough very light and airy. What’s the point of selling a $30 whole pizza if you can only eat one slice of it?”
BUILDING A THRIVING POP-UP
“Each time we moved around, we got better and better. It became really clear that what we were doing was important not only for the food scene here in Nashville, but for me, too. I was finally able to do something I’d wanted to do forever, and it was all because of this organic concept that started from my home during a time that was really challenging.”
FUNDING A NEW RESTAURANT
“There were so many different investors and so many different deals on the table. Wading through all of that was challenging. I’m not going to give you 75 percent or 85 percent equity, only to have you pump a bunch of money into a space and become my landlord, or make me pay you back millions of dollars, and I end up making less money than I would’ve just being a chef somewhere. Thankfully, I found the perfect business partner. The first time we spoke, they said, ‘If you’re not making money and you’re not happy, then I’m not making money and I’m not happy. So, what do you want out of a deal?’ A few weeks later, they slid a 50-50 deal across the table to me and said, ‘Everything you wanted, we’re willing to do it.'”
FAIR LABOR PRACTICES
“One of my big things was that I wanted to treat my staff differently. I wanted to have a smaller staff with a little more work per person, but I wanted to pay them more money. My business partner agreed to a 20 percent service charge for all in-house dining and a 15 percent service charge for to-go orders. We can put that money into a giant pool, have eight or nine employees max, and split that up between them. We’re going through a transition as an industry, where people are sick and tired of being taken advantage of. I was reading the tea leaves. We don’t have any labor. We’ve got inflation while wages are stagnant. We’ve got to figure out a way to wade through all of that and still be smart economically about how we’re doing things.”
Read the full story here.