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Fuller with former big Burrito Chefs Kevin Sousa and Chad Townsend
“I learned an innumerable amount of cooking and food things, but you can learn those anywhere. But management and consistency, that’s a huge thing. That’s really hard to do and that’s really hard to teach. I’m realizing how hard that is now as we’re trying to create those systems and those routines at Millie’s,” says Townsend.
Fuller hasn’t stopped making chefs. “When free-agent signing time comes, the Steelers never go out and sign big names. They draft well, they develop, they promote from within, and year after year they have a quality organization. They don’t come out with a new offense all the time; they don’t do crazy new stuff. And, look, they keep going at a high level,” he says.
In 2016, he oversaw a seamless shift of executive chefs at three of big Burrito’s specialty restaurants. The movement began when Stevens left his long tenure at Eleven to open his restaurant, Union Standard. His departure set off a chain reaction that ended with new chefs running the kitchens of Eleven, Casbah and Soba.
“It went even better than I hoped it would. I always have a plan for what might come next. I know who works under the executive chefs and what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Fuller says.
Henry B. Dewey, Eric “Spudz” Wallace and Anthoy Falcon all worked for Fuller before running their own kitchens.
For example, Dustin Gardner, executive chef of Casbah since the 2016 transition, has developed a father-son relationship with Fuller. The house in which Gardner was living burned down in 2008, shortly after he started working for big Burrito. Fuller offered the young chef a room in his house. “He didn’t know me from anybody, and he offered this scumbag line cook to come stay in his house with him and his family,” Gardner says. “I’ll never forget that.”
Not everything Fuller touched has been a success.
Four big Burrito restaurants don’t exist anymore: Mr. Jones (a home-cooking restaurant in the North Hills), Vertigo Bar and Grill (in a laundromat across from Soba), and Saybrook Fish House (two of them, part of a franchise). “We survived those mistakes by blasting forward,” he says.
And he admits to arguing against a gourmet hamburger concept. “I thought it was a fad. I was totally wrong. I own that.”
An occasional miss aside, Fuller says a conservative approach to menu-planning is one of the secrets to big Burrito’s longevity: Identify larger trends and develop new menu items from them but stay away from flash-in-the-pan fads.
“One of the biggest things I learned from Bill was how important it was to understand what your customers want and how to give it to them,” says Stevens of Union Standard.
“Chefs tend to get bored and want to jump on any trend that’s new and exciting. But customers aren’t necessarily reading the same blog and cookbooks as we are. So you learn how to try to identify what people want and how to give it to them.”
Memories of Fuller’s food-insecure childhood remind him often that others remain in need of a meal. He serves on the board of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and is a leader in its annual “Empty Bowls” fundraiser.
He also took over leadership of the Food Revolution Cooking Club at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 school in East Liberty when it looked like it was about to dissolve; he teaches 25 students each semester. “There’s freedom in knowing how to cook for yourself,” he says. “These kids are going out in the world with more life skills.”
Fuller’s current focus is improving the quality of life for his chefs. He’s worked to streamline operations and tasks so that sous chefs typically work 45 to 50 hours per week and executive chefs 50 to 55.
Fuller with Derek Stevens and Bethany Zozula
“Now, we ask ‘What went wrong?’ when someone clocks in for more hours a week than they’re supposed to be working,” he says. “It’s not the same outlaw, tough-guy culture that it was. That’s not sustainable. I want stable people.”
Says Gardner: “We wanted to believe him, but we resisted doing it at first. There’s this badge of honor to work 80 hours a week. He set a blueprint for us. If you follow it you can have a life and still be great at your job.”
Fuller, who is married and the father of two children, turns 50 this year. He says that even though he doesn’t spend as much time as he’d like in the kitchen anymore, he still has big culinary and business plans. Expanding the Mad Mex concept is a priority for the company, and he’s also thinking about a sixth specialty restaurant, though he is cagey about specifics.
“The next 20 years are about making it a stronger, more sustainable company that can really grow and develop a lot of people.”