Growing up in the family business helped make me who I am today
For those of you who don’t know me my name is Tomacina Hochgurtel, most people call me Tomi. I am excited and honored to be chosen as your entrepreneur woman of the year.
It’s funny to me to be given a title like that. Some days I still feel like the 12-year-old girl working for my daddy.
Many of you know me as your waitress. You’ve seen me serving you each month at these meetings, unaware of the different roles I play here at the restaurant.
You may know me from my book, “Aunt Mommy” the story of how I became guardian to one very special little boy with Down syndrome.
I am a wife to an amazing husband, Dan. Mother to two wonderful and charismatic little boys Jordan and David. I am a daughter and a sister. It is in the love of my family that I find all the strength and motivation to keep going each day.
I wear many hats. Most days I am a mom, taxi, maid, cook, tutor, advocate, volunteer in the classroom, waitress, book keeper, line chef and manager. So I am doubly honored to receive recognition as an entrepreneur from an organization of women. Women who can truly appreciate all of the different directions we are pulled in, in business and as mothers and wives.
I have worked at Two Guys from Italy for more than 16 years. My first paycheck earned at the tender age of 15. I’ve always loved working beside my dad and helping wherever I could. I would beg my parents to allow me to come to work every chance I got. I started as a hostess and cashier and have done everything from dishwasher, bus person, server, cook and operations manager. It was always my dream to own the restaurant and I was very passionate about making that dream a reality.
My father, Pasquale Cioffi, is an amazing, hard-working man. He came to this country with little more than a dream, strong work ethic and a good head on his shoulders. When he first moved to California he was trained to be a barber. Unfortunately in the ’70s long hair on men was the popular style. So he became a starving barber. That was when he got a night job washing dishes at Two Guys from Italy in Van Nuys. Much like me he had big ideas and ambition that could not be ignored.
Working his way up and continuing to grow the business – his bosses, impressed by his skill, helped him to open his own restaurant. That was more than 30 years ago. My father worked hard and provided a good, comfortable life for our family. It is my dream to be as successful and consistent in business as he has been.
My mother, Mary Cioffi, raised her girls (there are four) to be very independent, honest, hard working and made us believe that our opportunities were endless.
Taught us to keep a level head and believe in ourselves.
It was about 18 months ago that opportunity knocked on my door. Although it was something I always wanted I was cautiously optimistic. Knowing that my Dad needed to be ready as well.
As everyone here knows, and has seen, the economy has changed and business is not the same as it was even five years ago. What had worked for so many years was simply not working any more. Businesses were struggling and closing around us. We were in a tough position. Moral was low and it was easy to get caught up in the moment and the problems. It was scary. After 30 years of hard work my dad faced uncertainty at a time when he should have been planning his retirement, wondering how many varieties of tomatoes he was going to plant in his garden.
It was then that he came to me and said he thought it might be time to sell. In that moment I knew it was the opportunity I hoped one day would come. Not exactly the way I had dreamed it. But a chance for me to prove myself. I was excited and scared.
I had many ideas, and believed in my heart that if given the chance I could make it work. I was also excited because I could see such a benefit to starting in such a difficult time. The greatest teacher in life is experience. To experience these tough times and learn how to keep a business afloat would be such an amazing lesson. I would learn through our struggles and try to keep an open mind. Knowing that I had to try something different and that I would probably make mistakes,
I prepared for the inevitable “told you so.” I went home that night with a head full of emotions. I was excited, fearful and anxious but mostly I was driven and motivated.
I spoke with my husband, he had always known and understood my passion for the restaurant. We discussed the level of commitment required to make it work, the sacrifices that we would be making and how it would effect our family.
In my eyes, because I had already been a part of it for so long, I felt I had very realistic expectations. I understood that at times it could feel more like the restaurant owns you then the other way around. I had seen the level of stress first hand. I knew that it may not turn out the way I hoped in spite of all my work and intentions. My husband and I agreed, we wanted to give it a shot.
We prepared to ask my father for the opportunity. Hoping that our word and, what I like to call, “sweat equity” would be enough. We built a business plan and talked to the appropriate people. We believed that we could make a difference. Knowing that changes come with resistance it was time to be bold and take risks.
I was amazed to discover so many people who cared about my father and our restaurant. Many kind people stepped up to help us. Some with words of encouragement or advice and some by coming in for dinner more often to support business.
Then there was Dave and Jen Evans, the most generous friends you could find. They pulled together a group of volunteers, camped in our parking lot, got up at the crack of dawn and spent hour upon hour doing maintenance and upgrades to the building. They pulled weeds and fixed the sprinklers rejuvenating the property. We put up new signs and repaired old ones trying to breathe new life into a tired building. Our goal was to catch people’s attention and remind them that we’re were still here. We devised an advertising campaign on a very tight budget. I am still amazed by and an advocate of bartering.
A “simply fabulous” menu offered new dinner entrees, appetizers, a variety of wines and enticing specials.
We found success in the most basic ideas. All you can eat spaghetti, two for one pasta night and a new senior menu made a huge difference. The employees came together for training and for moral boosting events.
In the first month sales increased by 40 percent and the growth has continued from there.
I know that we can’t stop here and my hope is that I will continue to be passionate about business. I am grateful for the recognition that comes with the award you have given me today. Thank you for acknowledging the influence and accomplishments of women in business.