“I don’t know about you – but I’m in weekend mode,” said Mikey as he cracked open a Kitty Paw Hard Seltzer.
If you know Columbus, you know there’s only one Mikey in town. Over the past 10 years, Mikey Sorboro took the Columbus market by storm with Late Night Slice, Oddfellows, and his newest venture, The Sacred Palm. All I have to say about him is that he gets it. He understands what it takes to get people through the door and is setting the standard for consumer experience. Just from our short conversation, I can tell how much he genuinely values his employees and his patrons, which is exactly what keeps people coming back. As soon as you enter any of Mikey’s places of business you can feel the energy and passion that he has for life. It was fascinating to hear him reflect on the lessons he has learned over the past 10 years and how they have shaped his business philosophy and himself as a person. For Mikey, it’s not about the pizza and never was – it’s about creating an unforgettable experience, embracing the things you are passionate about, and most of all, having fun.
K: I know that you came up with the idea of Mikey’s Late Night Slice when you were still a student at OSU driving the pedicabs, I would love for you to tell me a little more about that…
M: So a quick correction there, I had already dropped out of college by then. I was still living a student life but I was not attending classes. I came down here to Columbus to go to OSU… and I went occasionally. I ended up dropping out halfway into my Sophomore year. It wasn’t for me. I traveled all around the United States for a little while and saw all of these pedicabs. I knew they would do awesome in Columbus, so I knew I was coming back. So yeah, the first thing I did on my own was bringing ECT Pedicabs, which are those rickshaw pedicabs, to the Short North. We had 5 of those, they are still in operation today. We don’t own them anymore but they are still in the family a little bit. From having all the people on the back of the pedicab, drunk hammered people at 3 in the morning, I kept hearing “where is the pizza by the slice in the city?” and after hearing that so many times, I thought “alright, so where is the pizza by the slice in the city?” – so that was the inspiration behind Late Night Slice.
K: So, during those early days it was just word of mouth? Or how did you even get yourself off the ground in terms of marketing yourself and getting your name out there?
M: I think it was two things that have carried on throughout the ten or so years that we’ve been around, and one is we did something unique around something very familiar. I always say that we deal with the world’s two favorite things: pizza and booze. So it’s all the things around that, that makes us unique. One of the things I think we nailed in the beginning was that we gave people a reason to talk. Pizza wasn’t the hard sell, but doing pizza at this little outdoor shack that projected movies on the wall, that had 23 flavors of Faygo, that was just unique to this area, I think that really got people talking. It gave them a destination, especially in a city that I think is a little starved of destinations. It gave them something to talk about, it gave them something to identify as their culture, something that embodied them. Of course, I have ten years to look back at this on, but at the time I just liked doing cool shit around our little pizza shack. We played movies on the wall, I just thought that would be fun.
K: I love your guy’s vibe, your branding, was this your vision from the start? Or did it develop over time?
M: The walk-in restaurants right now, I would never say that was the vision. Late Night Slice has always been a little reactionary. There’s nothing in Columbus that we haven’t tried at some point to sell pizza in or out of. Bar kitchens, airstream trailers, you name it. We have tried to sell pizza in or out of it. Corporate kitchens, cafeterias, we’ve pretty much done it all.
K: Well now that Late Night Slice has taken off, are you having fun?
M: Yes, absolutely. Short answer, yes, I still love what I’m doing after ten years. It’s changed, I would say for me and for a lot of people who start their own thing, things change over the years. So my journey has been from what I’m naturally inclined to, which is building and having fun with spaces and creating something that people in our community can be proud of, that’s changed to running. I’ve gone from building to running, which I don’t think is my natural inclination. I’m having to develop a new set of skills. I wouldn’t say that getting up and making sure that everybody does their status report is as appealing to me as finding a guy in Tijuana who makes original black velvet paintings. So am I still having fun? Absolutely. But has the job changed over the years? 100%. We’re coming into a place now where that is starting to change again, and I’m looking at it as an opportunity now. As the business gets bigger, we can put in more people to do the things that I’m doing now, that can get me back to what I’m best at, which is having fun with designing spaces.
It sounds weird that we have an entire creative team and social media team for a couple of pizza shops, but that’s the difference between businesses that get it, that get how to communicate, and the businesses that don’t.
K: Well all of the spaces you have created are incredible! I’d like to touch a little on your marketing. Do you think that social media was a big part of your growth as a company?
M: I think it was a part of the growth, absolutely. The thing with social media is that it allowed, very cheaply, for a brand to get their voice positioned and out there cheap and quick. Facebook was awesome. People were on it, they used it, back in the day it was the wild wild west, it was cheap, and the reach was incredible. You look at what Instagram has done to go beyond that, and you look now at what TikTok is looking to do which may surpass the other two in a year or two or three. It’s always going to evolve and I think if you have the mindset to always be technology forward, then you’re going to do fine at that. We have a whole team that does just social media, they create content and do all of our postings. It sounds weird that we have an entire creative team and social media team for a couple of pizza shops, but that’s the difference between businesses that get it, that get how to communicate, and the businesses that don’t. It’s choosing to be a part of that climate. So yeah, it absolutely helped us. It’s something we really didn’t have a choice on.
K: I can tell by what you’re saying and by being in your space that you have set everything up to promote user-generated content – people coming in and posting. Whenever I go online and I see people posting other businesses because they have such beautiful spaces, it’s just free marketing, right?
M: Yep, marketing for us is always going to tend towards word-of-mouth, and our philosophy is “if we can spend a little bit more money at the beginning of the business, when we open, to create a beautiful space or buy an amazing mural, or put some cool art into something knowing that people are going to come down and take a picture of it and do that marketing for us, that is so much more valuable to us than taking an ad out in a print publication or getting on radio and being like “come down for our special”. I think there is a place, absolutely, for print and radio, but for us, we kill two birds with one stone by creating a cool space, and by having people do that marketing piece for us. So I think we’re always going to tend towards having people do word-of-mouth for us.
“I want people to come here and say “this is Columbus”
“I want people to come here and say “this is Columbus”
K: That is something that a lot of brands struggle with – really connecting into the millennial market and how they don’t respond to traditional advertising anymore. So it’s really about overcoming that and figuring out how to speak to these people and market to these people without being corny or trying too hard…
M: Right, provide experience. Provide the inside joke. Provide something funny. Provide experience. It’s not about our pizza or about our booze. We have to have a base, a foundation of a great product. I think our pizza is fantastic, I think our drinks are really great. No one’s going to come in here necessarily for my wallpaper – but it’s going to help. I’ve always thought there was a lack of destinations in the area. When you pick up your buddy from the airport that’s never been here before and you’re like “you’ve gotta go here, here, and here”, what are those places? There’s Thurman Cafe, always on that list. Schmidt’s downtown, always on that list. Those are the places that you’ve gotta take them because they embody the people and the culture. I want to be on those lists. I want to be one of those, whether it’s Late Night Slice or Oddfellows, or even Sacred Palm, I want to be on that destination list. I want people to come here and say “this is Columbus”.
K: I know that you guys have a Chief Creative Officer which isn’t typical in most companies, what is the reasoning behind that? Is he the one that helps you come up with all of these creative ideas for your social media, things like that?
M: Yeah absolutely, so we work hand in hand. We have a really robust creative team. There’s four arms to it, one is social media, arts, marketing, so they handle anything visual that you see, whether it’s social media posts or signage or pizza of the week. We then have a guy that handles nothing but retail merchandise, so our t-shirts, hoodies, koozies, pint glasses, anything like that. Then we have Heidi, who handles all experience, she handles internal and external experience, whereas what’s the experience of our “Piesans”, which is what we call our employees, what is the experience of working here? Her whole job is making sure that working here is fucking awesome. Her other side of the job is making sure that everybody who walks through the door has a great experience. Whether that’s through standing in line, and why does standing in line have to suck? Or whether it’s the pizza of the week. That’s our creative team. Pretty much anything, either when you work here, or whether you are visiting us, that experience of coming to a Late Night Slice or and Oddfellows, they’re in charge of that entire thing.
K: Looking forward to the next five years, is Mikey’s expanding? Do you have any big plans or projects coming up?
M: If I could wave a magic wand, I would say in a year and a half or so I’d like to do another three locations. We just opened up Cincinnati about a year ago, I think we can keep growing down there. I’d like to do at least one more in Columbus, and I’d like to introduce a new market at some point, whether that’s Cleveland, Dayton, Louisville, or something within 3 hours. So, I’m not exactly sure what that looks like yet, but we’re certainly not done growing. But what we had to do is take a pause for a minute, because a year ago we opened up three and a half locations in about 10 months, that was Cincinnati, we did an Oddfellows and a Late Night Slice, we did this location that we are in right now, and then we did the Sacred Palm, which is its own little focus. So within 10 months we did three and a half locations, which took our tiny little team, and stretched them almost to the breaking point. I learned a lot of lessons there, that we have to have strong systems and processes to be able to earn the right to grow next. The phase we’re in right now is an introspective phase, where we’re making sure that all of our systems and processes and our team and our staff is ready for the stress of growth. Because opening up restaurants is intensive in every way possible. It’s capital intensive as far as money goes, it’s human resources intensive, it takes a lot to open up a space before you sell one slice of pizza or sell one drink, right. So to be able to get that team ready to open up two or three locations, it takes a lot. We want to make sure we’re doing it the right way because if we do it the wrong way it’s not fair to anyone involved. That’s the phase we’re in right now: making sure our teams, systems, processes are strong enough for our next sprint.
K: I would say that we can relate to that a lot, our company has grown a lot this year. We’re making sure we’re not biting off more than we can chew, that everyone is happy and comfortable in their roles so that we can thrive in our roles.
M: Exactly. I’ll put it to you in a very pizza-centric metaphor here. We have dough balls. If you poke a pen in our dough ball, there’ll be holes in the dough ball but you won’t see them because the dough ball is small. When you stretch that out, those holes become big, and that is exactly what we did when we grew as much as we did. We had holes that we didn’t know about. But when we started stretching those teams and those systems and processes out we saw the huge holes that we didn’t realize we had. Our goal this past year was filling in those holes, and making sure when we stretch us out again, we won’t have these big holes that are really really hard to fill in, especially when you’re a small team.
K: So a little bit about Columbus, what are your favorite businesses around town?
M: I have a few. One of my favorite little dinner places is Basi in Victorian Village, that’s my wife and I’s favorite place to go and get a drink and sit at the bar, they’re an awesome little restaurant. I am a giant fan of Cameron Mitchell’s places, the things that he has done for the community is awesome. He’s a super cool dude. There’s Fusian, they’re getting ready to do some pretty cool shit. Brad who does The Walrus, Old Town Tavern, Duck Donuts, Pecan Penny’s, he’s doing some pretty cool stuff around here, he’s a great operator. Jeff at Fox in the Snow, likewise, Fox in the Snow is such a good little concept, I expect big things out of them for sure. I’ll always admire Jeni too, my brother in law works for her and he does all of our pizza box art, so Jeni and I share Patrick. You just watch them and you’re like “look at all the cool stuff they’re doing!” – they’re idols. Columbus has a really cool entrepreneurial scene, it’s going to be fun to see how Columbus is going to grow into itself over the next few years. There’s going to be some growing pains for sure.
K: I have one more question for you that someone from my team wanted me to ask, so don’t judge me… are you worried at all about Papa John’s day of reckoning?!
M: (laughing) We have set up an entire team to deal with nothing but planning for the day of reckoning that we know is going to happen with Papa John. That’s one of those, I mean talk about a cautionary tale about getting too big and my God, talk about going down in flames. It’s funny to watch what the big guys do, whether it’s the big guys like Donatos or the big guys locally, or just the big guys: the Pizza Hut’s, the Papa John’s, the Dominos. I tend not to look at what everybody else is doing except you pay attention on the periphery, right? If they’re doing something cool, if there’s technology they’re bringing in, but I truly think we’re doing something in pizza and booze that isn’t being done anywhere else. So I really try not to emulate what they do, and just keep a side-eye on them. If nothing else, they are cautionary tales of what to do and what no to do. Yep, that’s a mess.
Sometimes I’ll go to Kroger and just get a cheap ass frozen Kroger pizza… and it’s like I’m walking out of a porn store or something like “ah! I don’t usually come here!”
K: Going off of that, how many pizzas have you eaten in the past 30 days?
M: Well, I haven’t had any Papa Johns. It’s a funny thing when you work in the industry… for me, I don’t eat all that much pizza, I love pizza though. But Late Night Slice isn’t pizza. When I’m like “ah, I feel like a pizza tonight” I don’t go get Late Night Slice because over the years Late Night Slice has developed into its own food group, right? Late Night Slice doesn’t taste like pizza, it tastes like Late Night Slice. Sometimes I’ll go to Kroger and just get a cheap ass frozen Kroger pizza because that tastes more like pizza to me, and I always feel like I’m doing something dirty. I feel like people will see me in Kroger and it’s like I’m walking out of a porn store or something like “ah! I don’t usually come here!”, that’s what I feel like in Kroger with a frozen pizza. But yeah, that’s more like pizza to me than Late Night Slice. I love it, but it’s its own thing.