Before the Hertel Avenue restaurant and soft serve ice cream shop, before the food trucks that paved the way, literally, for a fleet of followers, lloyd Taco Factory co-founder Pete Cimino was an entrepreneurial pioneer moving in a completely different direction from food.
Cimino tried his hand at teaching, then ventured into real estate, hoping to take advantage of Buffalo’s property boom. His business partnerships didn’t work that time, but he plunged forward, navigating county and city regulations and permitting to install Western New York’s first food truck, a trend that had already blossomed in cities like Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles.
That was seven years ago. At the age of 36, Cimino is already a veteran restaurateur and an institution in the city. And he was recently named a Buffalo Business First 40 under 40 recipient as a vital, young business leader in Buffalo.
“I was obviously surprised. I wasn't expecting that at all. I’m honored to say the least, and also with that comes some form of greater responsibility. The expectations that come with being included in this group is that we’ll help move the city forward,” Cimino said this week from his second floor office above the lloyd Taco Factory restaurant.
Entrepreneurs start businesses for various reasons, whether it be a passion for the product or a desire to build something and watch it grow. Cimino said he wants to build a big company. With more than 150 employees already, he’s looking to increase that number to over 500.
But the passion for what he does — namely, creating delicious food in a casual environment — is still there. There are fewer sweaty hours these days laboring in his trucks or behind a hot stove. But when he is at lloyd, he still finds time to look around and watch the process, the efficiency, and the systems he helped create.
“It’s important to be a customer-facing CEO, getting out and listening to customers, saying hello, doing rounds of taste tests,” Cimino said. “When I meet with the managers weekly, it’s important to make sure they’re talking to people, the customers, the right way.”
For Cimino, lloyd started in an organic way, prepping in a church basement, keeping overhead costs as low as possible and relying on lawyer friends to help navigate the obstacle course of permits and licenses needed to operate a food truck in a city that was reluctant to adapt to the trend.
When Cimino won “Restaurant Startup,” a reality television show that aired on CNBC in 2015, he was forced into making the most difficult choice he’s had to make in his professional career-- turning down the cash prize to maintain control of the company.
He said the best way to find funding for a small main street business like his is to go to a bank or use a digital crowd sourcing platform like Kickstarter. For large-scale or high-growth tech companies, he advises seeking venture capital or private industry investment. But nothing replaces bootstrapping efforts and growing a company from its roots through hard work.
Going through that process has inspired Cimino to provide mentorship for young entrepreneurs. He speaks frequently at area schools and participated in a Q&A during the University at Buffalo’s entrepreneurship festival in early September, where he spoke about the difficult decision to turn down the $250,000 television show money, and spoke about the importance of failing in business — and learning from those mistakes.
Now Cimino is thinking about what’s next for lloyd. On a cold, rainy afternoon, he’s considering how to sell more coffee to entice customers into Churn, his new soft serve ice cream shop next to the taco factory. But from business parks in Williamsville to Canalside on a warm Saturday evening in the summer, any Buffalonian knows to look for lloyd. In less than seven years, his green trucks have become instantly recognizable.
“If you don't take any chances, you can’t win. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't,” said Cimino, acknowledging the positive reputation his company has built, and the pressure that comes with it. “I’m definitely still having fun. This sure beats teaching. I don’t have to think for a moment what it is that's moving me every day."