Monday, February 17, 1997

Alumni profile: Matthews hits the big time with big pies

Published in the Mountainview

Welcoming customers to Neil & Otto's Pizza Cellar on Merchants’ Row in Middlebury, Neil Matthews and Otto Hektor offer a hearty greeting and an invitation to sit at a table with a Parcheesi board under the plastic table covering.

The two are a dynamic pair, as inseparable in an interview as in friendship and business. Co-owners of the Pizza Cellar since June 1996, they have kept their business alive past the forbidding six-month mark which nearly two-thirds or restaurants never attain. Matthews and Hektor, friends since eighth grade, have worked in restaurants — primarily pizza joints — since that time, Heirs to the legendary Chicago tradition of pizza making, they are in business for themselves, making pizza in Middlebury.

Matthews, who worked at the Pizza Cellar throughout his undergraduate career at Middlebury, called Hektor in Wisconsin in October 1995 to say that the restaurant was for sale. After many meetings with loan officers, the Small Business Administration, and insurance agents, they were ready to sign.

Then they went straight to work. In mid-June 1996, they opened the former "Pizza Cellar" as "Neil & Otto's Pizza Cellar," in the basement of Grace Baptist Church on Merchants' Row.

In the seven months since, they have done "a lot of growing up." Acknowledging the cliché, Matthews points out that they are in the real world, in Middlebury. "Nobody gives us encouragement. We mostly hear complaints. It's a crazy game, but it's fun." Having proven Murphy's Law numerous times, and not yet having taken advantage of the excellent skiing conditions this winter, both clearly enjoy their work and their home in Salisbury.

That house, shared with a third housemate, provides refuge, if not sustenance. "The fridge probably has some butter in it," Rektor offers as illustration that they often eat at work, "We eat a kit of pizza, but I'm not sick of it yet,” claims Matthews. Spending so much time at their business is demanding, but both insist it is fun. They also agree that they wouldn't do it alone; having a friend and business partner along for the ride has been advantageous. "We do a lot together, and it's nearly always fun. Two minds are better than one," Matthews argues.

The future, as ever, is unpredictable. They are developing new pie styles, one of which has never before been seen in the Middlebury area. They havc just adapted their standard crust in response to customer feedback, and are not sure what they will bring back from the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in March. That event, an industry convention, is sure to provide them with ideas and projects for the near term. In the long term, Matthews says, he will be in food service, but where exactly is unsure. He definitely enjoys living and working in Addison County.

It’s a neat way to meet people. According to Hektor, "you have to figure out what people are searching for.” In addition to their clientele, the two must supervise employees their own ages. Matthews admits this can be a challenge, but is willing to make sacrifices for his employees, even at his own expense. While most of his employees are from town, the restaurateurs are grateful for the support their College customers have given them.

It is hard, Matthews says, to be a College alumnus in this town, but he finds nearly everyone generous enough to give him a chance to prove himself. "Once you give something back to the community, people accept you," he says. He does depend on both the College and the town for business; "it's a hard balance to strike, but we're looking to create a space where people from the College can come and mix with people from the town, and get to know each other and get along."

Open long hours (11 am to midnight Monday through Thursday, 11 am to 2 am Friday, 4 pm to 2 am Saturday, and 4 pm to midnight Sunday), the restaurant is clearly doing well. "We do a lot of deliveries, and we're just beginning to really try to get people to come down to the restaurant to eat here." Matthews predicts it will be a challenge, but one the business can meet. They have worked very hard so far, even sleeping on sacks in the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, but Matthews and Hektor say that the rewards are definitely worth the price.

"We are here to offer our knowledge of food, and our experience making good food. We care about what we do, we work hard, and we enjoy it. We like making pizza for people, and we like to hear what we could do better. Of course," Matthews notes, "if you like things, tell us that too!"