In a way, Luby's chief operating officer Pete Tropoli has been connected to Luby’s since birth. “I was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital and we actually have that food services account now," he says.
A childhood friend of restaurateurs Harris and Chris Pappas, Tripoli grew up going to their restaurants.
“The Strawberry Patch, which opened in 1975, where Pappas Steakhouse is now, was an American bistro and a pretty amazing place in its time," he says. "Each successive restaurant they opened was a big deal for me as a kid. My first job I got hired as a waiter in 1990 at Pappadeaux on Westheimer and that was the summer before I went to college. It was my first experience with the Pappas extensive training program.”
"It always starts out as one. You can’t open more restaurants until you have one that’s successful. That’s how we see it. One at a time and make each location as good as it can be.”
Raised in Houston, Tropoli graduated from The Kinkaid School in 1990 and the University of Texas in 1993. Returning to Houston, he attended law school at University of Houston, graduating in 1996, and went into private practice.
“When I got out of law school I was fortunate to get some business from the Pappas family, really small stuff initially," he says. "I just tried to grow it from there. Every month since 1996, I just tried to set my sights on a goal and achieving it.
"Whatever job I was given, I tried to do the best job I could and keep focused on greater goals.”
In 2001, Tropoli joined Luby’s full-time and became general counsel for the Houston-based food service company which also operates Fuddruckers, Luby’s Culinary Contract Services and 155 company-owned restaurants located throughout the United States.
“Our primary goal is to make our customers happy and serve the best food we can serve. For our shareholders we want to get the best financial results we can," Tropoli says.
There are constant challenges in continuing to grow a large publicly traded company, Tropoli says. “Doing the job is difficult. It’s a big responsibility being in food service. We take it very seriously. One of the biggest challenges we face is that costs have risen. You don’t want to raise prices. You want to provide value but at the same time commodity costs have gone up.”
However, Tropoli adds, “Being in the restaurant business is a blast. It’s an amazing industry. People feel happy about where they go to eat and feel a real connection to that. I love being a part of that and the challenge of putting new flavors in front of people. It’s a very fulfilling job to me.”
Being happy is a point Tropoli makes several times during the course of our conversation and its clear he’s found fulfillment in what he does.
“I just feel that people should pursue the things that make them happy," he says. "If they do that, success will come. I wasn’t a business major. I was liberal arts major. People should try and experience different things and do what makes them happy, decide what their priorities are and what their goals are and then set out to achieve them.”
“I just feel that people should pursue the things that make them happy. If they do that, success will come. I wasn’t a business major. I was liberal arts major."
One place you won’t find the COO frequently is in the office.
“The nature of my job is a field job so I travel quite a bit," Tropoli says. "When I am in Houston I visit the units that we have, visit with the people that work for us. What Chris and Harris Pappas taught me is that we should be connected with our guests and with our employees. You need to see, experience and be involved with what’s going on at the field level.
"It’s important to see things from the perspective of our customers and team members.”
The company is particularly focused on growing Fuddruckers, which it acquired in July 2010. “Pappas is known for incredible food and incredible food service. No one else can replicate what they do. We wanted to bring the same culture that they created to Fuddruckers," he says.
The company has spent considerably upgrading existing locations and raising the quality, service and experience of the Fuddruckers brand.
As large as Luby’s is, the company still approaches its business one location at a time.
“It always starts out as one," Tropoli says. "You can’t open more restaurants until you have one that’s successful. That’s how we see it. One at a time and make each location as good as it can be. I always get a kick out of seeing various press releases about concepts that are coming to Houston and they say they’re going to do 20 restaurants.
"Well, first they have to build one and it needs to succeed. Then they need to build another and it too needs to succeed. It’s all up to the guest.”
Outside of work, his passions are family and music.
“I’ve been married for 12 years and have three children ages 7, 6 and 3, so it’s a lively house," Tropoli says. "Other than that, I have a home studio over my garage where I play guitar and drums and it’s a great way to blow off some steam. I actually have two bands; Wheelhouse, which is my newer band and Trout Dog, which I actually play in with our CFO.
"There’s not a lot of time for much else.”