As a part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview Katie Collier, the Chef/Owner of the award-winning, multi-unit Italian concept Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria from St. Louis, Missouri. Katie opened her first pizzeria at the age of 24 after spending time living in Florence, Italy with her mother. This pizzeria was a success but, due to her addiction, she lost her place in the company. After getting sober, she refined the concept to what it is today and opened up Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria with her fiancé, now husband, after launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to help raise the funds.
Katie quickly garnered awards like Chef of the Year, Best Pizza, Best Pasta, Best Restaurant, and Best Service. Katie now has two very profitable locations with yearly gross sales at nearly $8 million, and continued sales growth and awards year after year. Katie is married to her business partner and acclaimed-artist, Ted Collier. They recently had their first child, a baby girl named Nadia who is about to celebrate her first birthday.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri with two younger brothers. My mother has always been a fine artist/painter while my father was an architectural salvage ‘picker’ who transitioned to owning rental properties. Growing up, he salvaged materials from the North St. Louis neighborhoods, a notoriously dangerous part of the city. He would bring old doors and fireplace mantels home on the roof of his car and fill our garage, yard, basement, and apartment. I grew up surrounded by terracotta pieces, bricks, door hinges, and building ornaments at my dad’s house, and then paint brushes, paints, canvases, and artists at my mom’s house.
My parents divorced when I was 10 and we split time between the two. My father is also a recovered alcoholic and just recently celebrated 35 years of sobriety. My parents struggled for money and we had some very low points with little money and no car, where we all slept on the floor in sleeping bags for many years, really most of my childhood. We didn’t have much, but we had each other and today the five of us are extremely close. My parents loved us very much and took great care of us with what they had. While our upbringing, living situation, and parents’ occupations were different from my peers, the love, creativity, life lessons, grit, and uniqueness of our parents and our home was priceless and second to none. They are both extremely brilliant creatives and eccentrics, and their influence on me is seen in almost everything I do today. I credit a lot of my sobriety to them and those life lessons early on.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
I was introduced to my addiction freshman year of high school, at a party. I had always told myself I would never drink given the stories my dad had told me about his and my grandpa’s alcoholism and the destruction it caused in their lives. Unfortunately, though, the gene was strong and I was a kid who couldn’t handle my weird life, or life in general, so I gave in. The rest was history.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
I was a very shy (almost mute) and insecure girl where alcohol was a refuge and escape. I had very few friends and was very insecure about my home-life situation. I couldn’t compete with what I thought at the time was normal, so I hid from everyone. Alcohol and drugs helped me come out from that scared hiding place. It helped me communicate, experience the world, feel free, and be myself for the first time.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was? Can you tell us the story about how were you able to overcome your addiction?
Addiction is a mix of the highest highs and the lowest lows, where there is no middle or normal, safe feeling. So to say what was my lowest is hard because I had some incredibly low moments. It took me seven years to get sober after I attended my first meeting. In that seven years I went to eight treatment centers, a million meetings, and had countless hospital stays for accidents and alcohol poisoning. I desperately wanted to be sober, but my addiction was so strong that I suffered for a long time. Somehow during that time I managed about four months sober. In that brief time, I was able to open my first restaurant, Katie’s Pizza, with my father. However, because of my addiction, I was pushed out of the restaurant I started, and rightfully so. That kicked off a huge downward spiral that eventually ended with me not having anywhere to live, no money, no car, no phone, no friends, and my family had completely disconnected in an attempt to save my life. I never was suicidal, but I would drink and use with the goal to black out or pass out. My reality was too painful to be awake.
Can you tell us the story about how were you able to overcome your addiction?
The last night I drank, I remember calling my mom because I again couldn’t find a place to sleep. I was hungry, tired, and needed money. I was ready to AGAIN try to get sober. I asked for a place to stay and for help – but she said no. She had tried for years, even locking me in her house at my request to keep me from drinking. With absolutely nowhere to turn and no money, I called the state-run treatment center in Hannibal, Missouri.
For three days/nights, I laid on a cot in a locked cinder block room with two other women who had both been on meth and up for seven days straight, majorly psychotic. We chain-smoked cigarettes in that tiny room on our cots, ate bologna sandwiches, and stared at the ceiling. By the third day I had had enough of this life and I climbed out the window. I hitchhiked home and checked myself into a halfway house where I lived for six months with 20 other women who had lost everything. Eight and a half years later, I’ve been sober ever since. I was able to overcome my addiction on that day because something in my brain had had enough. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, as they say. I was sick of being a victim, sick of the depression, sick of hurting my family, sick of not having any control over my destiny. I believe it was a divine intervention, because like I said, it wasn’t any lower than any other low over the years, it was just the last one. My life, mind, and outlook did a complete 180 that day. It definitely took a lot of work to keep my sobriety and change my life, but it wasn’t impossible like it had felt before. Overcoming addiction can feel completely impossible to a real addict; it’s hard to explain to those that don’t suffer from the disease. The obsession and hopelessness was removed that day. I can only thank God. I have never been religious, but that day I became very spiritual and my belief in a God has been titanium-strong ever since.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
You have to forgive and humble yourself to ask for forgiveness while doing what it takes to right your wrongs – especially when you still have a resentment towards someone. You cannot stay sober if you are living in the past, living with anger and resentment, and playing the victim.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
I went back to waiting tables at the original pizzeria that I had founded. I worked a ton, and I walked a ton. Walking was like meditation for me. I still didn’t have a car for the first two years of my sobriety. I took the bus long distances, but if it were within five to 10 miles I would walk. It was just what I needed in early sobriety. Your brain, body, and heart take time to heal in the first year, so being by myself walking was some of the best therapy mentally and physically. I used that time to plot my course and dream about the future. Looking back, most of the hopes and dreams I had for myself during those walks have manifested themselves into reality. To this day, I will still take off for a 10-mile walk. It’s when I do my best thinking and strategizing. All of my ideas, projects, and successes started on a walk. That old saying ‘take a walk to clear your head’ is true.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
Definitely the walking. I walk a lot for mental and physical health. I’m really dialed in to my health these days. I spend a lot of energy focusing on what I’m putting into my body. Diet is so important for energy, sleep, mood, and confidence.
I still make amends and ask for forgiveness when I’ve screwed up in any way. I’m not afraid to admit a mistake. Having humility as a leader, I believe, is one of my strengths. But I think the biggest one is telling the truth. Addicts have a habit of lying. It’s how we protect our addiction and it’s one of the biggest habits to break. Always tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. It keeps my lane clear to be strong and free.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit my whole life, and I started a few businesses pre-sobriety – nothing that I could sustain. Once sober, however, my true entrepreneurial journey started with a Kickstarter campaign for Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria. In 2012, it was the first Kickstarter for a restaurant in St. Louis, and really one of the first for any business in the city. I used that uniqueness to garner buzz for not only the concept, but also to find real investors. Our goal was $40,000, which we met, but needed about $400,000 to open. Kickstarter drew a lot of attention to our cause and we found some very important traditional investors to fund our restaurant. At the time, my husband and I had literally no money. We were sharing his car and living in a studio apartment barely making rent. Obviously, a bank was no option for one person who had lost everything in the crash of 2008, and another who had no history of anything. My husband and I were somehow able to sign a lease and raise $400,000 on handshakes, because our personal guarantee meant nothing. The key to all of this was transparency, confidence, a truly great concept that meant something, and great marketing. We brought the city and our backers along for the ride with us.
Once opened, we had and continue to have huge success. Within two years we were able to pay back all of our investors and by Year 4 we had two locations. We are currently working on our third location that we hope to open spring 2020. Both locations’ sales have had continued sales growth year over year, and our yearly gross sales are nearly $8 million. Our Year 5 growth strategy includes more locations throughout the region.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship? Please share both the positive and negative.
My positives are my perseverance and humility. To get and stay sober, you have to have the grit to not give up while also having the humility to know when you’re wrong and ask for help to get you there. This has been a huge asset in the growth and longevity of my businesses. My negative is that I can overdo everything. For example, I tend to take ideas, projects, hobbies, and trends to the extreme. It can be great for business, but bad for work-life balance, and time with family and friends.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
A couple of reasons. Number one is that the recovery rate is so low. Only about five to seven percent of addicts are able to get sober and stay sober for more than five years. Once you hit the five-year mark, your chances of relapse reverse to only five percent. That’s why I waited until I hit my five-year mark to go public about my alcoholism/addiction. When the public sees 95 percent relapse, they are very skeptical (rightfully so) when someone admits they have or had an addiction. I think because of that, people tend to keep quiet about it until the addict has substantial time to celebrate. On the flip side, my experience is that the public is super supportive when they see a success story. Addiction and relapse touches everyone’s lives, just like other life-threatening diseases, so when people hear about someone making it, it’s almost like it’s a win for everyone. And then the obvious reason is because it’s so destructive to not just the addict – everyone around them also becomes collateral damage. The idea that it’s a disease and that the addict can’t stop without intervention is very confusing and unbelievable to those who don’t suffer from it. With more public education about the disease and improved rehabilitation to get those stats up, I think the stigma could greatly improve. These kinds of articles and interviews help, too.
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
My advice to an addict who is still suffering is
(1) Believe me when I tell you that you can have the life you always dreamed of if you stop using. Everything improves and continues to improve daily when you are sober. Family, friends, business, health, success, happiness, love, adventure, creativity, strength… it ALL gets better. Even if you are high-functioning and your life isn’t ‘that bad,’ it’s even more of a reason to get sober. If you can function with drugs, imagine how successful you’d be without.
(2) Ask for help! I can’t stress enough that you cannot successfully get and stay sober on your own. Ask a friend, family, or call a specialist. Even if you just ask God. Those three simple words, ‘I need help,’ will save your life and give you a new one.
(3) Don’t compare your addiction to others. Not everyone ends up where I did. Some are living under a bridge, and some are married with kids and running a company. It’s not about how functioning you are – it’s about how happy and fulfilled you are. If you’re not as happy and fulfilled as you could be because of a dependency on drugs, alcohol, gambling, or whatever, then that is all the reason you need to quit. That whole ‘I’m not that bad’ mentality has kept too many people from their happy destiny.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook @katiespizzaandpasta, Twitter @KatiePizzaPasta, and LinkedIn/YouTube by searching Katie’s Pizza and Pasta Osteria. Our website is www.katiespizzaandpasta.com.