Tony Scotto of THB Bagelry & Deli: “Be innovative”

Be innovative. The pandemic forced us to innovate when it comes to the dining experience. We installed new touch screen order kiosks and bigger dining areas both inside and outside so guests can feel comfortable ordering and dining while socially distant. We added a new mobile order walk-up window at our newest location as well. […]

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Be innovative. The pandemic forced us to innovate when it comes to the dining experience. We installed new touch screen order kiosks and bigger dining areas both inside and outside so guests can feel comfortable ordering and dining while socially distant. We added a new mobile order walk-up window at our newest location as well. We try to have fun with innovation as well — creating Lucky Bagels for St.Patrick’s Day and Maryland Flag-themed bagels for Maryland Day. Our guests respond really well to that and we have fun as a team making that all happen.

As a part of our series about 5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Scotto.

Tony Scotto is the CEO and co-owner of THB Bagelry & Deli. A native of Naples Italy, Tony immigrated to Baltimore, MD in 2007. He learned English and worked his way up the ranks at an Italian Restaurant, Strapazza, before teaming up with his brother in 2008 to purchase an established restaurant, the original Towson Hot Bagels. Tony and his family have since grown the brand from one 15-seat location to five locations throughout the Baltimore region, with their sixth opening in May 2021.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My family and I are first generation Italian immigrants, arriving here in the U.S. in the early 2000s. When we settled in Maryland, I was a teenager, and spoke no English. I began working as a busboy at my family’s Italian restaurant, Strapazza, in Columbia, which is how I got my start and began working my way up in the restaurant business.

While working at Strapazza, my twin brother and I would always stop in the bagel shop located just a few stores down on our way into work to get a morning coffee and bagel. One day my brother proposed the idea to buy this bagel shop, called Towson Hot Bagels at the time. It was always busy and situated in a great location, right in the heart of the town we live in — a busy suburb of Baltimore. I was actually the one who didn’t want to go through with it. Not only did we not have any experience running a bagel shop, but I was never a morning person. Waking up at 4 a.m. every day did not sound appealing to me.

However, at the end of the day, it was an exciting and financially sound opportunity. Since purchasing the shop in 2008, which we renamed to THB Bagelry & Deli, our family has grown the bagelry concept from one 15-seat location to six locations in the Baltimore region.

Can you tell us a bit about your family business and your role in it?

Our family business is THB Bagelry & Deli, which serves fresh New York-style bagels, deli and signature sandwiches, salads, coffee, smoothies and much more to bagel lovers throughout the Baltimore region. With a nod to our Italian roots, our stores are built to reflect the piazzas of Southern Italy while incorporating safe, socially distanced indoor and outdoor dining and upgraded technology including contactless ordering kiosks and a walk-up window for mobile order pick-ups.

Since we purchased the shop in 2008, THB has been family-owned and operated by our family, The Scottos. My twin brother handles all of the construction and real estate on current and new stores. Our sister is our CFO, handling all of the financials. Our cousin focuses on quality assurance, dealing with food vendors and ensuring our product and the taste is of the highest quality. Our father is our business partner and biggest supporter. He provides wisdom and advice and we wouldn’t be where we are without him.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

Before we bought the bagel shop, I was working in our family restaurant that was owned by my dad and uncle. I was 20 years old at the time and the General Manager of the restaurant as well as a server. It was a busy Friday night — we had a 20-minute wait and I was jumping from serving multiple tables to making sure guests were taken care of and the night ran smoothly.

Low and behold I made a mistake at a table. I was serving a family of four and I served them the wrong meal — meatball parmesan was the order and instead, I rang in spaghetti parmesan. I tried to fix the mistake and I couldn’t believe it came out incorrect again. Needless to say, they were a bit upset — the whole family was eating and the mother had not had her meal yet.

The mother asked to talk to a manager. I felt so embarrassed. How could I explain that not only was I the server who made the mistakes but I was also the GM? I raced to the kitchen and said to another waitress who had worked with us for years, “Julie I need your help. Can you go and say you’re the manager?” She ended up acting the role brilliantly and smoothed out the situation. Every time I see Julie to this day we remember this night when I was young and serving and she jumped in as the GM.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Stemming from the server and GM story there area few lessons learned relating to a family business. First, everyone has a job, but it’s understood that you will likely wear different hats and do different things. Just know that eventually, when you’re doing too much, you’re going to make a mistake.

Second, place people in roles that they are experienced enough to handle and provide the support they need. When I was a GM and serving, we had lived in the U.S. for about one year since moving from Italy. My skills were not at a GM level yet. If you put people in charge and do not give them the support they need, eventually they will fail.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are always working to improve ourselves and the experiences our guests have at THB. I believe we proved this with how we evolved over 13 years of growth and throughout the pandemic. We are constantly improving how we lead, our products, our stores, processes and customer experiences.

For example, I loved hearing from the landlord of our Charles Village location. He wasn’t sure what a bagel shop would look like when we explained our vision for the location. Once we showed the designs and completed the build-out, he was so surprised. His exact words were, “Wow, this does not look like a bagel shop.”

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I volunteer with the Towson Chamber of Commerce and a big focus of ours right now is a Main Street project. I’m representing THB on a team of volunteers who live and work in Towson who want to help make sure the businesses that have been staples in the area for years have the resources to continue to remain there and compete amidst an explosive amount of growth as new multi-million dollar companies move to town.

We are developing a package to educate property owners about the resources that are available to them from the local and state government to get money and help make improvements to their buildings. We are trying to help hard-working people and help improve all of Towson.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful for so many people. If I had to focus on one it would absolutely be my dad. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be where we are — he brought us to the U.S., taught us values, gave us the opportunity and support to experience the restaurant industry and grow our own business.

From a business standpoint, I would also like to recognize someone who helped us visualize our growth and make it a reality. Biagio Schiano is a restaurateur based in Florida with over 100 restaurants in malls and airports. We are from the same hometown in Italy. My brother called him and asked if we could see how he runs his stores. At the time, we only had three stores and we were working in them every day. We were anxious to see how he was running 100 stores all at once.

What touched me most was how open Biagio was to share his knowledge with us. That was so valuable to us and that was when things really started turning around for us. After meeting Biagio we came back to Maryland with an open mind and a better vision for growth.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe that when people come to THB, we have the opportunity to impact their mood for the day. Most of the meals we serve are the first meals our guests are having for the day. If we give them a great experience, there’s a 90% chance their day is going to start off on a great foot.

Ultimately, we have the responsibility to make our world feel better. If we can make our guests happy when they come here we have a good shot at that.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main parts of our interview. How do you define a family business? How is a family business different from a regular business?

The biggest difference is that a family business involves emotions. It’s one thing to be empathetic to an employee. When you’re working with a sister, cousin, or brother — you know what they are going through in life both at work and at home. There’s a level of emotion there that is different and impacts you more.

In your opinion or experience, what are the unique advantages that family owned businesses have?

One advantage I’ve experienced working with family is that when one of us is tired or someone is dealing with something personal, we will no doubt have someone who will cover for them. We all watch each other’s back — it’s understood and you don’t feel guilty for asking for that coverage, knowing you will jump in and support them next time.

What are the unique drawbacks or blindspots that family owned businesses have?

Accountability. It’s hard to hold family members accountable. You can’t easily reprimand your brother or sister. It takes time, and a certain level of maturity to understand what each role requires and the expectations surrounding it. If things don’t go well you have to say something about the situation. Not only does it take courage to say it, but it takes courage and maturity to accept that feedback and make a change.

What are some of the common mistakes you have seen family businesses make? What would you recommend to avoid those errors?

One situation we have experienced and I see other businesses experience as well is spending so much energy having everyone doing everything. When roles aren’t clearly defined, you’ll find that after sometime everyone is worn out and certain tasks aren’t completed because you assume someone else will handle it. Define your roles and responsibilities early on so that you can avoid this.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders of family businesses to help their employees to thrive?

Take the time to mentor your team. Sometimes we forget how important it is for an employee to have that personal connection and guidance with their manager. And in some ways, employees can become part of the family, too.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean with a story or example?

We believe a leader must have a vision, must be accountable, must find solutions, be confident, mature, develop others and prioritize self-development. They must also be a good communicator, be consistent, self-confident, and humble.

We focus on developing leaders from inside our business. We’re working on developing our team and I’m putting together tools and guidance for this process right now — for me there’s nothing more fulfilling than to see individuals grow.

Here is our main question. What are the “5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

Must have accountability across the board. Figure out a way to hold family members accountable just as you do with your employees.

Develop an org chart and structure. This helps with accountability and workflow — making sure everyone is focused, expectations are set, and energy is spent in the right areas.

Have an open mind. You never know what opportunities will come your way to evolve your business.

Be innovative. The pandemic forced us to innovate when it comes to the dining experience. We installed new touch screen order kiosks and bigger dining areas both inside and outside so guests can feel comfortable ordering and dining while socially distant. We added a new mobile order walk-up window at our newest location as well. We try to have fun with innovation as well — creating Lucky Bagels for St.Patrick’s Day and Maryland Flag-themed bagels for Maryland Day. Our guests respond really well to that and we have fun as a team making that all happen.

Work on the business more than in the business. For example, when I was at our third location serving breakfast seven days a week, I was doing everything. It took us a few years to get that location strong. No one in our family had the time to work on the business and think about the bigger picture. We didn’t have time or money for marketing, we just focused on opening the door. A few years later after our trip to Florida and meeting with Biagio, we shifted our mentality to work on the business and develop a growth mindset.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is from Tony Robbins: “Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.”

With this in mind, we are always trying to do more things that are fulfilling for us as a family and a business. A good way is to give back to the community, which is a big piece of our business strategy.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Tony Robbins. I’ve been working on his leadership courses for a while and would love to have breakfast with him. Even better, I’d love to invite him to THB for a leadership discussion over coffee and bagels.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would create a no-judgment movement.

We have become so judgemental as a society. Things like social media have taken this to a whole new level over the last few years. It’s good to have an opinion but let’s not judge people.

How can our readers further follow your work online?




Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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