Sara Byers / Leonardo’s Pizza

Start Here Podcast | Episode #85 | 12/14/2023

Introducing Sara Byers, President of Leonardo’s Pizza and beloved advocate for businesses across Vermont. In this episode, witness the incredible power of pizza in uniting a community for over three decades. In her own words, Sara thrives on the challenge of ‘connecting the dots,’ be it deciphering new consumer trends or scaling into new geographies, all while navigating volatile market dynamics. Leonardo’s ability to stand the test of time is a testament to Sara’s expertise in empowering those around her, helping them become the best version of themselves.

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Sara Byers  00:00

I think that business can be anything that you want it to be business is one of those like malleable things that you can build into what you want. So it’s almost like you can build your passion through business. You know, my, my passion wasn’t always pizza. You know, this was my dad’s dad’s vision and love. But then I was sort of able to jump into it and exude myself through it.


Sam RG  00:29

from Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. It’s Start Here a podcast sharing the stories of active aspiring and accidental entrepreneurs. Today, we sit down with Sara Byers, president of Leonardo’s Pizza Chair of the Vermont Business Roundtable, Sam’s mentor, and everyone’s best friend. Welcome. This is Sam Roach-Gerber and David Bradbury recording from the Consolidated Communications Technology hub in downtown Burlington, Vermont. Ah, hi, Sara. I’m gonna try to keep this as unemotional as possible. But Sara Byers is one of my favorite people on the planet.


David Bradbury  01:04

Just please include me every, like 10 minutes. that’s all I ask


Sam RG  01:08

proof of life. Everyone smiled at Dave is in the room.


Sara Byers  01:12

Got you. Thank you both. I’m psyched to chat with you.


Sam RG  01:15

I mean, you know, Dave, before you knew me, so, you know, our our, our friendship has just blossomed, you know,


Sara Byers  01:21

I know how lucky we are.


Sam RG  01:24

Go ahead, Dave, let’s have you kick it off.


David Bradbury  01:27

All right. So Leonadro’s is a family affair. Tell us about like, how you got involved in the business? How long? And why do you keep doing it?


Sara Byers  01:37

Yeah. Now that’s such a good question. So my first involvement in the business was in 1990, when I was 18 years old answering the phone the year that my dad started the business. And I remember so vividly that I would have other things to do. But the phone would continue to ring and I was like, Dad, I’ve gotta go, he’s like, that’s not part of this. We stay until the phone stopped ringing. Oh, my God. But I, you know, I wasn’t involved. That was my part time job. And I actually worked for gap and Banana Republic, around the country. And then in 2001, just felt this huge draw to be back in Vermont that really made kind of no sense intellectually, or financially for that matter. But my dad had, you know, built Leonardo’s, and really, it was his passion, it was his vision to have something that was creative, because at that time, it was sort of like, you could get a pepperoni pie and a cheese pie. And that was it. And he really wanted to source ingredients locally, and just be really fun with what you could put together. So I called him up when I felt like I was ready to move home. And that was interesting conversation. He was somewhat shocked and said, you know, yes, you can come work, but you, you know, you’re starting at scratch, I don’t care what the phone, I don’t care what you’ve done everywhere. And but I felt it in my gut, it was it was time to come home. So I have been with Leonardo since 2001. We pulled my husband in for about 20 years. And I just you know, in the beginning, it was sort of like, building something that my dad had started meant a ton to me. But as time has gone by, it’s become I think as much my own as it is his. And now for me, it’s about sort of sharing the emotion and gratitude that we feel through pizza, and providing opportunities for people that that’s what drives me now every day.


David Bradbury  03:45

Great. Right. So 2001 was influenced by 911?


Sara Byers  03:49

And it’s sort of it’s a great question, because interestingly, we moved back October 1 2001. And it wasn’t the decision was made a couple of months prior or the decision was contemplated a couple of months prior. But clearly, there was well, a great time to be home and yeah, totally.


Sam RG  04:11

So, you know, I think it’s it just makes for a good story that your dad had you kind of start at where all the other employees were right. And so at the time, were you like, oh, man, okay, or, you know, did you become grateful for that opportunity? Or, you know, how did that kind of feel when you’re first starting out? Because you had a big job at Gap like that, you know, that was a lot. So it must have felt a little strange.


Sara Byers  04:35

Yeah, yeah, that that was I, in retrospect, probably the source initially of a lot of the tough times because when you’re when you’re joining as a second generation, I would guess at most businesses, it’s not exactly easy, particularly when that second gen has been off kind of doing their own thing and establishing their own leadership and all of that. So it was, you know, it was how do we navigate each other? And yeah, it was really tough. I think the most difficult part was everyone else was like, What are you doing here? And I’m like, I don’t know. Other employees? Oh, at other employees? Absolutely. I mean, you know, are you a manager? Are you like, what are you doing?


Sam RG  05:19

So you had to build the trust with them, right? The boss’s daughter thing is never fun.


Sara Byers  05:23

No, no, absolutely. And it just morphed, and in some ways now, you know, I think there was brilliance in that choice for my father, because to your point, if someone had just come in, “im on the boss’s daughter, and all of a sudden, I’m going to tell everyone what to do”. I’m not sure that we would have sort of gained the same momentum, trust, patience and all of the things because at the time, it was a joke that I didn’t know how to boil water. And that was true. So there was a lot for me


David Bradbury  05:55

Do you have to boil water to make pizza?


Sara Byers  05:57

Well, you did. I actually. When I first came, I worked for my dad’s other business, which was Anthony’s in Essex. So I was there for six months before I sort of moved over to Leonardo’s. Yeah.


Sam RG  06:13

So can you talk to me a little bit about, you know, the pre Leonardo’s? Sara, in terms of your what were your career aspirations? What, what was sort of the goal at that time?


Sara Byers  06:25

You know, it’s interesting, because to the fury, I think of some people around me, I really don’t, I’ve never had these goals. I’ve never sort of developed a five year plan and a 10 year plan for myself, I sort of believe in the flow of life and opportunities as they present themselves. At the same time, I was enormously driven to be successful at whatever it was that I was doing. And in some ways, that drive was almost too much because it would cause me to just do more and more and more and more and more, but the pre Sara pre Leonardo’s, Sara, was just sort of determined to move forward at the Gap and determined to move forward, I was about to take a position overseeing the district of Houston. And, you know, I just, I just wanted to keep going. I just wanted to keep growing I just personally and professionally, so that’s who I was. And I think part of that did carry over into Leonardo’s for sure.


Sam RG  07:27

Yeah. I mean, we’re definitely birds of a feather you and I, but I can really relate to that of like, not having a goal. And I think there and we are both big believers of serendipity and everything happening for a reason. But I, I try to share that with young people as much as I can. Because I think there is pressure to have a really clear plan or idea of what you want to do. And like, that’s just not reality.


Sara Byers  07:51

No, because you, you never really know what’s going to come around the corner. And I feel that with regard to sort of Leonardo’s business, personal I, you can’t anticipate everything. Yeah, it’s not work illustrated already. So it’s unfolding. That’s the way I see it,


Sam RG  08:13

at least with our skill sets right?!


David Bradbury  08:21

you know, it’s so true. You don’t, you don’t always know what, what you want to do or what’s available to do. And, you know, part of my journey, and when I recommend to folks, like figure out what you don’t want to do, try it out through an internship or through reaching out to having conversations with other business owners or other inspiring community folks. And, you know, I was like, Oh, maybe I want to be a stockbroker back when they were called stockbrokers and you had to wear a suit. And I did an internship at UVM, but I didn’t want to wear socks with my dress shoes and suit and I stuck out really like that reason. Yeah. And I told them that and they were like, man, you’re a mess. Good luck. That’s great.


Sara Byers  09:02

Well, and I, you know, it’s interesting because I say this, I think the business can be anything that you want it to be business is one of those like, malleable things that you can build into what you want. So it’s almost like you can build your passion through business. You know, my, my passion wasn’t always pizza. You know, this was my dad’s dad’s vision and love. But then I was sort of able to jump into it and exude myself through it. The reasons for it between my father and I are very different, but it’s been it’s Yeah, I love that.


David Bradbury  09:40

So Leonardo has been around for 30 years or so. What makes the pizza or the foods special and has it changed over time?


Sara Byers  09:50

I can tell you that the sauce recipe has not changed. I say that after numerous times, trying about 20 different sauces, all of which tasted the same to me at the outset. But my father could sort of distinguish all of the slight nuances. But you know the basics really haven’t I mean King Arthur Flour from the start the sauce recipe that, you know, three of us know from the start, you know, certainly toppings and combinations have changed. But for me what makes it special is the care with which we sort of produce it the the human part of making pizza is actually what makes it special when it’s delivered to your door. So it’s the care, the love, the gratitude, the energy with which we do business that I think matters. Yeah.


Sam RG  10:46

And I feel like you kind of created a category in a way because it’s not like your like greasy corner store delivery pizza. And it’s not like sit down brick oven pizza. It’s kind of somewhere in the middle, which to me is like a no brainer, but I do I remember moving here and getting Leonardo’s and being like, wow, this is not at all what I expected.


David Bradbury  11:08

Yeah, we had a yesterday at a board meeting we did.


Sara Byers  11:15

Well, you know, it’s interesting, because when we first opened, there was nothing else aside from sort of your basic pizza, there was no brick oven, there was no woodfired. There was. And, you know, that has been an interesting aspect of this business, because we really sort of defined a market here initially. And that market has proliferated, I mean, the number of choices that you can get, and I love all pizza and sort of eat all pizza myself. But that’s been an interesting and interesting thing to watch as its unfolded. But you’re absolutely right, in this space. Now. I think we do take up the middle space. Totally. Yeah, yeah.


Sam RG  12:17

Was that, you know, from 1990? Was that part of your dad’s thing? Or is that something that has like kind of evolved in the business? Can you talk a little bit about that?


Sara Byers  12:25

Yeah. So my dad, I always say that he had a social mission before that was sort of coined. It looked a little bit different. His he would, you know, nonprofit discount rate was always part of Leonardo’s since its inception. But I would say that when I joined the business in 2001, that is when I talk about sort of doing the things that are really important to you through business, that’s kind of what I’m talking about. There’s a symbiotic nature to me, between business and community that is necessary and really deserves reverence. So to me, if we have the ability to contribute to the sort of our communities thriving in some way or another, we have to we’re, we’re responsible. We, we need to do that for a variety of reasons. And similarly, I think, an investment in the people who work with us, like, you know, it’s sort of when you think of a corporation or a business. You know, there’s a beauty to it, and being able to contribute in a way that you might not be able to individually.


Break  13:43

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Sam RG  14:24

Do you feel like opportunities have sort of presented themselves? And you’ve said sort of Hell yeah. Based on the sort of ethos of the business is that?


Sara Byers  14:32

Yeah, absolutely. And where we are as a world in that moment? What is what is most needed? What matters to the people who work with us? Yeah, so So that’s sort of how we calibrate those decisions, because it’s true. You can’t No business can sort of give to everything. And there are a lot of requests here and there. But it’s the things that speak to us speak to the community as a whole and speak to the people who work with us.


David Bradbury  14:59

So it was a lot of stories and evidence on just how difficult it is to find and retain employees and service and food and deliveries. So what’s your secret sauce for that?


Sara Byers  15:15

I wish that I had a better one, I will say that they do two months into COVID. Through probably three years were the hardest times, I think, in our business history. And it was because of that it was simply impossible for us to provide the level of service that made us successful, I think in the first place. We are immensely fortunate to have people with us who’ve been with us 19-24 years. And they are the foundation of our business. And, you know, I think, of course, as with anything, when I look at their longevity, it’s about sort of a mutual admiration. It’s about flexibility. It’s about understanding a person as a person. And I think that, you know, that’s the secret sauce, I think, in this landscape that can even be tough in this industry. Because I think we’ve seen sort of a compression of workforce up and those entry level jobs are, you know, not as attractive, perhaps as they used to be when everyone is looking for people. But I do see that shifting. And for me, you know, I look, I look at the community and I see people who’ve worked for Leonardo’s over the years and they’re doing amazing things. So for me, it’s about how can we connect people to sort of their next thing, how can we be a space for people while they’re while they are, you know, gigging at XYZ, like we just want to be flexible enough to support whatever dreams are people have. Yeah.


Sam RG  17:03

I love that. And, you know, as part of that, the business has scaled quite a bit over the years, you know, you’re in two states have multiple locations. Talk to us a little bit about how you all have thought about that. I’m sure that has sort of ebbed and flowed over the years. But I’m just curious about how that what that plan looks like, from your perspective.


Sara Byers  17:22

Yeah. I think that similarly, I we don’t really have a specific plan. You know, my father, who is 81 has always wanted to just grow, grow, grow. He’s sort of the visionary. That’s, he’s a developer, real estate developer. That’s just who he is. We opened our Portland Maine store in 2007. And we lost hundreds of thousands of dollars the first couple of years. And it required a ton of time and investment away from Vermont. We believed in it, and it ended up being one of our most successful stores. But you know, I know what that looks like. And, you know, candidly, while I had other priorities in my life, we decided to sort of move in other directions. We tried our jarred sauce line, we, you know, so there are different avenues of growth. At this point, I’ve actually taken a small step away from the day to day operations. And so now, that growth trajectory will be sort of up to sort of the next generation of Leonardo’s leadership. We came very close two years ago to signing a lease, like my pen was hovering over another location in Vermont. But it was the workforce challenges that made it challenging at that time, but those things are easing. So it’ll be exciting, even for me to sort of see where Andrew and Jordan want to take this.


David Bradbury  18:55

So how many locations?


Sara Byers  18:56



David Bradbury  18:57

And about how many folks?


Sara Byers  18:59

Um, we have at our high probably just over 100. Right now, probably 75 to 80. Yep.


Sam RG  19:07

So you, you touched on it a little bit. But I think, you know, the topic of succession planning comes up a lot with some of the businesses we work with. I think, you know, your dad was surprised you came back when you did. So obviously, that wasn’t part of his plan from the beginning. And you just mentioned some new leadership as well. So can you talk to us a little bit about you know, you don’t have to go into crazy detail, but just how you think about that, how your dad is thought about that? And maybe some tidbits that can be helpful for others.


Sara Byers  19:35

Yeah. You know, I think what’s hard for founders from my watching my dad is, you know, my dad’s whole identity is in this business. I mean, he gave it his whole heart and soul. And I think it can be really difficult to then sort of decide to share with you know, your daughter who, who you see as your daughter, um, but I really commend my dad for going to the table. Like, for me, it was about, you know, succession remained as something, you know, to the side that probably we all were thinking about. It was sort of the elephant in the room for a little while. And I think we spent a little bit too much time with it as an elephant. I think we could have pulled it in a lot earlier. But I think it was scary. Yeah. Because of that familial relationship, and how does that sort of integrate with this professional environment and the needs that we both have. So I feel really fortunate to have come to this agreement with my dad, where we actually share ownership, we share ownership now. And as I look at that, personally, as I look at that next generation of leadership, that’s something that I envisioned for them. Because it needs to continue to grow and morph, it is not me. It isn’t my dad, it’s, it’s grown into something else. So for me, the greatest piece of advice is to just come to the table and sort of be honest about your needs. And work with a third party, if necessary, which we did to really try to find where all those things converge.


Sam RG  21:19

Smart. Yeah, pull those people in before you need them. Yeah, yeah, totally.


David Bradbury  21:26

We’ve had a number of family business owners in the podcast, and I’m, some of them have these, we’ll talk about business. But when we’re at the kitchen table or your home, we don’t like hard stop. You’re laughing. So I guess that probably may not exist in your family or experience. Okay.


Sara Byers  21:45

No, but it’s, you know, shouldn’t work that way. You know, I always did question that. And what’s interesting is, I probably questioned that the most between my husband and me, because that sort of, you know, I lived with him. And so, but it, it became part of us, it’s part of our DNA, it’s part it’s definitely part of my dad’s DNA. I will say that there are moments when, you know, do you feel like that personal part is sacrificed a bit, maybe? And then that’s candidly, because you have this common interest? So I like that idea. I don’t think we’re disciplined enough to actually uphold it.


David Bradbury  22:23

You’re smiling so.


Sam RG  22:28

Somewhat sustainable. Yeah, for a couple of decades in. And yeah, um, you know, we talked a little bit about just the the pizza scene right here in Burlington and everywhere, right? It’s it’s a crowded market. And y’all have proven longevity here. What do you attribute that to? How do you stay competitive?


Sara Byers  22:50

For me, it is listening. I think it’s so important listening and learning, I guess. You know, it’s imperative that we listen to the people who work with us, we listen to our customers. I mean, for me, social media has been such a gift in that way, because we’re able to connect with people in a way that we may not be able to otherwise. So I think we, you know, I think it’s important for us or has been that we truly recognize what’s important to the people who order from Leonardo’s who work with Leonardo’s, we don’t know everything. So it’s sort of like crowdsourcing. And in addition, just paying attention, you know, for me, like I say, I love connecting dots, or what’s happening over here in this other industry, I love to figure out how to connect it to pizza. And I think just the authenticity and what we’re trying to do that that’s all we have, you know, I don’t focus too much on what everyone is doing. I don’t focus too much on how other people are growing and exactly what they’re doing. And, you know, for me, it’s making sure that we are doing what we do, the best we possibly can, and that we’re serving the customers in a way that’s frictionless in a way that’s easy, simple, and that we’re giving them what they deserve.


Sam RG  24:15

Do you have any advice on like, you know, you’re maybe one of the few business owners I’ve heard that’s like, oh, social media has been great, right? Like and listening to our customers love it, you do have to like filter out noise, right? You can’t listen to every single bad experience and change your business based on that. So how do you kind of stay positive? And, you know, look for trends and that kind of thing? Yeah, advice on that.


Sara Byers  24:38

Yeah. You know, I see social media and of course, it can be hard because if I think if you take social media really personally, those challenging comments can be difficult. But to me, those are data points that we need, you know, when I when I sort of look inside myself to make decisions, it’s all of those data points in aggregate that really drive us forward. So to me If one person is commenting, that’s an opportunity for you to think critically about what you’re doing, because that person may be reflective of a ton of other people who haven’t had the courage to sort of post. So yeah, to me, I see it as more of an opportunity, I do recognize that things get blown really large. And that has happened in our history at the outset of social media, it was difficult. But, you know, I think overall, it’s been positive. And it’s just seeing all of those as communication with customers. Yeah.


David Bradbury  25:33

So to get to the sort of how you spend your time, you’ve been such a contributor and volunteer to so many boards, in our communities over the year, I mean, there’s, I think there’s like 18 of them on your LinkedIn, a charger memorizing this form, I can’t know the Flynn and other ones like that, and currently with a round table, but I’m curious about your perspective for listeners on how we all can be better board members.


Sara Byers  26:07

Um, I think any board is made up of a diversity of perspectives. And, for me, it was always important to walk into that board table and not adapt myself to what I thought that the organization was, but to recognize that my unique contribution is what I was there for. I think that, you know, boards can be sort of this, you know, cool table to be a part of, and that we’ll all just think the same and agree on things and move things forward. And for me, it’s an opportunity for us to truly learn from each other. I’ve, I’ve learned so much from boards, that has been my education to sit around the table with 30 amazing people like you, Dave and to hear how you think. Not editing that out. But but really like it just you know, it is the breadth of wisdom around the room. And aboard. That is like breathtaking to me. No one would think of a stodgy board in that way. But I do and that’s why I love being a part of it. So that’s, that’s why you see not 18 But but quite a few because that’s my learning. I apply so much to Leonardo’s I remember when I stepped foot at the Flim board and Chico lager who was one of the individuals who started Ben and Jerry’s with Ben and Jerry, you know, I would listen to him and just just, it was like, this masterclass


David Bradbury  27:43

It was right? I was a fairly young guy on the Flynn board too for five or six years. It was awesome. Going back to things I learned, or we just said the other day, like one of our KPIs, like if we could measure smiles, like like, yes, healing matters, right, when you’re coming out of a show or a dance class or out of a counseling session with Sam or me or Nicole.


Sam RG  28:05

Yeah, that’s awesome. Love it. And so we did touch that year on the Vermont Business Roundtable. Can you tell us I mean, obviously, you’ve had a lot of asks of the years to join boards. Why did you say yes, the Vermont Business Roundtable and what gets you excited about that work,


Sara Byers  28:20

you know, the roundtables board excites me. And their work excites me, because it it operates. For me almost like this think tank incubator for us to really identify where in Vermont, we can move things forward for the people who live here. So to me the opportunity to serve alongside other leaders in business leaders in nonprofit organizations, to come together and be a unified voice and how we can truly make Vermont the best place to live and to work and to have fun. That means a ton to me. So I find it an honor to be a part of that organization, because it really, they’re the voice is important. And it commands a lot of capital, I think that we can really wield for good.


Sam RG  29:17

Totally, yeah, that’s awesome. So maybe seven years ago, I think the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, thought it would be a good idea to pair young Sam up with Sara byers as my mentor, which


David Bradbury  29:36

that was through the chamber? Thought it was like you had pizza one night and just started talking.


Sam RG  29:44

I started following around. And that was you came into my life at a really, really important time and have been, you know, you’re one of the people I know I can call anytime and you’ve helped me make a lot of hard decisions and just been such a guiding light in my career and my personal life. And I’m so so grateful for that and grateful to the chamber for making that happen. Why do you do that? Why do you spend time mentoring young people? I mean, I’m not young now. But I was when when you took me under your wing.


Sara Byers  30:25

You’re really going to get me crying. But you know, I remember I always joked at the time that you were the mentor. And that wasn’t really a joke. And so when you ask why you do things like that, it’s because you’re learning because you’re growing your spirit, your truth, your dedication, your commitment. I mean, your honesty. It just was, it was amazing to me. So you’ve taught me a ton. You’ve taught me, this person. And so why do I do it? Because it’s like this beautiful, blossoming opportunity for both of us. You know, it’s just like two humans coming together.


Sam RG  31:11

Dave, can you step out of the room? I’m kidding. But


David Bradbury  31:16

I believe I’ve been able to talk as much as I have. Exceeds my expectation. You’re


Sam RG  31:23

Well, thank you, Sara. And I tried to turn around and do the same for others, because you’re right, it’s, you know, it, it is a two way street. And I think, some of the strongest partnerships, and, you know, organizations are the ones that are, you know, people can making connections with folks that maybe they wouldn’t normally make connections with. And, you know, we probably wouldn’t have crossed paths either or would have taken a lot longer. And so I’m, I’m very grateful. And just know that I’m paying it forward as well.


Sara Byers  31:52

Thank you, for your words. mean a ton to me.


David Bradbury  31:55

One final question. Around you’re also serving on the Board of Trustees for Champlain College. Why do you say yes to that? What? Yeah, I mean, I mean, it’s an awesome place with massive structural challenges in higher education like, yeah, what, what’s what’s and and we love them.


Sara Byers  32:22

So yes, you know, when I as an employer, we have a lot of employees coming through from higher ed, I could see a Champlain College student, they were ready to be there, they were ready to contribute in a way that was really amazing. They were resources. Our store manager of our South Burlington stores a Champlain graduate. But really, for me, it was the students it was the connection between higher ed and employment, that direct line that was awesome for me to be a part of. And so being a part of that college, for the last three years has been such a gift. Because they’re just doing some extraordinary things that are going to have lasting effects, not only on the students that they serve, but on the state as a whole. So I’m psyched to be there.


David Bradbury  33:18

We love Alex. beside you, Sam, you there was the best? Yes. Yeah, the best. Yeah.


Sam RG  33:24

And so entrepreneurial, too, which is such a blessing and just right person at the right time. Totally. Yeah. Yeah. Agreed. Dave, I am going to include you once again. And I’m gonna have you ask Sara, our magic wand question.


David Bradbury  33:41

That’s redundant when I say you have superpowers now. Okay, but if you could change using your magic wand one thing about Vermont, what would it be?


Sara Byers  33:57

I think it would be for all of us, as individuals, businesses, organizations, to take the time to be with the natural beauty of Vermont, and to recognize that we ourselves are a part of that. Sure, you haven’t heard that one before. But that’s true. Like, like if we could all see ourselves as a reflection of the natural beauty that we see around us. It would be a beautiful place.


Sam RG  34:32

It makes me want to go for a walk.


David Bradbury  34:35

Honestly, that’s why I came in here like out of breath. I went for a hike this morning with Emily up in the woods and


Sara Byers  34:41

it’s so important. Really.


David Bradbury  34:44

Sorry. Sorry, I was late.


Sam RG  34:47

That’s the only reason I would have accepted.


David Bradbury  34:51

Sara Thank you so much for making time from your jobs and your civic activity activities. This has been start here a podcast sharing the stories of active aspiring and accidental entrepreneurs. It’s made possible through the support of the technology council and Consolidated Communications. We’re having lunch today Sam and it’s pizza