“I started out as a line cook. Now I'm on the path to owning commercial property.”

Laura Rozner
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Published on January 25, 2022

Welcome to with Good company, a series of conversations with withco partners, from small business owners to brokers, and more.

Samik “Sam” Patel is the owner of Forest Hills Grocery and Brick Oven Pizza, serving up daily provisions and slices in Tampa, Florida. Even though he had years of experience owning small businesses before getting into the grocery and pizza game, he’d always leased commercial properties. When the owners of his property were looking to sell, withco purchased the building and partnered with Sam to help get him on the path to ownership. 

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We talked with Sam to find out what owning property means for him and his business and what it was like working with withco to achieve that:

Tell me about Forest Hills Grocery and Brick Oven Pizza. Why pizza?

I was in retail before I opened the pizza restaurant. I had a couple of gas stations and was doing well, but the margins were getting smaller every year and I wanted to get into food. I love to cook, you know? So getting into food was a dream for me!

How did you get started?

I had a buddy in New Jersey who owned a liquor store and had a similar dream. He had a lot of space, and opened a pizza restaurant in the liquor store! When I saw pictures of this on Facebook, I asked him how he did it and he introduced me to the Pizza School of New York in Staten Island. So I joined and learned how to make pizza, make dough, everything. They had me work as a line cook, serve customers, do everything first hand so I had real time experience. When I came back to Tampa, I had all the knowledge I needed to open a great pizza shop.

How did you find your location?

Some of my old business partners told me they had a commercial space next to an old grocery shop that would be great for a pizza shop. I came and looked at the space and saw that there were no local pizza joints for people in the neighborhood, only big corporate chains! 

Forest Hills, the neighborhood we’re in, is a close knit community where everyone knows each other and people are attached to the small businesses in town. People had been coming to the grocery shop for forty years, so when I expanded it to pizza, I did everything I could to really connect with the community. It was the perfect space to expand with a pizza shop, just a great location.

Succeeding in small business is notoriously tough. Can you talk about the types of challenges you faced?

Well the biggest problem was that we started a few months before the pandemic started. We didn’t know that we would be hit with a pandemic as soon as we opened! When everything was shutting down in March and April, we toughed it out and stayed open, following the CDC guidelines. It’s hard to imagine that it’s been years since then, but we’re seeing money come through and I feel like we’re on the rise and the sky’s the limit.

Have you ever considered buying your property as a small business owner?

Of course I wanted to buy the property in any business venture I’ve owned, but I never had the resources so I always rented. Owning your own space means a lot, it means doing business and building equity at the same time. It’ll only help the business owning the property and it makes it more likely to succeed in the long run.

How did you first hear about withco and when did you start working with them?

The owners wanted to sell the property. They worked with me and withco to purchase the property and withco put me on the path to owning it. Of course I liked withco’s idea of letting small business owners own their property, so I was happy when you all came down and met with us, we had a good meeting and things went from there.

What was the process like?

Well, it was very smooth, I’d never seen such an easy transition between ownership! Once, one of the gas stations I was leasing was sold and let me just say: the process wasn’t nearly as smooth as this. withco came in not just as a buyer, but as a partner and that helped make the whole process seamless.

How did withco help? How is withco different from your typical landlord?

I’d never done “lease-to-own” before. Of course it’s in my best interest to own both the property and the business in the long run, but what landlord would want that? The lease I signed with withco is a pretty standard commercial lease except now instead of just paying rent, I’m earning equity to put towards a down payment. 

The first thing that came to my mind was: I don’t think the average landlord would really want to sell to a renter. I mean, they’re getting rent every month that covers their mortgage and gets them equity on the property that I’m doing all the work on! But now that I know what you’re doing, it makes so much sense and I’m thankful we can work together. 

With withco, I’m working with a “landlord” who is going to let me own both the property and my business. What other landlord would give you equity in the property every year of your lease?

Samik “Sam” Patel
Owner of Forest Hills Brick Oven Pizza
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What are your long-term plans now that you’re on your way to owning your space?

I’m planning to build out a kitchen in the grocery section of the business and expand to serving more hot foods. Since the pandemic started, delivery has been a big part of the business and I don’t think that’s going away. If there’s one thing I learned over the last few years in business it’s how to stay resilient. The prospect of owning my property allows me to put those kinds of investments into the property so my business can stay strong through anything.

Okay, just a couple more questions: what’s the one item on your menu that a visitor to Tampa must try?

I mean, all the food is so good! But if I had to pick: our pizza a la vodka is so delicious and not something you get everyday. Oh, and you can’t go wrong with our Philly steak! We use high quality rib eye beef and Amoroso rolls from Philadelphia and cook it right, it’s very authentic. Not to brag, but people tell me it’s the best in Tampa. We’re also famous for our Cuban sandwiches in the grocery.

Well, now I’m hungry! But before I let you go I should ask if you have any advice for other small business owners who might be interested in working with withco?

It’s the best thing you can do, you know. Every small business owner should want to own their property in the future and withco’s model helps that happen. It’s exciting to not just pay rent but to earn equity as well, and withco’s team made that happen seamlessly. 

I don’t know of any other landlord or investor who works with small businesses like mine this way. The traditional model of landlord and tenant just doesn’t work like that. Typically, landlords are out to make money for themselves, which I don’t blame them for, they have to, you know? So it’s exciting to find a company with a different model, one that gives small business owners like me such a great opportunity to take control of their futures and really be their own bosses.

Interested to find out if your business would be a good fit for withco's model?

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