Richard Siber never planned to own a pizza shop.
The Wellesley business consultant says he was just trying to help out a few friends when he got involved with the sale of Café Nicholas, putting up his own money to help the deal go through when a friend's savings were wiped out by the collapse of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
But a full year later, Siber finds himself at the restaurant—now called Richies—seven days a week. Instead of building global companies from the ground up, he finds himself busing tables and buying tomatoes in bulk. And he loves it.
"I've always liked to take on new challenges," he said. "This pushes me in a different direction, and it's invigorating."
"The fact that I'm not 600 pounds yet makes it even better," he added, biting into a slice of cheese pizza straight from his kitchen.
Siber likes to boast of the drastic changes he's made since taking over Café Nicholas, a Washington Square staple that had been open some 17 years, though it struggled toward the end. The first-time restauranteur said he started by paring down the restaurant's bloated menu, dumping some 200 items that sold so infrequently there was no way to keep the ingredients fresh. From 14 varieties of beer, Siber brought it down to just four or six. And instead of 13 wines, Richies offers just two choices: red or white.
"I don't see this as a place where you're going to buy a $14 glass of wine," he said. "It has to be family-friendly."
Siber kept many of the old specialty pizzas, but switched from pan pizzas to a hand-tossed style, much to the initial chagrin of his staff. And he said he tried to find ways to use more fresh ingredients, rather than pulling things from the freezer.
"When we first bought the place a lot of things were pre-made or frozen. We tried to get as far away from that as possible," he said. "It'd be cheaper for me to go in a different direction, but I don't want to compromise."
That's proven a challenge. In the few short months he's run the restaurant, Siber has had to learn to deal with the volatile prices of fresh produce, the whims of finicky distributors and the impossibility of guessing how many customers he'll see in a given day.
But Siber has gotten plenty of help from his family. His 13-year-old daughter consults frequently on the business, going through the records of Café Nicholas to see what was selling and recommending additions to the menu (try the deep-fried cheesecake). Even Siber's 74-year-old mother has gone to work for the restaurant, coming in to make fresh cookies at least twice a week.
Siber said he's tried to make the place as inviting as possible for other families as well. He took down a planter of fake flowers to let in more light, and opened up a fireplace in a back where he'll sometimes turn on cartoons for kids who come in to give their parents a break. He keeps a folder of all the hand-lettered cards he's received from students at the nearby Driscoll School, and he loves to tell stories about the times he gave away a dozen baked cookies to an elderly woman, or stopped by 7-Eleven to pick up cranberry juice for a delivery order because he didn't have it in the restaurant.
Siber admits he's not making money on the restaurant, but he says he's not bleeding to death either. And though he'd eventually like to see it become a moneymaker, right now he's happy to have Richies be what it is.
"This is the business I want to be in," he said. "It's offering some kernel of surprise, of happiness, to someone who's not expecting it."