A pizza prosperity

At 26 years old, Matt Skinner is already a successful business owner

Even as a grade schooler in rural South Carolina, Matt Skinner was hustling for business.

When he wanted to put together lemonade stands, he didn’t just raid his mother’s kitchen for lemonade, ice and cups and head to the nearest curb; he went door to door asking for “investors” to help him finance the ventures. He groomed his neighbors into clients, mowing their lawns and caring for their yards, charging them the low rates that a pre-teen’s labor costs.

If there ever was a born entrepreneur, Skinner would be one. He’s still hustling for business, but these days the stakes are a lot higher than the spare change he earned at his childhood lemonade stand.

At just 26 years old, he’s the owner of Left Coast Pizza, which opened six months ago in the heart of Chico’s fastest growing neighborhood—in northeast Chico, smack in the middle of two large new subdivisions.

It’s a bright, smallish place decorated with art deco-style paintings a friend made for him and the vinyl blues and jazz album covers that Skinner loves. Bluesy music plays as the friendly guys behind the counter throw dough and make the signature pizzas that Left Coast is increasingly known for: the Shrimp Louie Louie (white sauce with garlic and sautéed shrimp), the Memphis Blues (featuring blue cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and olives) and the Mediterranean (made with feta cheese, kalamata olives and homemade red sauce). Left Coast also offers several different types of chicken wings and pastas, made from recipes that Skinner said he developed himself.

Open just six months, the place is bustling almost all the time. Skinner now has 13 employees, most of them about his own age. And he’s looking to hire more. Beaming with pride, Skinner said he couldn’t imagine his “baby"—the business—going anywhere but up.

“It’s been amazing so far,” he said, his Southern drawl prominent with every word. “We’ve grown every week we’ve been open. It’s worked out just like I’d hoped.”

PIE’S ON <br>Young entrepreneur Matt Skinner is the first person to open a pizza place in the growing California Park area. Bellachino’s Espresso and Panini Café, along with California Park Market, are in the same, new complex at East Eighth Street and Bruce Road.

Photo by Tom Angel

Skinner has been planning to own his own restaurant for years. Born and raised in South Carolina, he moved to Chico three years ago and started working at the former Pizza Face. The downtown pizza joint was plagued by ineffective management and planning, he says, and changed hands last year, but it was there that Skinner fell in love with the pizza business.

“I just loved it,” he said. “There was just something about the whole industry I really liked, making pizza for people and coming up with recipes. It just fit my personality.”

He wasn’t just dreaming. Last year, Skinner wrote up a business plan and presented it to developer Frank Ross, who just happened to be in the middle of building a new shopping center on the corner of East Eighth Street and Bruce Road.

Ross, Skinner said, was impressed with the plan’s details and has became a bit of a business mentor to him. Ross owned a steakhouse in Arkansas years ago and was familiar with the workings of the restaurant business, Skinner said.

Skinner had the energy, recipes and concept for his new business, but what he lacked was one very important asset: money. He got it from Ross and his business partner, Joanne Smith, who agreed to become silent partners in the venture. They put up the approximately $100,000 needed to open the place, and Skinner puts in the sweat equity needed to keep it afloat.

So far, the arrangement is working beautifully. Skinner, who is in person just about as pleasant and accommodating as one can be, estimates he works upward of 12 hours a day (he almost always opens and closes the place himself) but seems unfazed by the tremendous amount of work he does. He delivers pizza sometimes himself, checks in orders, makes and cooks the pizzas and rings them up—he may be the boss, but he is, in short, above nothing.

“I learned that early,” he said. “You have to be willing to do anything to keep working and make a business work.”

He acknowledges that his is far from the only pizza restaurant in town. In fact, there are dozens of pizza joints here. Skinner said his plan is to cater to the neighborhood he’s located in and to hungry diners looking for something other than pepperoni and sausage pizza. He also has plans to open a patio on the busy corner outside his shop this summer and host local blues and jazz musicians on warm evenings, envisioning diners walking from their new homes just down the block to linger over a slice of his pizza and some music.

“Things are really just right here," he said. "It’s just the way I hoped it would be."