Pierre Panos’ tips for setting your business apart

Pierre Panos, founder and CEO, QS America

Pierre Panos has created a new niche in dining. As the founder and CEO of QS America — short for Quality Service America — he oversees restaurant operations for Atlanta’s Brookwood Grill as well as more than 40 Papa John’s locations, but he also created the fine fast-dining segment in founding Fresh To Order restaurants.

While he strives to create a niche, he also aims to provide, as the name implies, the highest levels of service at all of his restaurants. His efforts combined have allowed the company to earn more than $40 million in sales last year and a 30 percent growth rate for the past 10 years, even during the recession.

Smart Business spoke with Panos about how to set your business apart from the competition.

How can leaders distinguish their businesses?

Don’t follow the pack. When everyone zigs, you zag. You’ve got to swim up river a little bit and do something different. You have to create a niche product. You have to find a niche that has not been developed yet or is just starting. If you’re not the first in the space, do it very, very well because the No. 1, 2, 3 guys can all do it well.

The No. 1 thing is find something you absolutely love doing, stay in it long enough to become the absolute best at it, and that’s when you make a lot of money. People tend to hop around too much today trying to find the next big thing.

How do you know if you’re doing the right thing or if you need to search for the next thing?

Something my dad told me a long time ago that’s an old cliché but it’s so right: The greatest mistake is to give up. With Fresh To Order, in the first year, we never made money. I knew we wouldn’t. We went through it because we had faith in the concept, faith in ourselves, and we knew the business well, and we knew at some point it would kick in and it has.

Sometimes you just beat your head against the wall and you’re not getting anywhere. Unless you’re in an industry that’s literally going away, if you’re very good at it or one of the best, the weaker players will go out of business. The market then is far bigger for far less players, and you can come back strong.

I wouldn’t try to get into something else you may not know as well because you’re not going to be as successful. If you’re an entrepreneur and you’ve tried something that’s not working and it’s a start-up, I wouldn’t tell you to keep on going, bashing your head. Look at what’s wrong. Try to figure out what the issue is. If you can’t figure out the issue, then move ahead. If not, go a little bit to the left and right in the same space and see where the next opening is. It is a hard thing, but don’t carry on forever. At some point you have to pull the plug.

How do you recognize opportunities that could move you forward?

If you know the industry that you’re in that well, you’ll see it. Read as much as you can. You have to be a voracious reader — see what everyone else is doing well and what they’re not doing well. If you have a good peer group of people to talk to in the industry, you’ll find that niche.

A lot of people don’t see it because they don’t read enough, they don’t network. If you do know your space, the niche will show itself, but you have to be aware and have your eyes open. A lot of people are [inwardly focused] — you have to work on your business, not in your business. You have to be out there. If you’re working day to day running the nuts and bolts, you’ll never see the niche. It will just never show itself. If you have people that take care of the nuts and bolts in any business and you’re out there working on your business seeing what the next river of cash will be, it’ll happen because not enough other business entrepreneurs out there are working on their business. They’re working too hard on the day-to-day and trying to find a way to save a few dollars here.

How to reach: QS America, (770) 594-8644 or www.qsamerica.com