Chef Paul Schmidgall Takes His Passion for Paella to New Levels
It’s near the end of a week in June and Paul Schmidgall is prepping for the weekend. But instead of hanging up his chef coat to cool off somewhere by the water, he’s gearing up to fly to Lansing, Michigan, to help launch his company’s second franchise location.
Schmidgall’s days are vastly different from just five years ago. Back then, he was scratching together his own Naples-based paella catering business, Fire and Rice, while the effects of the recession were still lingering.
Now, he regularly prepares piping hot paella—a Spanish dish of rice, saffron, protein and vegetables— in oversized pans for guests at farmers’ markets, events and private parties.
It wasn’t the career Schmidgall, a military veteran with a master’s degree in international business, originally intended for himself. He wanted to work for a multinational corporation, but while he was stationed in Europe, he witnessed an elderly woman every Sunday, whipping up the rice dish on a busy street in Spain. It was a rather life-altering experience for him.
“She was so captivating, the way she did it and how dedicated she was to the profession and products,” Schmidgall says. “It just stuck with me.”
After leaving the military, Schmidgall earned a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University and became a private chef to a family in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois. The family eventually relocated to Naples.
In 2011, Schmidgall desired change. With the image of the Spanish woman seared into his memory, Schmidgall decided to bring authentic paella to Southwest Florida to “feed a lot of people affordably.”
Schmidgall had no capital, no investors. He scrounged up change to buy Spain-imported ingredients and equipment (“I wanted to keep the experience as traditional as possible”), and a truck to haul them to any gigs he booked. His goal was just to pay his $400 car bill each month. All other earnings went right back into the business.
Schmidgall eventually funded three part-time employees, but Fire and Rice had a slow start until it was tested in front of larger crowds at Third Street Market and Marco Island Farmers’ Market.
Customers had similar experiences to Schmidgall’s own in Spain, he recalls. The process entranced them. “Once people finally found out what we did and how we did it, it just exploded,” he says. “We saw our sales climb 5 to 10 percent each week.”
The company has since grown about 22 to 24 percent in revenue per year, Schmidgall says, though he declines to cite specific figures. In January 2015, Schmidgall decided to franchise the business after feeling the Naples location was “pretty much at capacity.”
Teaching people of all skill levels how to create the dish was easy, Schmidgall says. Plus, he says, he would rather have someone own a location, rather than manage it, so he or she takes more pride in the customer service aspect. Schmidgall can import all the meal’s components to ensure its authenticity, but happy customers are still the most important ingredient to his business.
“The whole key is service. We make everyone feel special—that’s the goal,” he says. “You can really tell if people give you a half-hearted smile or if they really enjoy what they’re doing and give it their all. That’s the biggest key to any business you’re in.”