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Dessert at Finale

The idea for Finale was hatched as a yearlong project at Harvard Business School, where Conforti earned his graduate degree. Now that he’s identified a largely vacant niche in the restaurant industry, Conforti wants to make Finale a unique national chain.

The idea for Finale was hatched as a yearlong project at Harvard Business School, where Conforti earned his graduate degree while whipping up the concept. Conforti found that few companies have tried to stake out the culinary turf Finale aims to capture. Now that he’s identified a largely vacant niche in the restaurant industry, Conforti wants to make Finale a unique national chain—the place where you’ll find a dessert that costs a little more but the experience will make it worth the price.

Conforti’s mission is “to do for dessert what Starbucks has done for coffee.” Conforti explains, “Starbucks educated people about the difference between a 50-cent cup of coffee and a $3.50 latte.” Before the 1990s, millions of people habitually bought the former and then discovered they were willing to pay more for coffee specialties. So if Americans will behave that way about coffee, Conforti reasons, why not cake?

Rensselaer might not seem like a starting point for a future purveyor of fine desserts. But Conforti says his undergraduate studies helped provide the platform for his career. “RPI is the backbone, it’s the foundation of whatever success I will have had,” he says. As a major in management, he adds, “I really liked that my courses were coming at things from an analytical perspective,” finding that his finance classes, for instance, gave him tools he still uses. Conforti also was elected president of the Rensselaer Union, a position he believes helped him develop leadership skills.

After Rensselaer, Conforti started out in the insurance industry, and he soon found himself as a project manager for Travelers Insurance Company in Hartford, Conn., where, Conforti says, he had an epiphany one day as he walked past restaurants on his way to the office and realized the restaurant business might provide the right challenge for him. He was promoted to a position managing a call center in Albany, but kept being drawn to thoughts of the restaurant industry. While managing insurance operations was fine, it was not the ideal line of work for his personality. “I am more of a people person. I wanted that face-to-face contact you get in a retail or restaurant environment,” Conforti says.

Conforti sees the hand of good fortune in his success. “Any entrepreneur who tells you there is no luck involved in being successful is not telling the truth,” he says. The first example of this luck was meeting a prospective business partner at Harvard Business School with equal enthusiasm for the idea of Finale—Kim Moore, a classmate with whom he developed a second-year project at Harvard called “Room for Dessert.” Conforti and Moore analyzed the prospects for a chain of upscale dessert eateries and found the idea had enough chance for success to turn it into reality after graduating with their MBAs.

While their Harvard credentials have helped Conforti and Moore gain attention and connections, upon graduation both took jobs in restaurants to learn more about the business and to show potential investors they were serious about their plan. Conforti took a job as a waiter, while Moore got a job at The Cheesecake Factory plating desserts. “We joked we were the lowest-paid members of our graduating class,” says Conforti. “I was making $2.63 per hour plus tips, while Kim used her MBA to negotiate $9 an hour from the Cheesecake Factory, instead of their usual $8 starting wage.” Conforti took the job as a waiter to learn how to carry a tray full of dishes, open a bottle of wine, and speak the lingo of the industry. “I figured how can I, as a manager, ask my employees to do something if I myself don’t know what it entails?” Conforti adds.

Paul Conforti '92
Moore thinks this attitude is one of Conforti’s best business traits. “Paul has an enormous work ethic, and he’s a great leader by example,” she says. “We have a team culture. There’s no dictatorship at Finale.” A good example of the Conforti leadership style comes from a memo he gives all his managers, informally dubbed “Paul’s Profile,” about what to expect on the job, with items ranging from serious to lighthearted. “You’re allowed to make most any mistake once,” notes item 13. “If the same thing happens twice, we’ll probably talk about it.” Then item 14 reads: “I sweat. Not because I’m stressed, but because I’m hot (it’s a genetic thing). Don’t read too much into it.” Conforti tends to focus on Finale’s finance and operations, while Moore generally works on the marketing and branding of the company.

By 1998, the duo had raised enough capital to open their first restaurant, figuring Boston’s nearby theater district would provide their customers. Instead, in another fortuitous development, several new restaurants opened within a few blocks of Finale. “If people come by after the theater,” says Conforti, “you might have a two-hour window of activity, after 10 p.m. With all these restaurants around, we now have a bigger window in the evenings.” Many of their customers skip dessert at other restaurants and head for Finale instead, where table service begins in the early evening. During daytime hours, customers can stop by its bakery counter for baked goods they can carry out or eat at a table.

In October 2002, Conforti and Moore opened the second branch of Finale, in the ground floor of a building just off the center of Harvard Square in neighboring Cambridge, an area heavy with pedestrians willing to pay for a gourmet dessert (the average customer spends about $17). And this summer Finale opened its third branch in the Boston suburb of Brookline. According to Conforti, the first two branches have shown revenue growth every year, with the only period of decline coming in late 2002 and early 2003, during the wider economic slump that hit Boston. And now Finale’s owners are hoping to accelerate their expansion plans. Conforti is looking at locations in the Greater Boston market, as well as sites in Providence — near his hometown of Cranston, R.I. — and Connecticut as possibilities.

All Finale venues follow the same formula: airy dining spaces with a relaxed ambience. The Boston and Cambridge branches have light streaming in from plate-glass windows on two sides, illuminating yellow walls. Dark wood tables with black tops, brown and red seats, burgundy carpets, built-in wooden wine cabinets, and wait staff dressed in black all add a slightly more dress-up, formal feeling. Jazz, swing, and big band music plays in the background.

Finale’s own research shows a significant cluster of patrons around age 30, with more women than men visiting, and a high level of education; many customers have graduate degrees. But there is no stereotypical Finale customer. Visits to its branches reveal business executives discussing plans alongside students and senior citizens—a variety Conforti finds reassuring. The point of Finale, after all, is not to make fine food exclusively for the wealthy but to bring the joys of upscale desserts to the masses.

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