Liz met Peter at the Love Union in Brooklyn. Peter is the Head Baker and co-owner of Runner & Stone, and he discusses coming out, a career shift to baking, and running a business with the value of community.
Liz: Can you tell us a bit about your background? What was growing up like for you?
Peter: I grew up in suburban Long Island, Port Jefferson Station to be exact. I'm a small guy, kinda brainy, so was always surrounded by my nerd posse—a group of wonderful friends—and we kind of created our own little scene in the middle of the burbs. Very dorky, ridiculously innocent, and lots of fun.
Liz: What was transitioning into adulthood like for you?
Peter: Oh, wait, has that happened? Ha. I was a little late coming out—I was 19 and a junior in college, so I think that was a big leap toward "transitioning" for me. It was sort of a "before/after" moment for me. Oddly enough, and due in large part to a wonderfully supportive family and group of friends, I was always myself in most respects, so the transition was relatively peaceful—no large loss of family, friends, or support once I came out, but there was a bit of personal reckoning that happened. I'm very grateful for all of it, though, and feel very lucky to have led the life I've had and continue to have. I starting dating my (now) husband when I came out, so I was lucky to have come out right into a healthy, fulfilling relationship.
Liz: Wow, that definitely sounds like a pivotal before/after moment in your story. May I ask why you think you were "late" to come out and what helped you cross that barrier?
Peter: Well, I guess it was late by today's standards in many areas, but perhaps early/on time for someone born in 1975 or before. It was late for me personally, in so much as I began dating heterosexually when that wasn't necessarily comfortable for me. In terms of what helped me cross that barrier, I guess it was just time—a close friend asked me if I was "questioning," and for whatever reason, I said yes, and then everything else seemed to unravel from there. (And I mean unravel in a "loss of restriction" sense and not in a "spin out of control" sense.)
Liz: That sounds very organic. So today you are the Head Baker at Runner & Stone. What was your path like to baking?
Peter: Yes, I'm the Head Baker and co-owner of Runner & Stone. The other owner, Chris Pizzulli, is the Chef (and my husband's cousin—also very organic). My path to baking was pretty winding—I studied Natural Resource Management during my undergraduate education at Cornell University and realized that my future did not lay in that area, so I transitioned to Civil Engineering. I did environmental and engineering consulting for a few years while getting my Masters in Civil Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, and then I working for an engineering firm for a year doing bridge inspection. I hated it and finally moved into the hospitality industry, which is what I had been telling people I would do with my life since I was five years old. I worked in restaurants throughout high school and college and finally gave up the academic dream and went for what I loved.
Liz: Were you baking all along?
Peter: I started working as a cook in a restaurant in Manhattan, then transitioned to pastry in the same restaurant, then worked in a french pastry shop, and finally got a job as an overnight bread baker and fell in love with the craft.
Liz: Wow. And now you make absolutely perfect pastries.
Peter: Ha! Perfect is a dangerous term.
Liz: So baking is one thing, but running a business is another. How did you find yourself in the role of entrepreneur?
Peter: Well both of my parents were entrepreneurs—my father is a retired machinist, and he established and ran his own machine shop before retiring. My mother started a house cleaning business and ran that until she passed a few years ago, so I think it always seemed like a natural goal, even if I wasn't really prepared for just how challenging owning a restaurant and bakery in NYC would be.
Liz: What is the most surprising challenge?
Peter: Hmm, that's tough. It's not really one aspect or another that is challenging in itself: it's the fact that any one day can require 10 different hats. A typical day can involve conversations about bread fermentation, developing new desserts, website maintenance, oven repair, an employee crying in the office, and 20 different customer reactions. And then I can start the work that I had planned for the day I guess the most surprising challenge is just how much running a small business with limited resources demands of you on a daily basis.
Liz: Yes. So it's #wokewednesday. Can you tell us if you identify as a feminist, social justice advocate, or as a woke member of the community, or something else entirely? What does it mean to you?
Peter: Interesting question. I fear identifying with labels because I think they're isolating and up for easy misinterpretation, and thereby easily dismissed or refuted. I identify as a human and try to reconcile my actions and interactions, both daily and long term, in terms of how they make me feel, how they make others feel, and how they will help or hinder my community of friends, family, and neighbors. My father is from Germany—he moved her when he was 21—and I think he raised me with what I've come to recognize as a (socialist) sense of community over individual. My mother was first and foremost a "people person" and raised me with a very strong sense of how what we say and do affects those around us. I'm definitely a combination of those two forming influences.
Liz: How do you prioritize community in your business and life?
Peter: I wouldn't say that I infuse our business with the value of community—instead I would say that our business depends on our value of community. I see hospitality as basically creating communities. Our employees are a community, our guests are a community, our market stand customers are a community—I think that people crave and enjoy connection, and our medium for creating that connection is food, which in itself is extremely personal. We make things with our hands that literally become a part of our customers' bodies and their children's bodies. I think that's a huge responsibility and leads to a strong connection between us and our customers, which thereby creates a community.
Liz: I love that. Are there any other ways that you stand for equality through Runner & Stone?
Peter: I think that I work hard with every interaction to suspend presumption and judgment. I've been so surprised so frequently throughout the years of owning Runner & Stone, both positively and negatively, by customers, employees, vendors, other business owners, and their interactions with me personally and professionally, that I think if I acted on my personal prejudices with every interaction, more than half of them would be misguided and fruitless. By keeping an open mind, I think we (me and the other owner, Chris) have created an environment where our employees and customers feel comfortable to be themselves and express themselves in constructive ways, and isn't that the end goal of equality? We also try to help out local schools, nonprofits, and charities as much as possible, so that our sense of community and equality can extend beyond the four walls of Runner & Stone.
Liz: Awesome. Is there anything else you would like to share with Catalyst readers about where they can find you?
Peter: Our bakery and restaurant is open 7 days a week and we do a few farmers markets throughout the week that are listed on our website under events.
Liz: Awesome. Thank you so much, Peter!