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CEO of Polly’s Pies Looks to Freshens Up

PLACENTIA — A banana cream pie convinced restaurant industry veteran Eric Stenta to take a chance on the chain Polly’s Pies Restaurant.

“If the pie wasn’t good, I probably wouldn’t have come” to the company, Stenta told the Business Journal.

Stenta is now chief executive of Polly’s Pies, a restaurant chain that’s served generations of families in Southern California hearty meals and desserts for 56 years.

While becoming a go-to dining spot for locals seeking affordable comfort food over the years, the family-owned business, based in Placentia, hadn’t looked hard to expand its brand outside SoCal.

It counts just 13 locations to its name, including seven spots in Orange County.

Stenta is looking to add expansion to the company’s menu, among other endeavors, and has the résumé to do so.

His prior career included opening over 40 California Pizza Kitchen restaurants and supervising multiple properties located on Walt Disney Co. grounds.

He has also acted as an industry consultant to guide new restaurant founders, before joining Polly’s in 2019 as vice president of operations and chief concept officer.

Last May, Stenta stepped into the top role at the company that has 820 employees.

“It was very different from what I was accustomed to, but this was a legacy brand,” Stenta said last month, at a recent restaurant reopening in Huntington Beach.

KFC Ties

The first Polly’s was opened in Fullerton in 1968.

The name Polly was chosen, in part, because the front doors of the restaurant had handles shaped like the letter “P” and its name was in honor of Polly Martin, who was the newborn daughter of the restaurant’s first manager, according to the company website.

The restaurant chain was founded by brothers Don and Eddie Sheldrake, who are now in their 90s and who still own the business.

“Don went to Harbor Community College and Fresno State and Eddie used crib notes to get through UCLA,” the company’s bio says of the founding duo.

Eddie’s granddaughter Jacklyn Mitosinka works at the chain as Polly’s Pies’ director of brand. Eddie’s son Mike Sheldrake founded his own roastery and is the main provider of the chain’s coffee.

While the restaurant is best known for pies, it has an extensive menu with pasta, burgers, salads and breakfast meals as well as beer and wine.

In addition to the Polly’s chain, the family also runs a 10-restaurant collection of KFC franchises in SoCal, including local spots in Cypress and Yorba Linda.

Pandemic Pivot

A few months after Stenta arrived at Polly’s, the pandemic hit.

The company had to quickly adapt its application to handle deliveries, something that was long overdue at the company, he said.

“We [accomplished] things that we would not have been able to do when business was regular,” Stenta said. “We wouldn’t have been able to really work on the menu the way that I wanted to work on it, because those things are disruptive to our guests.”

Last year, the company began shipping frozen pies nationally, charging from $33 to $36 each plus shipping costs.

In-store pies typically run in the $16 to $22 range.

Renovations Equal Sales

Polly’s began renovating one restaurant in its portfolio at a time, the latest being the 4,600-square-foot location on Adams Avenue in Huntington Beach.

It had been a longtime project for the company due to the high-traffic area and customer base of younger families. New seats were put in, plus a new seating model, the restrooms were redone, and a new outdoor patio was built.

Polly’s has reported a positive response to the new restaurant design, based on prior renovations in Cerritos and Hemet.

“We know that when we renovate our buildings there’s an instant lift in sales,” Stenta said.
Sales per restaurant have risen 37% on average, he said.

“If we can drive those top lines, this could prove to be a new concept, or a new idea of a concept,” he said.

The newer models have been designed by granddaughter Mitosinka, who aimed to make the Huntington Beach restaurant resemble the building when it originally opened in 1983.

Costs of the remodels have ranged from $300,000 to $1 million depending on each location and scope.

Surprise Success

A short-term solution caused by the closure of the Huntington Beach store during its renovation may become a permanent Polly’s feature.

Stenta noted that during the almost three-month-long renovation, Polly’s was able to open a pop-up pie shop a few doors down that resembled more of a standalone bakery, only selling pies.

“It was a great opportunity for us to test that retail space,” Stenta said.

The executive said that Polly’s would begin looking into “derivatives” of the pop-up for future expansion that would require less investment and allow the company to go to market faster.

Next year, the chain could possibly test out solo pie shops or small cafés. It could also look at what a fast-casual version of the existing restaurant would look like.

“We’re going to raise that bar and get some new sales,” Stenta said.
Polly’s Pies’ website says more new locations are “on the drawing board,” though it’s not the only priority for the firm and its CEO.

Stenta declined to reveal how many new locations are in the works, saying he is currently focused on improving the sales performance of its existing restaurants.

“We have to find ways to drive profitability,” Stenta said.

Hotels, Theme Parks & Restaurant Chains

Eric Stenta’s résumé spans over 30 years in restaurants, hospitality and food and beverage.

He got his start at Hyatt Hotels as a food and beverage manager for a couple years. Most of his career was spent with California Pizza Kitchen (CPK), a pizza chain headquartered in Chicago at the time.

Stenta was responsible for helping expand CPK, now based in Costa Mesa, from 10 to close to 100 locations, starting in Atlanta and then traveling along the Midwest and East Coast for 14 years.

His next role placed him in charge of a collection of six high-volume dining concepts operated by New York-based Patina Restaurant Group at Downtown Disney.

Stenta’s work in Anaheim over an eight-year period led Patina to add restaurants at other Disney parks, including Walt Disney World and Epcot in Florida.

Dipping his feet back in the hospitality world, Stenta went on to work for the House of Blues in Los Angeles as VP of food and beverage operations. He oversaw 10 different venues nationally for almost three years.

“I was overseeing the menus, wine lists and the beer, and I was making a lot of relationships with vendors and suppliers,” Stenta said of the differences between his food and beverage role versus the specific restaurant operations he knew previously.

His most recent position was at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop from 2016 to 2018 in operations with eight units to oversee.

It was Stenta’s experience of exceeding sales expectations, growing a company’s pipeline or gaining new business that led to a few years of independent consulting, working with Chef Ben Ford and partner Alan Jackson to develop their Bull and Butterfly restaurant in Playa Vista.

When asked what he’s learned from all his work, Stenta responded: “Quality is king.”

 

 

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.
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