Pinning down Hot Italian co-founder Andrea Lepore might be akin to navigating the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) bicycle race: the tranquil valley before the brutal climb, or maybe the spectacular exasperation at a mass sprint finish. It may start in Genoa and finish in Rome, or vice versa — the 2014 Giro started in Belfast and finished in Trieste. Pigeonholing the race into a tired analogy just doesn’t work.
Lepore is no different.
Hot Italian is one of the hottest food brands in Sacramento, and Lepore is a leading proponent of sustainable building design. She practices what she preaches: Her brick-and-mortar restaurant in midtown Sacramento, the Hot Italian Pizza & Panini Bar, has been certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as silver LEED-certified. Her branding and design firm, Lepore Development, helps other companies create green buildings.
Lepore’s life has been one of applying steady pressure on the pedal: She was an All-Metro goalkeeper at Bella Vista High School, having arrived in the Capital Region in 1974 after her father, a dentist with the U.S. Air Force, was assigned here. Other than a brief stint in Arizona, she has been in the region ever since. A UC Davis alum with a degree in rhetoric and communications, Lepore recently earned a master’s degree in sustainable design from Boston Architectural College — while growing her restaurant and using its brand to preach the gospels of design and environmentalism.
After graduating from UC Davis, she started working in media relations for the NBA Kings and WNBA Monarchs — a dream come true for the lifelong athlete. The experience is one she relishes and tries to replicate at Hot Italian. She cites Geoff and Anne-Marie Petrie, the King’s president and first lady for 20 years until 2013, for creating a family environment, and Jerry Reynolds (coach-turned broadcaster) and Wayne Cooper (vice president until Petrie’s exodus) as mentors. “Team sports make you understand the importance of teamwork, sacrifice, collaboration and perseverance,” Lepore says.
But competition, in the end, isn’t everything. Lepore struggled to get as much satisfaction from games as she did from the intrinsic value of helping people in the Kings’ and Monarchs’ communities. During her decade with the team, Lepore says the Monarchs’ appeal was gender-neutral, which struck a chord with her on the impact sports marketing can have on changing people’s attitudes. “I loved seeing little boys wearing a Yolanda Griffith or Ruthie Bolton jersey,” she says. “And for the little girls to know they could aspire to play or work in a professional women’s league was pretty cool.”
Those interactions led Lepore to strike out on her own, forming the eponymous branding and design firm Lepore Development in 2006, with a focus on cause sports marketing. While cause marketing was not a new idea at the time, in the sports world it was fledgling. “Combining sports marketing with a cause was a relatively new concept,” she says. Now a marketing juggernaut, cause marketing — of which the NFL pink-washing for Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the most vivid example — accounts for close to $2 billion in annual marketing spending, according to the industry publication IEG Sponsorship Reports. But at least to Lepore, the type of work was more rewarding than the scoreboard.
In 2009, she opened Hot Italian — which is itself a sort of sports cause marketing restaurant concept — with co-founder and Italian native, Fabrizio Cercatore.
Driving my plug-in hybrid or designing a LEED-certified building may not change the world, but if we all took responsibility for our actions every day, collectively we will have a big impact.”
Andrea Lepore, co-founder, Hot Italian
One of Lepore’s key issues is the environment, which manifests itself in almost every element of Hot Italian. The pizzeria is meant to be biked or walked to — with plenty of bike racks and even indoor parking available. In addition to being LEED-certified, the building features reclaimed and minimalist design elements as her mantra for the restaurant. “Creating a space with green materials was a goal to show people that green building could also mean good design, it didn’t need to be synonymous with actually green or brown materials,” she says. Instead, the interior is black with white accents and is modeled after the jersey of the Italian cycling team.
Lepore’s passion for food and design came from growing up in an Italian-American family full of artists, architects and designers on her father’s side. Her mom’s side is full of people who worked in the wholesale food and beverage business. This might explain why she was able to make the transition from sports marketing to designing her own pizza joint seemingly effortlessly. But the story is missing an element.
She talks highly of collaboration but refrains from delivering specifics. In the Giro analogy, one gets the impression she is drafting behind invisible teammates. The alternate explanation, and one not that unlikely, is that she’s a natural.
Often, naturals are driven by innate forces that are the summation of their deepest beliefs. The many elements that comprise the steadily-expanding Hot Italian are a meritage of Lepore’s life passions: a love of food and carb-loading athletes, biking communities and a sleek monochromatic design aesthetic. She comes across polished — her words are measured, as is her image. Just like her restaurant, Lepore most definitely has a brand she’s cultivating. It serves as a platform to affect the kind of change she would like to see in the region and the world, if in a small way.
“We can all do simple things — driving less, eating local and unprocessed foods,” she says. “As consumers, we can also demand our city become more sustainable, [ask] why don’t we have a city composting program, better bike access?”
As for challenges with Hot Italian, she cites the increasing cost of labor in California as the biggest struggle, requiring sometimes difficult adjustments. “We want to take care of our employees and the community overall, but there are high costs associated with that, and restaurants have thin profit margins so there’s not a lot of wiggle room.”
Labor costs aside, she plans to put that recently earned master’s degree to work and continue to expand the Hot Italian brand. Until now, their growth could be best described as cautious and measured. But the new Davis location, tucked in with Mikuni Sushi and Whole Foods Market, seems like a perfect fit for the brand; customers are already lining up. There’s also a location in Emeryville.
“This month, Lepore will release a limited-edition pink version of Hot Italian’s Italian-made cycling jerseys in honor of May is Bike Month in Sacramento and the Giro d’Italia (which along with the Tour de France and Vuelta a España make the three-week-long “Grand Tours” of European cycling).
Longer term, Lepore says she wants to work with cool people on projects that improve our quality of life and our natural environment. “Driving my plug-in hybrid or designing a LEED-certified building may not change the world, but if we all took responsibility for our actions every day, collectively we will have a big impact,” she says.
For Lepore, pizza is the ultimate bully pulpit.