2011 August: Advice from seasoned independents

Less than three years removed from high school, childhood friends Mark Gold and Lou Siecinski moved from pizza-happy Detroit to Milwaukee to open a pizzeria. Twenty-six years later, Pizza Shuttle is one of the nation’s highest grossing single-store independents.

It’s a place many envy, yet, not a spot Gold and Siecinski reached by accident.

“Every decision we’ve made through the years has been critically evaluated, particularly in terms of ROI,” Gold says. “We know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Seasoned operators know it takes even more than a great pizza to attract guests and profits; it takes bold, strategic decisions in all areas of the business. Some of the nation’s top independent operators share the best practices that have spurred their success.

Among operators’ chief advice is to work smarter, not harder. Jeff Janik, head of Milton’s Pizza in Raleigh, North Carolina, has a saying: “Sometimes working hard makes you lazy.”

For many operators starting out, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Operators make pizzas, pay bills, greet customers, toss trash and extinguish various operational fires each day — all vital elements, Janik acknowledges, for a beginning operator hustling to survive.

“But if that’s all you do,” Janik says, “then you’re doing your business a disservice.”

In the early 1980s, Janik did the daily hustle, cooking the pizzas himself because it was easier than teaching someone else to do so. Over time, he learned to delegate some tasks with thorough training while focusing his efforts on building the restaurant with big-picture thinking.

 

“It was scary to make that leap,” Janik confesses, “but I had to step away from the daily grind and examine the areas of the business that could bring greater ROI. That’s how the business was going to grow.”

These veteran operators have also learned to differentiate their businesses. In 1993, when Gus Nassar purchased the seven year-old Rome’s Pizza in San Antonio, he noted the Texas city’s lack of any gourmet pizza options. A self-described foodie, Nassar jumped at the opportunity to be first to market.

Nassar added menu toppings such as spinach, artichokes, gyros meat, and sun-dried tomatoes, while simultaneously creating unique pizza combinations. His still-evolving menu remains inventive as well as popular, with some customers driving 45 minutes for a Rome’s pizza.

“I knew what the other pizzerias were offering and I was intent on being different and exciting,” Nassar says.

And while the temptation is there to work 24/7, many operators have learned to bring managers into the business. When Darryl Reginelli and Bruce Erhardt had just two Reginelli’s Pizza locations in New Orleans, one partner ran each establishment. When the partners opened a third location, they had to entrust daily operations to a manager. In quick time, that store faltered, prompting both Reginelli and Erhardt to relinquish their duties at the original outlets and focus on a third-store turnaround.

“The first two stores were successful because the product was good and we were present,” Reginelli says. “We had to find a way to make that model work at the third location.”

The turning point came when the partners handed their knowledge to the shift managers, eliminating the excuses and providing managers the ability to implement ideas within the framework of Reginelli’s business model, which included training, portioning, projections and budgets. It’s a decision that has proven fruitful, as Reginelli’s now has seven locations.

“The worst mistake is allowing employees with a diluted self interest to define policies and ignore the business’ needs,” Reginelli says. “The restaurant should run the same whether you’re there or not and, for us, that came about when we forced our managers to think more like operators.”

It’s also crucial to be a good neighbor. Over his 18 years in French Lick, Indiana, Dave Childers has worked to establish Chicago’s Pizza as the friendliest business in town, a reality his customers appreciate.

“I bring that ‘it-takes-a-village’ mentality to my business,” he says.

Churches and schools represent 90 percent of Childers’ advertising budget, as he offers a 30-percent discount for church and school-related functions, provides raffle prizes, auction items, and pizza for concessions. When a club, team or youth group requests a donation, Childers obliges every time.

“This has proven to have a much greater impact than blabbing my name on the radio,” he says. “People in town will say, ‘Go see Dave. He’ll take care of you.’ It creates such a positive buzz that people rally around us at this point.”

As an operator, keep in mind to handle only what’s in your control. In her 21 years operating Lillian’s Pizza in Pensacola, Florida, Lillian Walsh has endured hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina, the 2010 Gulf oil spill and a recession. It would be easy to point the finger and play the blame game, but Walsh doesn’t.

Rather, Walsh has analyzed and reanalyzed her business, consistently pursuing ways to attract and appease customers within the areas she can control.

When she moved into a more sizable spot across the street in 2005, for instance, she eliminated her lunch buffet, confident that the glossy new 225-seat eatery would pull in guests. After three years and a precipitous drop in lunch sales, she restored the lunch buffet in 2008. Lesson learned.

“We had to reverse course and bring the buffet back. It’s a lot of work, but we’ve dug in, made it happen and seen positive strides,” Walsh says.

When possible, cross-train staff for maximum efficiency. At Fargo’s Pizza in Colorado Springs, longtime GM Barry Manis trains staff in various operational areas; some veteran team members are capable of filling as many as five different positions.

With the ability to step into other operational areas and know the position’s requirements, cross-trained staff fills voids and responds to rushes while ensuring that labor remains active and engaged. In addition, Manis says, cross-trained staff creates labor savings and helps employees secure hours.

“This creates an efficient workplace and keeps employees involved, two definite keys to long-term success,” Manis says.

Ultimately, consistency wins. Central to the success of Northbrook, Illinois-based Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria has been a consistent product from year to year. While commodity prices have risen and trends have swayed, Lou Malnati’s has held the line on their 40-year-old winning formula, demanding consistency and stability from vendors in the process.

As others have added pineapple and chicken to their pizzas, for instance, Lou Malnati’s has investigated the possibilities, but rejected the additions given concerns over pizza standards.

“The critical decision for us has been to stick with what we know rather than trying to be everything to everyone,” Lou Malnati’s COO Jim D’Angelo says. “We do what we do and repeat it time and again. That’s the winning formula for us.”

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.