2012 March: Il Pizzaiolo: Pi Pizzeria

Pi Pizzeria in St. Louis, Missouri, has a story of grand proportions, yet it’s an indelible fixture in the restaurant’s history. The young, hip shop in the eclectic Delmar Loop neighborhood had only been open six months when co-owner and founder Chris Sommers delivered Pi’s signature deep dish to presidential hopeful Barack Obama during a campaign stop in October 2008.

 

Business partner Frank Uible shares the account during a Pizza Today visit last October. He says that Sommers arranged with one of Obama’s assistants, Reggie Love, to have pizzas delivered to the candidate after the St. Louis rally.

Uible says that, walking home from the crowded downtown area, Sommers received a phone call from Love, who put Obama on the line. Obama thanked him for the pizza and told him something to the effect that it was the best pizza he had ever tasted.

 

Now, it is very easy to make a claim of such a praising phone call. But after Obama was elected, he followed up with that memorable pizzeria in spring 2009. The Commander in Chief invited Pi to make pizza for a lunch in the White House for the President, his family and staff. Sommers and the executive chef gladly accepted and baked deep dish and thin crust pies in the White House kitchen.

The President’s love for pizza and his affinity for Pi in particular set a media wildfire across the country and even internationally. The pizzeria gained instant fame.

“It just blew the doors off here from the phone to people walking in,” Uible says. Pi sales jumped 150 to 200 percent after the White House visit. “People had to have the pizza that President Obama was eating,” he adds.

With the increased traffic, panic began to set in, according to Uible. “We didn’t have enough people hired and on the schedule that could accommodate the volume that we saw,” he says, adding that they were pulling in friends and family with the only prerequisite being that new hires liked pizza.

But did the quality of the pizza suffer? Uible says no. To maintain quality, one of the first things Pi owners did was hire a chief operating officer, Jeff Constance. Daily operations changed, as well. Pi closed between lunch and dinner services to keep up with dough production.

At times, Pi even completely sold out of pizza in the evening. Pi’s quality philosophy of “no compromises” meant just that. “We are just not going to serve a product that is not who we are,” Constance says. “If that means we can’t serve it, we would rather do that than serve something that is not to our standard.”

Getting the endorsement of the President of the United States has taken Pi to a whole new level, Constance says.

But, you won’t see a banner, saying “Home of President Barack Obama’s favorite deep-dish” or a story on the back of its menu. “It’s part of our mystique,” Uible says. In fact, you won’t find Pi doing any traditional marketing, instead concentrating its efforts on social media, community involvement and its food truck. Word of mouth and customer buzz has been a driving force for its volume. Constance says there is no doubt that future marketing efforts will change, but, for now, Pi is riding the buzz.

 

Pi’s popularity has continued to surge after the rush of its presidential endorsement subsided. The company added a Kirkwood neighborhood location in October 2009 and one month later a Central West End unit. With consistent hour to hour-and-a-half waits, “we owed it to our customers to spread business out a little bit,” Uible says.

The locations of the new stores drove even more success for Pi. “We like the hippest streets in town,” Constance says. Pi is attracted to neighborhoods that provide a variety of shopping, dining and entertainment venues.

Expanding Pi has allowed the pizzeria to test out new markets, as well. In the summer of 2010, Pi added a new concept to its widely popular urban-focused strategy, a carryout-only location, Pi 2 Go, in the western St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield.

While Pi 2 Go is a profitable operation, Uible and Constance agree that the concept is not a growth vehicle for Pi. “It was a good learning experience because we’ve come to realize and fully know that the experience is part of what we are all about,” Uible says.

Being in hip neighborhoods is part of the vibe at Pi. Both the Kirkwood and Central West End locations are in uniquely different areas. Kirkwood is more of a family destination, while Central West End is a chic, modern, cosmopolitan district. Each restaurant’s décor reflects their district’s individual flair.

The same can be said about Pi’s menu, which provides 10 to 15 percent unique items on each location’s offerings. The Central West End has a thin crust pie named after the district that features mozzarella, volpi prosciutto, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, red onions and arugula (12-inch for $21). Kirkwood also has a namesake deep dish with mozzarella, Italian meatballs, red peppers and basil (12-inch for $22).

By far, Uible and Constance say the most popular pizza is the South Side Classico deep dish with mozzarella, Berkshire pork sausage, mushrooms, green bell peppers and onions (12-inch for $22).

Pi’s house salad is more of a specialty salad with field greens, cherry tomatoes, red bell peppers, red onions, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and a house-made vinaigrette ($6 for a small). An interesting appetizer (or pre-pi, as the pizzeria calls it) is the pi bites, a small plate that consists of fontina blended with prosciutto, rolled in house-made breadcrumbs then oven blazed and served with red sauce ($8).

With annual sales of more than $10 million, Pi is set to open its fifth St. Louis area location this spring in the downtown district, not far from where the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals play. “That is part of our business strategy to build the brand downtown with out-of-town people,” Constance says. “That will give us a lot of opportunity to expand in the region.”

It’s not just St. Louis Pi that executives have their eyes on. Perhaps prompted by President Obama’s affinity for its deep dish, Pi opened a Washington, D.C. location, District of Pi, in spring 2011, just blocks from the White House. The new location also sits in the trendy district of Penn Quarter.

Pi first rolled out its brand to the Washington, D.C. market with its food truck. “The food truck was running for almost six months before we opened, and that really laid the ground work,” Constance says, adding that they paired the truck with a social media campaign. “We didn’t do any fanfare of the President,” he adds.

To ensure product consistency, a team of Pi employees was sent to D.C., including its executive chef. “They are the people who are directly responsible for the success of Washington D.C.,” Uible says.

With Washington, D.C. and downtown St. Louis locations, Pi is charting new sales projections to exceed $15 million in 2012. Pi has proven that it doesn’t need to use a bullhorn to tell everyone that it has the pie that the President of United States loves. Instead, this shop lets its pizza do the talking.

Denise Greer is associate editor of Pizza Today.