Il Pizzaiolo / Flippers Pizzeria, Orlando, FL

In a competitive market, standing out is imperative to success. For Orlando, Florida-based Flippers Pizzeria, differentiation has been key to its execution –– but so, too, has putting into place the right management team to take the company to the next level. As a result, Flippers has flourished to 14 stores with sales of more than $15 million, and the company is on the precipice of an enviable wave of growth.

Flippers Pizzeria started 25 years ago by Scott Kousaie and partner Todd Dennis, but “where we started and what Flippers was originally is nothing close to what you see today,” Kousaie says. “We had the basic philosophy of wanting a higher quality and we had some ability but not the knowledge or the know-how … and the (right) people around us to make it all happen. In the beginning, you’re struggling financially with investment and what your dream is and what your reality is usually doesn’t marry up in the beginning.”

By the mid 1990s, Flippers had grown to five stores and a commissary, “but we really hadn’t found a way to put it all together,” Kousaie says. They focused less on physical growth and more on building store sales and by 2004 in-store sales had doubled. They implemented profit sharing with their managers and put into place an upper management team that “took the concept to another level,” he says. The year 2008 proved to be pivotal when new partner Don Howard helped the company smarten its brand, modernize their fast-casual look and place a greater emphasis on franchising. “We took the food and our culture and wrapped it into an attractive package that had the look and the feel of a national brand,” Kousaie says.

From left, Director of Purchasing & Distribution Jessie Malek; Regional Director Gwen Kousaie; VP of Operations Ben Richardson; CEO and Founding Partner Scott Kousaie and Director of Training & Development Josh Hogan

Today, Flippers Pizzeria encompasses nine corporate and five franchise stores, and a 16-unit franchising agreement has been signed for the Tampa area. They also operate a commissary, which “gives us the ability to actively select the ingredients and products that we want,” says Jessie Malek, Flippers’ director of purchasing and distribution. “If we don’t have it, then we have the ability to produce it. The fresh chicken, as an example, is an all-natural chicken and we manufacture that at the commissary. We went from a pumped up chicken breast to an all-natural product, and that has done wonders for us. We package it ourselves and we private label it.

“Another ingredient (processed at the commissary) is the prosciutto, which is a little bit more on the high-end side and that’s definitely what we’re more about.”

Ben Richardson, vice president of operations, says that dealing with distributors at the corporate level allows franchisees to focus on their product in the stores. “To be able to send an order off for 250 items is huge,” he says.

Still, Kousaie is quick to point out that much is made in-house. “We make our dough fresh, on-premises,” he says, and sauce is made and vegetables chopped on-site. “Our concept is premium. We go for the best.”

They prefer to let the stores handle as much as possible to build what they call “Passion for Product’ because “when the team members see what goes into making our pizza sauce, that’s one of those intangible things that really builds pride and passion,” Richardson says. “Making dough on premises is another good example. We use extravirgin olive oil and All-Trumps flour –– the best stuff that you can get.

You would think that team members would be reluctant to make dough, but knowing they put their hands on it –– from the ingredients to the finished product –– is a really great discovery that we’ve had with our team. It really builds pride for the product.”

As a result, pizza accounts for 70 to 75 percent of sales. (Alcohol accounts for two to 10 percent depending on location). “Without a doubt, pizza is our driver,” Kousaie says. “Pizza is our passion.”

Aside from traditional cheese and pepperoni, Flippers has 23 specialty pizzas and more than 40 toppings on its menu. One of the biggest sellers is the Mediterranean Chicken (basil, pesto sauce, chicken, spinach, roasted peppers, Roma tomatoes, black olives and feta cheese). They added a smaller personal-sized pizza known as the “My Pie,” and “the driving force behind that is when you typically have pizza with a group of people, you end up with something like cheese or pepperoni,” Richardson says. “One of the things that makes us different is that you can get one of these and get what you want and don’t have to worry about sharing. You can get something that you crave. That’s what we do here –– create that perfect pizza experience.”

And Flippers elevates its flavor profiles with fresh ingredients like basil, garlic, sea salt and a propriertary spice blend that lends uniqueness to their dishes. Deliveries two to three times per week keep ingredients at their peak and lower the need for walk-in cooler space.

Recently, they added a Margherita pizza to their menu, but didn’t just use the toppings already found in their kitchens. They use D.O.P.-certified San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil and EVOO. “We knew we could sell it, but the goal for us was to do it right, and we could bake it in our brick ovens,” Kousaie says. “I’d stand our Margherita up against anybody’s out there in terms of taste and quality.”

While Flippers’ focus on food and quality has helped establish it in the Orlando market, the company also realizes that marketing and community service are vital. School sponsorships and donations such as student achievement cards have been successful tools for the company, says Kelly Pfister, director of sales and marketing. “Whatever the schools need we’ll do –– taking our sponsorship ads on the football fields and scoreboards, encouraging them to come in for spirit night as well as sponsoring Little League and men’s softball teams.”

Donating slices during events gets Flippers’ name into the community and generates positive word of mouth, which increases catering business and promotes lunch specials.

Social media is used to drive guests to the Web site and their mobile app, and they do some couponing to increase traffic in some of their tourist locations. “Direct mail goes out every week at all of our stores, so we’re consistent with that,” Pfister says.

Joshua Hogan, director of training and development, says their customer appreciation card (which gives customers a free two-topping My Pie) is another tool that is especially successful in new markets. “We stand behind our product so well that we give out hundreds a day leading up to that opening,” Hogan says. “Sometimes, we’ve reached into the thousands just so that people can get a free sample of our product. We stand behind it, and we know once they taste it, they’ll be back. I think that is the biggest tool that we have.”

Adds Richardson: “We put a lot into our product, and we don’t want to devalue it. Even though we do feel that we compete with the big three for our customers, we don’t consider them competition. We don’t want the discount pizza competition.”

With operations and marketing down, the company is poised for expansion. They have plans for growth at the corporate level and have a 16-store franchise deal in place for expansion in the Tampa market over the next eight years.

“We want to make sure that we grow smartly, so that the brand is protected,” he adds. “We’re not going to grow beyond our ability to handle it.”

Franchise openings are handled the same as corporate stores, with Hogan and his team on-site for training and continuous evaluations to ensure consistency. “We’re not branching out too quickly or too far to where we can’t handle it or build the infrastructure to handle it,” Kousaie says. Adds Richardson: “Building a strong culture at each store that we open is what will be the continued success of the company.”

Mandy Detwiler is managing editor of Pizza Today.