Adam Carb, Mark Gray and Tony Arcuri take great pride in their hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — so much so that their pizzeria concept is centered on their adoration of its blue-collar roots and its neighborhood pizzerias. Backed by an investment group, the partners opened Steel City Pizza Company in the Mt. Pleasant area of Charleston, South Carolina, in late 2011.
Before Steel City’s inception, the partners ventured into their first pizzeria at the Mt. Pleasant location under a regional pizza chain in 2005. They found success in that environment, Gray says, but they were ready for a change. “With the legal structure of the entity, we weren’t in the position to grow,” he explains. “We didn’t want to be just an income vehicle. We wanted to build an organization.”
The Pittsburgh natives formed the Pennsylvania Pizza Company umbrella, changing the Mt. Pleasant location’s name to Steel City Pizza Company, while also working to open a second location in North Charleston in the spring of 2012.
Pizza Today dropped by Steel City in North Charleston and sat down with Gray and Carb in May.
Everything from Steel City’s branding and decor to its front of house and back of house layouts has been meticulously thought out. “The blue collar working man concept ties in with our window décor,” Carb says of vinyl graphics of gray mechanical fittings adorning the front and rear entrance windows. “It’s gears and we lightened it up so it’s not so heavy — softer edges.”
A local graphic artist designed a main Steel City logo displaying the Keystone symbol as a slice of pizza, while each location has its own logo replicating a union patch with the store’s address number, such as the North Charleston restaurant is “Local 8600.”
The restaurant lies in the back of a newly developed commercial center on a busy thoroughfare, tucked directly behind a bank, with an abundance of parking. All of the exterior doors are made from steam valves a local metal artist created.
Inside, the attention to detail aligns with the Steel City concept and functionality is cohesive throughout. All of the dark wood booths and tables have clothing hooks. The large window from the bar onto the 40-seat patio is garage style and the railing under the bar is gas piping. Memorabilia and photographs line every wall. Carb says they sought out one-of-a-kind artifacts. “We’ve gone through the archives at US Steel and into private collections,” he says, adding that they even tapped friends and family for unique items that represent where they came from.
A game room just off the dining area attracts children, especially when the store has a wait. It’s not a revenue generator, Carb says, but it helps keep Steel City top of mind with parents. The two restaurants draw a mix of clientele, with a strong emphasis on families, young adults and military personnel.
Staff pays particular attention to its regulars, often knowing them by name and usual orders. Frequency is really good, Carb says. Some even come in three to four days a week. Fans have even found their names placed onto the Steel City menu, after suggesting an item. “We want to be the Cheers of Charleston,” he says.
Steel City owners took a methodical approach with the $750,000 build out of its North Charleston store. With an MBA in accounting, Gray handles all of the managerial accounting for the company. While planning the new location, owners noticed an issue with its Mt. Pleasant store. It was only generating a $900 hour, though wait times often exceeded 45 minutes. “We had a lot of six tops and only two people were in the six tops,” he says.
They solved the problem with the new location. The North Charleston store was strategically designed for optimal seating configuration. “What is the most optimal number of tables and sizes of tables to go inside a certain square footage,” Gray questioned, adding that he conducted a regression analysis to find the answer. He says, they came up with the perfect balance of four tops, six tops and flex seating. North Charleston’s new metric system has generated a $1,700 hour.
Steel City’s new store grossed $2.4 million from March 2012 to March 2013; while its Mt. Pleasant restaurant accrued $2.2 million. Add in $150,000 in catering and companywide, Steel City earned $4.75 million.
The pizzeria generates 55 percent of its sales from dine-in, 20 percent from carryout and the remainder comes from delivery and catering. Delivery could turn into catering, Gray says. Anything over $150 is considered catering. An onsite coordinator oversees the process and works with the Steel City staff to fill orders. A temporary staffing agency has also been contracted to handle staffing catered events.
Both locations are primed for high volume with massive kitchens — 1,500 square feet at North Charleston with its deck ovens able to churn out 24 16-inch pizzas in 12 minutes. Every station is stocked with all items needed so employees don’t have to leave their designated areas, Carb says, adding that they put a great deal of forethought into the steps and motions of Steel City’s kitchen operation.
An emphasis on kitchen efficiencies has been ideal for the sheer size of Steel City’s menu with nearly 100 offerings from appetizers, salads, pizzas and pastas to calzones, Weggies, subs, burgers and wraps. At the heart of its menu, Steel City offers thick, thin, stuffed and take and bake pizzas, with a few of its most popular pies available by the slice. Specialty pizzas include the Bacon Cheeseburger with red sauce, ground angus beef, bacon, red onion, dill pickle chips, Cheez Whiz, and Monterey jack and cheddar cheese ($18.75 for 16-inch) and the Ultimate White with olive oil, garlic, a blend of provolone, mozzarella and Parmesan, ricotta cheese, spinach, artichoke and tomatoes ($16.95 for a 16-inch).
Even with an abundance of items, Carb says they won’t put anything on the menu unless they feel it’s second to none. Weggie sandwiches — using house pizza dough, topped with ingredients, folded and baked — are a big hit. The Godfather is filled with pepperoni, ham, genoa salami, cappicola, lettuce, tomato, red onion and house made Italian dressing. Its Zeppoli (lightly fried dough puffs drizzled with vanilla, caramel and raspberry sauce and topped with powdered sugar — $5.95) is a fan favorite. System-wide, Steel City’s food costs hover at 28 to 30 percent. Offering appetizer happy hour specials has driven up food costs, Carb says, adding that when the price of high food cost apps like its popular chicken wings are factored in. But, it’s a give and take, he contends — the happy hour can also drive traffic and increase overall sales volumes,.
Steel City offers specials geared towards non-menu items and packaging. “We don’t get into the coupon game.” Gray says.
The company only spends 0.9 percent of its sales on traditional avenues of marketing. Last year, Steel City only produced one advertisement that featured photos of neighborhood Pittsburgh pizzerias that the partners grew up near.
Instead, 5.5 percent of sales go towards contributions, special events and community sponsorships. “Let’s get behind community organizations and be a part of the community and every market we go into we are going to become the staple in that community,” Gray says.
Steel City’s partners and employees work diligently to deliver a consistent message. “It’s great food in a clean, comfortable, casual atmosphere, fairly priced and friendly service to every guest, every table, every time,” Gray says.
Gray credits the Steel City team. He says, everything centers on its 115-member staff. Owners strive to provide worker incentives by paying well above industry standards. In addition to traditional contests, when the owners receive perks like t-shirts and gym and golf memberships they pass them onto the staff, as well as anything else they can trade or barter. Gray and Carb have even brought a couple of staff members to the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.
With Steel City’s structure — as the company grows — owners look to help deserving longtime employees pursue their own store. Gray says the partners already have two more stores in the works.
Denise Greer is associate editor of Pizza Today.