Within these walls — Barry’s Pizza and Italian Diner, Houston, Texas
Owner Barry Childers creates the comforts of home at Barry’s Pizza in Houston, Texas
Barry’s Pizza & Italian Diner in Houston, Texas exudes a sense of home from the moment customers enter. From its interior to the staff, the inviting restaurant welcomes its guests.
We experienced that feeling when Pizza Today visited Barry’s Pizza in February.
The restaurant is reminiscent of an old log cabin filled with reclaimed lumber that owner Barry Childers salvaged from barns and an old plantation. A cozy wood-burning fireplace dominates one of its four sectioned dining areas. The interior is decked out in unique collectibles — a church bell, handsaws, a Texas Customs guitar, old sports memorabilia, a water buffalo and an old cruiser bicycle, to name a few. Childers also showcases a huge collection of college pennants hanging in one of its dining areas that also functions as a party room. Shades can be pulled down for private dining parties. The dining areas seat 135. A covered patio, which is nicknamed “the man cave,” adds another 50 seats.
Barry’s Pizza first opened in 1983 a mile away from its current location in a convenience store that had already been transformed into a popular pizzeria. So when Childers took over the space, he continued to serve pizza. “It worked because we were in the black from the day we opened,” he says.
Barry’s moved into its current location 21 years ago. The pizzeria sits on the corner of a high-traffic intersection. “It’s a monumentally expensive corner,” he says, but the move proved to be a milestone. “It was a watershed event in the development of the identity and concept of this restaurant,” he says. “When I made that decision, it felt right. When we opened this, from day one, it felt comfortable. It felt casual, rustic Texas — nothing phony.”
Childers’ 48 employees are at the heart of the concept. His front-of-house team operates like a business within a business. Each employee has business cards. “They get all of the support in terms of good food, good marketing and their job is to make that person feel comfortable and want to come back,” he says.
It’s all about hospitality, Childers says. “My employees do not have canned speeches at the table,” he says. “There’s no speech at the door. Because it’s not sincere.”
Childers sets high standards for his team and the management of his staff. His employee philosophy is, “Treat them right, pay them well and make them feel like participants in the business.”
The key to his employee strategies, he says, “It’s in the hiring. We hire the people not the skill, and then we will train the skill.”
The result is pride in their duties that reverberates throughout the restaurant.
Childers says he doesn’t follow the “latest and greatest trends in the pizza industry,” instead concentrates on remaining current and steady. “My customers prefer the more traditional, tried-and-true pizzas,” Childers says.
The top-three sellers are highlighted at the top of Barry’s gourmet pizza menu. No. 1 is Barry’s Special with pepperoni, mushroom, ham, bell peppers, onion and Italian sausage ($20.79 for a medium). The second most popular is Heather’s Firehouse named after Childers’ wife who serves as Barry’s corporate controller. The pizza is topped with pepperoni, Italian sausage, portabella mushrooms, roasted red pepper, roasted onion and Asiago cheese ($20.99 for a medium). The Meatza with pepperoni, Italian sausage, ham and ground beef ($20.79 for a medium) round out the top three.
Hand-tossed crust is, by far, the most popular, but Barry’s has a strong following for its Sicilian deep dish that is similar to a Detroit-style with its red sauce on top. Sicilian-style accounts for a third of pizza sales. Pizza represents about 70 percent of Barry’s food sales.
Pasta offerings also reflect commonly menued dishes, like the lasagna ($11.99), spaghetti with meatballs ($11.49) and the fettuccini Alfredo ($10.99).
Barry’s sells a lot of chicken wings ($9.79). The wings are fresh and he chooses larger 10-to-1 wings, Childers says. They are baked, marinated in house-made Italian dressing and fried to order.
Another hit is the Antipasto Salad with capicola, Genoa salami, prosciutto, tomato and provolone on a bed of lettuce and topped with olives, Italian peppers, artichoke hearts, feta and Italian dressing ($10.99).
Childers evaluates his menu twice a year, breaking it down by stars, workhorses, challenges and dogs. “We typically every six months will drop two and add two,” he says.
He is diligent about keeping his operational figures in check. He keeps food costs steady at 21.2 percent and his total prime cost under 52 percent. Though, he explains, “I’m more concerned with the dollar contribution than I am the food cost. You can’t take percentages to the bank.” He would rather have a higher food cost item with a higher dollar contribution than a lower food cost item with a lower dollar contribution.
Barry’s has a well-received beer program that accounts for six percent of the pizzeria’s total sales. Its bar has 17 taps — 15 of which are craft. The pizzeria offers unique growlers that Childers modeled after one he found while traveling in Germany years prior.
Childers applies a four-walls marketing approach, focusing on its returning patrons. “It’s all about the experience in here.” Driven by the customer experience, Childers’ office manager frequently monitors Facebook and review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, which he says are both a blessing and a bane. “If the review is less than good, we’ll respond to them, try to correct the problem, invite them back in and make sure that they have a good experience,” he says.
Thriving for 30 years hasn’t been easy at Barry’s Pizza, which generates about $2.2 million in annual sales. “There was some heartache along the way as I opened and closed stores,”
Childers says. He opened two other Barry’s Pizzas with expensive buildouts in locations that, he says, turned out to be wrong for the business. “It set me back 15 years, but that is life,” he adds.
And, in 2009, a fire ignited on the front exterior and spread up to Barry’s roof, destroying one room that — after rebuild — has been named Heather’s Firehouse. Thankfully, he says, he had recently replaced an old roof that might have sent the entire restaurant ablaze. Barry’s was able to reopen the day after the fire.
Nearly six years ago, Childers licensed a Barry’s Pizza in Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport, a venue that has made his brand even more recognizable. Though both locations are listed on Barry’s pizza boxes, the airport unit is operated independently.
Barry’s Pizza leads and participates in a number of philanthropic endeavors, but Childers says, he doesn’t boast about them. “Most stuff you never hear about,” he adds.
Childers’ company dream is to be able to put together a disaster relief team with a kitchen trailer and storage trailer to dispatch to disaster areas. He says that it’s not something he can do by himself and he’s currently working with vendors and friends to make it a reality.
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.