2011 June: Man on the Street

I’ve been in a real rut lately. There are dozens of quality pizzerias in my area, but when my friends want to go out for a pie or two (or six) we end up at the same place every time. It isn’t even close to my apartment; I have to take the subway six stops just to get to the right neighborhood. The prices aren’t any different from the other pizzerias in town, so it’s not like I’m going there to save money. There isn’t even a clever loyalty program to encourage repeat visits. So why am I so in love with this pizzeria? The answer is so incredibly simple and requires no additional costs or equipment. More importantly, it has the power to attract the most coveted of all customers: the ones who come back for more.

When I go out, I’m looking for more than just good food –– I’m looking for an experience. Part of that experience has to do with the physical nature of the space. I don’t need plush seating, but it’s nice when a room conveys a singular vibe. The pizzeria I’m currently in love with has funky mismatched chairs and large wooden tables with assorted found objects accenting the space. It’s a far cry from the TGI Friday’s school of decorating, but still conveys a degree of informality. That’s exactly what I want on pizza night because it makes me feel relaxed and ready to enjoy my favorite food without feeling like I’m underdressed.

Once inside, my attention falls on the staff. We all know a pleasant and attentive wait staff is important for any dining experience, but it’s a huge plus when my server goes beyond the call of duty to help me get more out of my stay. This person can give me vital clues about the menu because they (hopefully) have lots of experience eating from it. An insider tip about a favorite dish can get me out of my routine and introduce me to a new favorite dish. I would be forever grateful for the suggestion and you can bet it will influence the tip-o-meter.

I especially like it when the owner or manager takes a moment to stop by the table. There’s no better way to understand a pizzeria than by talking with its owner. I’ve read so many Yelp reviews about how great it was when “the owner stopped by to see what we thought about the pizza.” It’s pretty powerful when someone spends more time talking about meeting the pizzaiolo than they do about eating the pizza. As amazing as a dining experience may be, it can all fall apart in the final moments. Part of the reason I find myself frequenting the same pizzeria is that they make me feel comfortable during the entire visit. I never feel rushed to pay the bill and the bussers aren’t racing to snatch our half-eaten pizza bones. If two pizzerias serve similar food, I’d much rather patronize the one that let me manage my own pace.

So if you already make the best pizza in town and want the edge over your competition, help your customers feel at home with a healthy dose of comfort. A pizzeria with strong human identity is much easier for me to tell my friends about than one with an anonymous and cold vibe. If you keep it easy, you can be sure I’ll be back for more. I’ll probably even bring some friends.

Scott Wiener is Pizza Today’s ‘Man on the Street.’ The most enthusiastic pizza fanatic you’ll ever meet, Scott owns and operates Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City. His column will appear regularly.