2009 September: This Too Shall Pass

I have been asked to summarize many of my beliefs and words of wisdom as if this were my last shot to speak to you. I have had the great honor to intercommunicate with our wondrous industry for the past 15 years. It has been quite a ride, and I would not have traded it for any other endeavor. Since this could be my last shot (hey, you never know!), allow me to share with you my thoughts on this great business and some insights into what I see in the future. Let’s start at the beginning. When you opened your pizzeria, you had a dream: to be your own boss and do what stirred your soul. Your calling was making praiseworthy pizza. Somehow you begged, borrowed and ran up your credit cards to birth your “baby.” You were passionate about your pizza and loved your customers and crew. You bought yourself a pretty good job, but the hours were long and the pay was slim. Additionally, the bumps in the learning curve road were expensive. I could have paid for a Harvard MBA degree with just the penalties and interest I’ve paid to the IRS.

Then reality kicked in. The stuff that no one ever told you about started to happen. You may have been betrayed by your friends or members of your family. Some of your customers left you for the cheap pizza down the street. A few of your most trusted employees started stealing you blind and ended up competing against you using your money to finance their shop openings. Government rules, codes and regulations gave you ulcers and sleepless nights. If you were forced to terminate a slacker or thief, you were obligated to pay them unemployment unless you kept a meticulous daily log. Why is staying in business so darn complicated? And on top of that, the worldwide economy has tanked. Our guests’ expectations have never been higher. One mediocre experience can be the tipping point that sends them packing with their scarce, hard-earned dining-out dollars. Every Tom, Dick and Harry wants a piece of your action. The big and little box retailers have researched pizza and want in. They think they have the know-how and buying power to put you out of business. It seems so easy from the outside looking in. It really is not that hard to pass off sucky sauce, cheese and bread as pizza, is it? We observe it happening every day and shake or heads.

The best advice I ever got when I started my business came from my step-dad. He told me: “Always make the best pizza in town or the cheapest. If you are in the middle, the lower-priced competitors will pull your customers away from you based on price. The higher quality places will jerk your customers away from you with a better product. You will often have to make decisions on what ingredients make the best pie. Always go with the best. You will always have customers at your door and be competition proof.” This became one of my cornerstone beliefs. I’d put my pie up against anyone’s. Every day was smack-down day in my town — and I loved it. This attention to the entire process made it possible to not only guarantee our pizza, but to also guarantee every one of my competitors’, too. Not a week goes by that I’m not reminded of the high standards we held at Big Dave’s Pizza. It’s been over eight years since I sold my shop, and townsfolk still offer unsolicited compliments when they see me. I’m humbled. At the same time, I’m proud of the legacy my crew and I created. Dad would be proud, I know.

So you might be asking: what is the meaning of all this, Big Dave? Believe me when I say that these trying times will pass. In one form or another, I have seen every one of these business and personal cycles come and go in the last 40 years. The current times are nothing new. It is just history repeating itself with a little twist. I want you to calm your mind, close your eyes and go back in time. Remember when you fi rst opened? Remember the fi re in your belly to succeed? Remember how you treated every customer like gold? Remember how you made every pizza with a passion for baking no less than the best? Remember when you personally unlocked the door in the morning and locked it up at closing, every night? I don’t know of any other business that I could have gone into, virtually penniless, and made millions of dollars. I don’t know of any other business that hasn’t totally sold out its zeal for excellence. We are unique. We are really quite blessed to be in the pizza-making family.

All that said, nothing stays the same. Change is constant. You cannot fret or dwell over things that you have zero control over, like the wrecked economy. A “down-in-the-dumps” attitude will be felt by your customers. They are looking for friendly and loving service. You know how to deliver it, so do it.

If this were in fact my last article for Pizza Today, I would make a passionate request to revisit my enduring “Tips of a Pizzeria Survivor”:

  • Live every day as a new day. Just think how prepared you’ll be to rocket your business when this all turns around.
  • Have high standards. There is a temptation to cut corners and ignore the small details. Your customers don’t come to you to get “good.” They come to get “great.” Don’t disappoint them. The difference in the cost of a good pizza and a great pizza is less than fi fty cents. If your pizza isn’t different, you are competing on price and may lose.
  • Marketing only works when the product is very good, different or cheap. You choose. The quickest way I know how to kill a pizza place with average product is to market well. Quality is like religion. You believe in it with all your heart and soul, or you don’t. You are either all in or all out. You can’t straddle the fence for long.
  • Claim ownership of what goes on within your four walls. Every action and guest experience should reflect your values and dream when you fi rst opened. Hire better employees than yourself. Don’t rotate re-treads. Lead by example and do some dirty work from time to time. Keep the troops pumped up. Remind them why they work for the best place in town. Reward them for above and beyond service. Smiles and enthusiasm spill over and touch everyone around. Compliments go a long way.
  • Figure out how to make money. Just because you make a killer pizza doesn’t automatically ensure you will be able to pay your bills and produce an income for your family. I surrounded myself with experts in their fi elds to mentor me. I sought out the absolute best accountant, attorney, computer guru and marketing person. If they were worth their salt, they more than earned their fees by showing me the short cuts to success.
  • Treat your customers better than family. Customers have choices. Currently they have more options than disposable income. Give them your undivided attention and get rid of any rule or policy that is stupid. Why not learn their names and preferences? Make it a game with your crew. Memorize 50 customers’ names on sight and get a $50 bill. Memorize 20 and get a new job. Give you staff business cards so they can comp strangers, acquaintances and friends. I’ve never given away a free pizza that didn’t come back to me fi ve fold. Always say, “Thanks, I’m grateful for your business.”
  • Choose not to take part in this recession. Remind yourself every day that your positive attitude will carry you through the day and make your business bulletproof. Your biggest competition is not the guy down the street, but the person who stares back at you in the mirror. This is the New Normal. Nothing stays the same. Adapt and overcome. 09.09.09