Photos by Josh Keown
Here at Pizza Today, we’ve had a lot of great work trips that allow us to mix business and pleasure. Rarely, however, have we had as much fun as when Brad Edwards, managing partner of America’s Incredible Pizza Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, handed us two of its signature game cards and turned us loose in the 68,600-square-foot pizzeria and game room. Art director Josh Keown and I looked at each other and it was ON!
And there was plenty of fun to be had. This concept pairs a buffet with themed dining rooms adjacent to an amusement center. In all, most of the 18 AIPC locations average about 40- to 50,000 square feet. The Tulsa location is its largest –– it’s here that the company focuses its training efforts. “For the size we are, and the location we have, we’re kind of like Tulsa’s Disney World,” Edwards says.
Former Gatti’s Pizza franchisees Rick and Cheryl Barsness founded the company in Springfield, Missouri in 2002. Today, there are 18 AIPC units in the US and Mexico. Edwards says the Tulsa store averages more than $7 million in sales annually with most of the stores operating autonomously. Of the 18 existing stores, five are company-owned. Sales company- wide weigh in at more than $60 million.
The 1950s themed dining rooms –– a darkened drive-in theater design, a high school gym, a retro diner and a homey family room –– all feature movie screens or televisions showing family entertainment. (There are also 10 party rooms available.) Each store also features a 1957 Chevy as an added effect.
On the afternoon Pizza Today visited, we saw not only kids dining with their parents, but also a group of construction workers, a team of office professionals on their lunch break and an elderly couple enjoying the buffet. With such a varied clientele, the buffet goes beyond pizza to include a salad bar, a pasta bar and homestyle favorites like mashed potatoes, hot dogs and even enchiladas. The result? On a busy Saturday in January or February, they’re apt to do in one day what its competition average in a month. “I’ve had to hold the lines on Saturdays and not let anybody else in,” Edwards says.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business all my life and to go from a day like this, where I’m lucky to do $5,000 –– which to most restaurants is probably really good –– to having a Saturday where I might do $40- to $60,000, those are extremes.”
Edwards is quick to point out that “we’re not a kids’ hangout,” he says. “Just like our motto says, we’re about family and friends. We bring family and friends back together.”
To increase traffic during slow periods, the restaurants don’t always require purchase of the buffet, requiring non-diners to wear the bands and hold keys or an ID as collateral. To receive their item back, they have to have the wristband intact.
Still, specials increase dine-in, though each store differs. For example, “Thursdays, if you buy the buffet and put $25 on the card, we’ll double it and make it a $50 card,” Edwards explains. “Sunday evening used to be very slow for us, so after 4 p.m., if you buy a $5 card, it gets you unlimited attractions until we close.”’
Many of the specials are available via e-mail marketing, and the company has recently increased its social media presence as well. In new markets, AIPC does some television advertising. “We focus on word of mouth and we focus on our e-blasts,” Edwards says.
With so much going on in-house, it’s easy for the food quality to get lost amidst the neon lights and ringing bells. How important is food quality? “No offense to Chuck E. Cheese –– a lot of people take their fi ve and under there, but they’re not going there for the pizza. They’re going there for the birthday parties and the games. A lot of people qualify us to be like a CiCi’s Pizza, a Chuck E. Cheese –– they think we’re the same thing. Then all of a sudden they come here and they say, ‘Wow! I didn’t realize they had such good food.
“Originally, we didn’t have all of what we call the pizzazz –– from the hot dogs, to the taco bar to the green beans, the corn, the homemade mashed potatoes. We didn’t have all that, but we started adding it. … Rick (Barsness) and the founders were very big on the quality of food. They thought that was very important. That’s what’s going to get a family in, too. If Dad has to go to a party, he at least wants to eat something that’s good.”
The pizza buffet covers the gamut of offerings, from the kid-friendly plain cheese to jalapeños and hearty meats.
Baked goods, such as the company’s signature cinnamon rolls and cookies, are made in-house, as is its pizza dough, bread pudding and soups. (They used to make pizza sauce in-house as well but now have a vendor create its proprietary recipe.) Employees are trained to work at various stations, with the opportunity to move up over time. “On a Saturday, I can guarantee nobody puts out more food than we do,” Edwards says.
Aside from the dining portion of the restaurant, the game room is its biggest draw. Sure there are arcade and redemption games, but AIPC takes it further with an XD Theater (a 3-D motion ride), a bowling alley, miniature golf, bumper cars and its biggest attraction –– go-karts.
“To me, what makes us better than other family entertainment centers is that we have high standards,” Edwards says. “We have high standards in our food (and) we have high standards to our cleanliness. We have high standards in keeping our games up. We have a tech who works here in the store just like a manager and if I have more than two games down, I have a problem. The same applies to my go-karts.”
It’s a continual circuit for the managers walking the floor who are looking for problems. Many times, says Edwards, it’s as simple as consumers not understanding how to use the attractions’ game cards. Each of the games and attractions operate using the cards and have variable prices ranging from 35 cents to $4.50 for the go-karts, which is AIPC’s top seller. (Second is the Big Bass Wheel –– diners spin a wheel much like that on “The Price is Right” and receive redemption tickets according to their winning spin.)
AIPC’s game cards are reloadable (and stations in the game room make that a breeze). Collection stations near the exits encourage recycling.
Current expansion plans are varied. They’ve looked at property in Davenport, Iowa, as well as Utah. “I just got a call from one of my VPs and they’re bringing in a potential franchisee from Australia,” Edwards says. One unit is located in Mexico, with more planned in the future.
“Rick and Cheryl are real good at picking the right location,” says Edwards, who says that his store is located at the busiest intersection in town. He adds that the company is open-minded enough to all them to fi t operations to their own needs and communities.
“Rick is very much the vision and the dream of our concept,” Edwards says. “He has an immense passion, and it’s very contagious. To be honest with you, to work with us, I think you have to have a lot of passion. A lot is expected of you. … I’d have a hard time investing $6 to $8 million of my own money and not be in my own store every day.”
The managing partners act as district managers of their own stores, overseeing salaried directors in the game room, the kitchen and the front of the house (some locations include a party director as well). Those are backed by teams of hourly assistant managers. Edwards started as a game room manager and within two years was a managing partner of his own store. He has a 22-year-old assistant director who came on as a busboy and is being groomed for his own store in the future.
“If you have the opportunity to relocate,” Edwards says, “the opportunity is there.” ❖
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.
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