Photos by Rick Daugherty
If Luke Bailey’s Davison, Michigan, pizzeria is suffering in the wake of America’s collapsing auto industry, his 2009 sales don’t show it. His delco store, The Pizza Company, is located next door to Flint, Michigan — home to a host of financially hobbled suppliers, such as Delphi.
“We’re up 7 percent on the year, and that’s great,” Bailey says. “But you can believe that’s coming from going at it hard as an owner-operator. Sales are up, but I make a good profit when I’m doing the cooking.”
After 20 years in business, Bailey is learning a lot about his business and where he could improve. This year he bought a serious POS system whose detailed reports revealed some shocking information: Despite 2009’s top-line increase, his appetizer sales are way off compared to ’08. “Our ticket average has dropped considerably, by at least 10 percent. And of that, I’d say appetizers are off about 30 percent.”
Bailey uses the new system to prompt phone workers to suggest onion rings, fries, breadsticks and especially low-food-cost dipping sauces. But he admits he needs to do better.
“Without the POS prompts, I think we’d have seen a 50-percent decrease in appetizer sales,” he says. “It’s just that tough on people right now.”
Fortunately, Michelle Burt is telling a different story about appetizer sales at Spanky’s Pizza in Freemont, Michigan. Her store sells an average of 130 orders of breadsticks a day, partly “because they’re so good, and partly because we mention it to every table,” she says.
Be it a phone call to the restaurant or a server’s visit to the table, customers are asked, “Have you ever had Spanky’s breadsticks before?” If they haven’t, servers say, “Well, I’m going to treat you to a half order of breadsticks today. I promise you’ll love them. And if you want to bump that up to a full order, it only costs two bucks.”
Says Burt: “You’d be surprised how many people say, ‘I’ll take the full order.’ We do the same thing with our wings. If they’ve never had them, we say, ‘I can give you five for free, but if you want to up it to 10 for two bucks more, you can do that.’”
Diana Coutu calls that whole or partial giveaway a “freemium”: guests get a free taste now that may entice them to buy more now or on a return visit. Coutu did that when conducting a trial of mini-pizzas at her shop, Diana’s Gourmet Pizza, in Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada. The appetizer-sized pies were designed for snacking rather than for meals, and they’re significantly smaller than her well-known, thicker-crust pizzas. “Not everyone’s into a big meal all the time, so we wanted to see if they’d buy something smaller, like an appetizer,” she says.
Cassano’s Pizza King in Dayton, Ohio, is doing much the same to promote some new wing flavors, says vice president Chris Cassano. Customers who spend the extra money on a large Deluxe pizza are treated to a pound of free wings.
“People don’t mind paying for things that they know, but they don’t want to try things they’re unfamiliar with,” Cassano says. “That way they buy the Deluxe, which is good for us, and they get free wings. It works for everybody.”
Operators say anyone can suggestive-sell appetizers, but more often than not, customers buy when the sale is done with some gentle and friendly finesse. Suggesting someone buy an order of cheese sticks in addition to what they’ve already requested bears the ring of an add-on because it’s presented by itself. But when bundled with a large pizza and a soda, however, it becomes a bargain rather than a ticket booster.
Cassano says some customers just want to get a pizza and get off the phone, but most are open to some friendly persuasion. “If you can make them feel like you’ve got their best interests in mind, they’ll listen,” he says. “If you say, ‘I bet an order of hot wings would go great with that pizza,’ it’s a whole lot better than saying, ‘Want wings with that?’”
Though his customer service reps are well trained using basic scripts, Chuck Thorp wants his staff to personalize their sales pitches.
“I don’t like a ‘machine’ approach where it sounds rigid or all the same,” says Thorp, CEO of 54-unit DoubleDave’s Pizzaworks in Austin, Texas. Like Bailey, Thorp also reports soft appetizer sales over the past year. “People either call in or order at the counter, so I like to encourage (our employees) to have personality when they interface with the customer.”
Most every operator said they use incentives, such as contests, to encourage suggestive sales. But while those challenges are helpful to some, they can be demotivating to others.
“When we do contests, we post people’s rank so they can see how they’re doing through the week,” says Cassano. But when one phone sales ace (who’s no longer with the chain) kept beating his peers, “all the other employees are looking at the rankings and thinking, ‘I’ll never catch him. Why try?’
“We’ve tried to change that some by doing it in teams, and that helps. But, really, we want them to do it as part of their job.”
(Try bundling an appetizer with a large pizza and soda. Your internet ordering system may already offer add-ons, but customers often percieve bundles as a bargin.)
When menu consultant Greg Rapp hears operators complaining about customers ordering appetizers instead of entrees, he knows they’re not looking closely at their numbers. Rapp says many fail to understand the importance of gross margin per customer and instead look only at the total ticket.
For example, if a table of four shares a $20 pizza that has a 20-percent food cost, the gross profit per customer is $4. But if three guests share a $15 pizza (with the same food cost, thus netting the same $4 per customer), and the fourth gets a $7 appetizer with a 25-percent food cost, the gross profit for that customer is $5.25 — a 12.5 percent increase for the whole table.
“In a lot of cases you do better to sell someone an appetizer than an entrée when the margin is better on that item,” Rapp says. “Print out a list for your staff of the highest-margin appetizers you have, and encourage them to push those. It’ll boost their checks and tips, and it’ll increase your profits.” ❖
Steve Coomes is a former and a freelance writer living in Louisville, ticket editor at Pizza Today Kentucky.
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