While the rest of the U.S. has been mired in a terrible economic slump, it has more or less been business as usual in El Paso, Texas. That’s not to say the city on the border with Mexico hasn’t felt America’s pain, but its location near one of North America’s most dangerous cities, Jaurez, ensures that El Paso receives plenty of federal attention.
Border patrol, drug enforcement, FBI and just about every other federal agency that exists has established operations in El Paso. Nearby Fort Bliss, meanwhile, is a sprawling Army base that is currently undergoing a massive renovation and restructuring. The $5 billion project pumps millions into the local economy and will result in Ft. Bliss’s population increasing by 300 percent by 2012. In fact, El Paso, currently the nation’s 22nd largest city in terms of population, is the third fastest-growing city in the U.S.
Suffice to say, this West Texas town popularized in old-time country music is a great place to do business these days. Just ask the folks at Ardovino’s Pizza and Italian Restaurant. Owned by brothers Michael and Carl Myers, the company’s three stores combine to record $3.6 million in gross sales.
“It’s growing,” Carl Myers says, referring both to his business and the economy/ population of El Paso. “Fort Bliss is going to be the largest military base in the world when they’re finished expanding it.”
Ardovino’s was founded in 1961 and established a reputation for quality pizza. After the Myers brothers took it over decades later, they began looking for ways to grow the business. The learning process was slow and steady, but the results have been solid.
“The first year, we just took that time to focus on the business and the recipes,” Carl Myers says. “We bought the original recipes and didn’t want to make big changes to that. But we did come up with new pizzas for the menu, and we began by using the original recipe as a base for them. We expanded on that base for the new pizzas we created.”
While Ardovino’s first two stores are smaller units, the new $1.2 million prototype location seats 180. Venturing into a larger full-service store has been yet another learning experience.
“The real estate market was down when we bought the land for this location, so that allowed us to get a really good spot,” says Carl Myers. “This store is our prototype and represents where we want to go in the future with new stores. We’ve learned a lot from it, but luckily it’s done real well for us.”
At a time when much of the industry was seriously hurting, Myers said Ardovino’s had a respectable showing in 2009 in terms of sales. Though the company couldn’t reach comp increases, it was able to limit the dip in business to manageable levels.
“We were down less than five percent last year, and we were real happy with that,” says Myers. The prototype store no doubt helped things trend closer to positive, and Myers expects a turnaround this year to produce better numbers. The coming influx of Army families to Fort Bliss certainly won’t hurt prospects, either. Ardovino’s plans to capture that crowd with incentives to military personnel — a must-have marketing gesture for foodservice operations in towns like El Paso.
“If someone comes in and they’re in uniform, they get a 10 percent discount,” says Myers. Taking care of customers, whether military or civilian, is a point of emphasis at Ardovino’s. Realizing that most successful pizzerias are built on repeat patronage from families, the company has adopted a personal marketing strategy.
“We most definitely have relationships with our customers,” says Myers. “We know their names and they know the names of our employees and their kids. Our managers are constantly walking the floor and checking in on things. They aren’t hiding back in offices.”
Each Ardovino’s location has a primary store manager and an assistant. That leadership group is overseen by a general manager who reports to the Myers brothers. According to Carl, the managers are an intregal part of the company’s success.
“They lead by example,” he says. “If there’s a spill on the floor, they’re the first ones to go grab a mop and clean it up.”
The focus at Ardovino’s isn’t just on customer service, but on food quality and healthful options as well.
Pizza accounts for about 70 percent of sales, though the restaurants also offer salads, soup, sandwiches, lasagna, dessert, beer and wine.
“The pizzas are healthy,” says Myers. “You can still order pizza here even if you’re watching what you eat. Plus, our salads are excellent.”
One of the most popular and healthful offerings is the specialty pie listed as “Joanna's Pizza” on the menu.
It features spinach, fresh tomato, garlic, onion, pesto, feta cheese and olive oil. It’s priced at $9 for a 9-inch small, $14 for a 12-inch medium and $18 for a 15-inch large.
“Our crust is 50 percent wheat, and it’s a thin crust, which helps make it healthier,” explains Myers.
Since the dough — and just about everything else served at Ardovino’s — is made in house, Myers says the company’s stores are all serviced by a commissary. The commissary makes the dough and salad dressings, and it packs ingredient bags that are added into the sauce, which is cooked in each store daily. This provides the stores with consistency and will allow the company to more easily expand in the future, which Myers says it intends to do.
“We definitely have room for growth in our commissary,” he says. “We want to grow the company, but we’d like to keep it all company-owned for at least three to five more stores. We want to make sure we are very well proven before we franchise.” ❖
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief of Pizza Today.
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