Photos by Josh Keown
Go to International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas and Sean Brauser will be hard to miss. He’s seemingly everywhere, from assisting his peers at the World Pizza Games to orchestrating the ebb and fl ow of the International Pizza Challenge. You’ll also spot his business partner, Jeremy Galvin, whose lofty height is, let’s just say, imposing.
The Ohio duo is deft at keeping the aforementioned Challenge on schedule, but that’s nothing compared to the streamlined way in which they run Romeo’s Pizza, their business back in the Buckeye State.
Founded by Brauser, this company based in the greater Cleveland area began winning “Best Pizza” awards in 2002 and hasn’t looked back since. After getting over some early stumbling blocks (i.e., gaining a better understanding of food costs and how to keep them in line), Romeo’s has taken off quickly and now has 25 locations in and around Cleveland, Canton and Columbus.
In fact, in 2009 when the industry as a whole was struggling, Romeo’s managed to actually double its size (it ended 2008 with 11 locations) thanks to an aggressive, shrewd growth strategy.
“We realized that the best time to gain market share was during an economic downturn,” says Galvin. “We took advantage of existing market conditions.”
Explains Brauser: “A lot of guys were hurting and needed out of the business. We were able to scoop up shops for next to nothing. Pennies on the dollar, literally.”
According to Brauser, Romeo’s Pizza was able to take over ailing or shuttered businesses and convert them for as little as $20,000. “They literally pay for themselves right away,” he says. How?
“We make use of their existing equipment,” says Galvin. “We’re able to go in, clean the place up a little and add our signage and menu. We get in the shop and train the staff on our procedures and then we’re up and running. Within days of opening, our sales are way higher than what they’d been under the previous ownership.”
A grand opening party often helps set the tone, but Brauser says that isn’t the secret to a location’s success. He says he can sum up Romeo’s growth and vivacity in a single word: relentless. More than a catchy company motto, Romeo’s uses the word to define every step it takes.
“It’s our way of life,” says Galvin. “It governs every decision we make, everything we do at the store level.”
“Being good isn’t enough,” adds Brauser. “We’re striving for perfection in every facet of our operation, and we’re relentless about achieving it.”
That sounds like heady talk until you consider the track record. Take the Columbus market, for example. When Brauser got word that a small group of franchisees in that market weren’t happy with their parent pizza company, Romeo’s moved in for the kill and converted the stores. When early questions arose about Romeo’s operational methods and how the company would make its new Columbus area franchisees successful and increase their sales, Brauser made a bold guarantee: “I told them if they followed our procedures and weren’t making the money they needed to make, I’d buy their store from them at full value and they could walk away … I’ve not had to buy any stores.”
In all, Romeo’s has won 18 “Best Pizza” awards in its various markets. Galvin says the company is “relentless” in pursuing the best ingredients on the market and knows better than to attempt cutting costs by bringing in lesser ingredients.
“It all starts with what you’re using to make the pizza,” he says. “That’s why we make the dough ourselves daily in each store and why we use the best sauces, cheeses and toppings around.”
While pizza is the star of the show, the Romeo’s menu includes a variety of appetizers, wings, salads, stromboli, calzones, pasta, subs and even gyros. “Our calzones are real popular,” says Brauser. “They sell real well.”
When it comes to the pizza, the “Butcher Shop” (pepperoni, ham, bacon, meatballs and sausage), “Pepperoni Feast” (double pepperoni and double cheese) and “Great Ranch & Potato” (spicy Italian sausage, caramelized onions, garlic potatoes and ranch-flavored almonds on ranch bacon sauce) are customer favorites. The “Great Ranch & Potato” recipe came together more quickly and easily than one might imagine, says Brauser.
“I created that pizza by going to the grocery store and looking for unusual ingredients that I thought would work well together and make a good pizza,” he admits. “There was a little trial and error, but not much. We knocked it out pretty quickly, really.”
With the menu set and high customer counts, Romeo’s is now turning a focus to online ordering and catering as ways to maximize same-store revenues.
“We want to drag in orders any way we can,” says Galvin. “We just started online ordering and it isn’t available at all of our locations yet. We’re still working on ironing things out and making the process easy for our customers and our stores.”
As for catering, the menu consists of half (feeds 8-12) and full (feeds 16-24) orders of rigatoni, spaghetti, baked ziti, lasagna, scalloped potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, mixed vegetables, garden salad, roast beef with gravy, BBQ chicken and honey glazed ham. Of course, pizza or a sub tray are popular options.
“It’s a great add-on to sales,” Galvin says. “Plus, it adds to your exposure and you get people who haven’t been in the store to try your food.” Of course, adding new locations will continue to be a main driver for Romeo’s.
“We’re looking for franchisees and new opportunities every day,” says Brauser. “Our branding is solid and the sky’s the limit on how many stores we can have. We’re going to continue growing this thing as big as we can.” ❖
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at Pizza Today.
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