On a Mission
Tony Roni's polishes branding, mission statement for new era of growth
BY MANDY WOLF DETWILER
PHOTOS BY RICK DAUGHERTY
Philadelphia-based Tony Roni’s doesn’t have dusty mementos lining the walls. It doesn’t focus on microbrewed beer or have a talking slice of pizza as its figurehead. Instead, it’s a small chain of pizzerias focusing on what it deems most important for success –– fantastic food made in a positive atmosphere. The result? Six stores and counting with a total combined sales of $7 million. It seems concentrating on “Great Food with Great Attitude” –– the company’s well-publicized mission statement –– is paying off.
“My background is as a financial planner,” says owner Tony Altomare. “I worked with small businesses … and in about seven years, I learned a lot about attitude, work ethic –– I worked in a great culture. The environment that I worked in was in a very close-knit financial planning company. I learned all my business skills then.”
Fifteen years ago, Altomare gave up that career in finance and dipped his toes into the foodservice industry when he worked with a former client who owned a restaurant. “I learned everything what not to do,” he says. “In my mind, coming out of financial planning, was that I was going to go into this business and I’d be the business brain and I’d be the marketing guy, and he’d be the food guy.”
It turned out that the partnership wasn’t a match, and Altomare opened his own concept, Tony A’s, in 1998. “I started Tony A’s with the idea of having a small, regional chain, and ‘Tony A’ was my nickname growing up,” Altomare says. “We opened up four stores and did real well with it.
“Four years ago, we decided to start growing our company, and we looked into and did research on franchising. I went out and interviewed some of the top franchise companies (like) Saladworks and Hollywood Tans. I met with their CEOs and they gave me some great advice.”
During the course of his research, Altomare learned that the name “Tony’s” was already trademarked as a frozen pizza and too similar to his own concept’s name. “In order to grow and protect the trademark, we looked for a new and creative name,” he says. “We wanted to have ‘Tony’ in it, and it was going to be ‘Tony Pepperoni’s.’ We (shortened) it to Tony Roni’s.”
The concept has caught on. Today, four stores operate as Tony Roni’s and two still hold the Tony A’s name until they can be converted to the new design. .
“I think what makes us special is our culture,” Altomare says. “Our mission statement is ‘Great Food with Great Attitude,’ and one of the things that we preach –– not only to anyone who comes to work for us but also, it’s out there for the public –– is that we live by it. It’s on our uniforms, it’s on our hats, it’s in our manuals. … A lot of companies, including Fortune 500 companies, they create a mission (statement) and it collects dust. They put it in their drawer. … We live by it. It’s simple. You can’t forget it.”
Altomare says each applicant is given a “culture sheet.” And during training, attitude is everything. “We do have very low turnover because of our culture,” he adds. “There are a lot of places where mistakes happen. People get yelled at or screamed at. People quit because they don’t like the boss or they don’t like the way they’re talked to. We don’t have any of that here. The managers are trained for about six months before they become a manager. They learn our culture before they learn how to make pizza. We hire to our culture.”
And it seems to be working. Between it’s two concepts, 53 percent of sales is pizza-based. “We sell a lot of pizza,” says Altomare. Companywide, business is equal parts dine-in, delivery and carryout, although the busiest store’s delivery skyrockets to 45 percent.
Crucial to Tony Roni’s visual appeal is its display case, which requires fresh pizzas throughout the day for visual appeal. Slices are big sellers during lunch. “We have a system where the manager directs the pizza man on how many to put up and which ones,” Altomare says. “If they’re there more than two-and-a-half hours, they’re in the trash.”
Although Philly is probably best-known for its cheesesteak sandwiches, we’re pretty sure Tony Roni’s hand-crafted tomato pies should rank right up there –– and apparently Philadelphia Magazine agrees. It gave the company’s Originale (a thin and crispy crust topped with Tony Roni’s signature tomato pie sauce) a Best of Philly award in 2008. The 16-inch rectangular pizza can be customized with other ingredients –– such as charbroiled chicken, basil or provolone cheese. “We have a great pizza product,” says Altomare. “I love it. It’s phenomenal. Customers obviously rave about it. But the tomato pie, it’s unique. Nobody knows how to make it (and) it’s a very unique product.”
The company is constantly tasting and revamping its core product –– including a “Bigger, Tastier Cheesesteak.” The sandwich’s rolls are made in South Philadelphia, but they sampled five or six different meats and increased the amount of steak in each sandwich. “We’re intense,” Altomare says. “We’re serious about what we do.”
As a result, customers don’t just consider Tony Roni’s an average restaurant. The key? Guerilla and grassroots marketing at the local levels, says Allison Durkin, director of marketing and public relations. Sure, visiting local businesses and handing out menus can be effective, but following up on large catering orders, delivering gift baskets to large corporate customers during the holidays and handing out gift cards keeps Tony Roni’s top of mind where it matters.
“A lot of what we do is work with schools and community organizations,” Durkin says. “We don’t want to just be open on a corner of (Philly suburb) Drexel Hill. We want to be a part of the community. We want people to say ‘that’s my neighborhood pizzeria.’ ”
Throughout the years, they’ve raised more than $15,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and they’ll donate gift baskets for raffle fundraisers. Another successful event is “A Night at Tony’s,” with proceeds benefiting a local school or organization. “The last time we had it, there were families sitting on top of other families,” Durkin says. “You couldn’t move in here, and people had such a great time.
“It’s great for us because we are in a position where we can give back to our customers and show them that we do care.”
Heavy internal marketing ensures that any printed material falls in the right hands –– current customers in-house. “Everybody who walks out of our store walks out with something in their hands,” Altomare says. They send out direct mail pieces every six months.
“I don’t believe in being lost in a coupon book,” Altomare adds. We want our brand to be out there. It costs more money, but you’re not just a page in there.”
Email has also been a successful tool –– they collect email addresses and draw for free pizza for a year from amongst their database.
The company’s sixth store opened last June, but they’re not finished there. A seventh store will soon open early this year. “The thing that’s good about us is that I always say that we’re real. I’m not an owner that thinks I need to have 20 stores or 30 stores. It’s about how we do it and our mission of ‘Great Food with Great Attitude.’ We want to grow, but we don’t want to open four or five stores a year and then the food stinks and the service stinks. We’re building our management team.”
Altomare believes two to three store openings in strategically placed locations in 2011 is feasible. “Our growth plan is just to do it right.”
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.
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