Ask Thomas Marr if he launched his business with a massive advertising campaign, and he shakes his head and offers a slight smile. His company, Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza in Washington, D.C., is a well-branded concept. As for marketing, though, Marr keeps it basic. He prefers to divert his resources elsewhere.
“We try not to advertise too much,” says Marr. “We simply can’t get the value from advertising that larger companies can get. The larger guys can put out an ad and cover 300 stores with it, but that value isn’t there for us. We can’t get enough out of the ad to make it worthwhile.
“So instead, what we try to do is get involved in our local communities. We had a night recently where we gave 25 percent of our proceeds to a high school crew team. Basically, they advertised it to the whole school and the community list that they have. We got our name out there and got credit for the goodwill. Plus, a lot of people that didn’t know us came in and tried us out.
“Then, a couple of weeks ago I did a ‘Farm to School’ cooking demo for a local elementary school. I went there and put together one of our antipasti dishes for all the kids. I talked to them about the benefits of eating locally. We buy produce from a local, organic, co-op farm. So I told the kids about the farms, told them that there are several farms all around that provide fresh produce that is healthy.
Marr and his business partners also refrain from the discount game that pervades the pizza industry.
“When you discount your product,” says Marr, “I don’t know how much that is perceived in a positive way. I think people just say, ‘Oh, great ... wow. I get 10 percent off’.”
What customers at Pete’s New Haven look for, insists Marr, isn’t a cheap price, but a high-end twist on a comfort food. Before entering the pizza category, Marr was a fine-dining chef. He says people might be surprised at just how much the two sectors cross over. At least that’s how it works out at Pete’s, where Marr takes a from-scratch, quality-first approach.
“We caramelize our onions, for example,” says Marr. “There’s a lot of labor in getting in whole onions, peeling them, julienning them, and then cooking them for two hours in pots until we get them caramelized. We don’t just take onions and cut them up, or buy them already sliced and throw them on a pizza. We roast our peppers. Our mushrooms are a blend of wild mushrooms that are sauteed with herbs and garlic and oil.
“I’ve had plenty of people walk in here — higher end cooks from higher end restaurants — and they look at it as a part-time job. Then they come to me and say, ‘We cook more from scratch here than we do in the fine-dining restaurant that I work in at night.
“That’s what really helps us, though. We go that extra step. We only use all-natural ingredients. We only use antibiotic- and hormone-free dairy and meat products. We use china and glassware in the restaurants, and we use biodegradable to-go ware. Those are some of the big things we do to set ourselves apart.
“I mean, we really make pretty much everything in house. We make our own sausage, we grind the meats ourselves, we make our own gelato and desserts. We’re a casual restaurant — we’re just a quick-casual pizzeria — but we really focus on going that extra step.”
That thinking extends to the soda listing as well.
“We don’t use Coke or Pepsi or any of those products, because we don’t want high-fructose corn syrup,” says Marr. “We use an all-natural soda company.”
The menu at Pete’s, as the company’s name implies, is stocked with New Haven-style pizza. Salads, panini, pasta and house-made desserts also tempt diners.
The pizzas are mostly priced in the $18.95 to $24.95 range, though there is a $7.95 offering highlighted on the menu and designed to appeal to value-conscious consumers (it features soppressata, ricotta and mozzarella). Slices are a popular option as well, particularly at lunch ($2.50-$3.25).
“Most of the credit for our pizza goes to my partner (Joel Mehr — there’s also a third partner, Tri Nguyen),” says Marr. “His wife is from New Haven, and my wife’s family is from Connecticut as well. I never thought much about pizza in the general area, but when my partner came to me about opening a pizza place, we ended up coming together on a hybrid concept where we offer New Haven pizza, but do it in more of an Italian setting where we offer salads, pastas, panini and things like that on the menu.”
Marr adds that while he always wanted to own his own business, he knew he didn’t want to dabble with a fine-dining establishment.
“It’s the least profitable segment of our business,” he asserts. “And it’s the hardest hit in economic downturns. I’ve worked all over. I’ve worked in these places, and I’ve seen it.” u
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at Pizza Today.
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