Photo by Josh Keown
When Wisconsin-based Toppers Pizza opens a new location, the company makes a crazy promise: free food for a year for the first 50 people in line for the company’s grand opening.
Prospective customers respond in a crazy way: they camp outside the restaurant, sometimes as much as 24 hours ahead of the opening day, says Scott Iversen, director of marketing for Toppers Pizza Inc.
The first location with which the
company tried this technique was in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. And yes, customers camped out, in December, in Wisconsin, for as much as an entire day ahead of the opening –– just for free food. “It was more like a party in the parking lot, and people were hanging out with their friends,” Iversen says. “Then people associate that good time with the Toppers brand. Those first 50 customers become brand ambassadors in the market, telling their friends and family about it.”
For Toppers, it’s a great introduction to the company’s sandwiches and pizza, but also a way to introduce the public to its wacky atmosphere. “In markets where we have stores already, we have an almost cult-like following,” Iversen says. “To communicate that in new markets, we wanted something to showcase that personality.”
For pizza restaurants, a grand opening is a chance to differentiate your food from your competitors. “Making your grand opening memorable is a good way to do that,” says Scott Anthony, a restaurant consultant and owner of Fox’s Pizza Den in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Promote and showcase what’s unique about your food, including special dishes, unique toppings or sauces, in flyers you create or advertising ahead of the grand opening, he advises.
Many of your customers will come from the neighborhoods near your store, Anthony says. “No matter what, plan on making it a community event,” he insists. “That will get you more help with the advertising and promotion of it. I would go to business neighbors and try to get prizes donated, as well as prizes from my own operation by coming up with gift certificates for other prizes. Anything you can have to attract attention, especially on the sidewalk, is a good thing.” A small band or mascot can be good choices to draw interest, he adds.
A grand opening doesn’t have to be expensive, according to
Anthony. You can create flyers on a home computer and distribute them in the neighborhoods. Join your local chamber of commerce and enlist their help in getting the word out. The largest expense will be the food you give away and the staff costs for any sort of soft opening party.
Eric Fosse, founder of Chicago-based HomeMade Pizza, tries to attend each grand opening. His company owns 27 stores in Illinois, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. The stores sell take and bake pizza made with all-natural ingredients. To help the public quickly grasp the concept, Fosse’s company bought a classic black pickup truck and fills the back of it with pints of fresh tomatoes that customers are invited to take during the grand opening, along with a salad and a pizza.
Fosse himself usually mans a grill outside on the sidewalk, cooking pizzas and giving away samples as the crowd waits in line. A coloring table is set up for children, and the store hangs the best pictures inside. “We want to become part of the fabric of the neighborhood,” he says. “We want them to know that we’re there for them, and doing something different. It’s a unique opportunity for them to bake dinner at home themselves, and take credit for it, without doing the work.”
The first two days, the restaurant gives away the pizza and salad, and the third night of the grand opening, the store is open for business. Fosse says the stores give away 600 to 800 pizzas per night, and customers stand in line for up to two hours to get free food. He relies on flyers in the neighborhoods near the restaurants to get the word out, and relies on his new store staff to distribute those flyers. “The best advertising is the pizza itself,” he says. “Our customers who try it also become missionaries for our restaurant, where they have it, and go home and tell their friends.”
For restaurants that do lots of takeout and delivery, planning a mock rush can be a great way to get ready for a grand opening. Toppers goes to businesses near a new restaurant location and asks those at the business to call and order a certain item off of the menu at a certain day and time –– switching out the items at each business so that everything on the menu is ordered at some point. The food is free, of course, and it gets the word out that the restaurant is coming to town –– and delivers. “It allows them to catch any glitches that we may have missed in training,” Iversen says. “The best thing, from a marketing perspective, is it’s sampling.”
Secrets of a soft opening
Restaurateurs often precede their first days of business with what’s called a soft opening — a night of practice for your staff before you serve the public. It can be a great way to test out the kitchen’s culinary skills, the wait staff’s knowledge of the menu and your facility’s ability to host a crowd, says Scott Anthony, a restaurant consultant and owner of Fox’s Pizza Den in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. His advice for a soft opening is to limit the amount of food you’re giving away by giving everyone who is invited a $10 voucher. Invite friends and family, along with chamber of commerce members and those from the neighborhood around the store. Use your grand opening as an opportunity to talk to customers about what they like, and what they don’t, and find out ways you can improve the service or food. And even for a soft opening, make sure you’re ready for business. The staff should be fully trained, educated on all of the dishes on the menu and ready to handle customer’s questions.
Robyn Davis Sekula is a freelance writer living in New Albany, Indiana.
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