Raising the Bar
FAMOUS JOE'S BRINGS A BITE OF NEW YORK TO THE SOUTH
BY DENISE GREER, ASSOCIATE EDITOR
PHOTOS BY RICK DAUGHERTY
Notoriety. Famous Joe’s unique selling proposition —you see it in its name and logo. You see it when you walk through its doors. It’s visible on the walls and in a video playing over the carryout area. It’s the owner, Joe Carlucci. The three-time World Pizza Champion holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest pizza toss. Food Network, ESPN, FOX News, the Travel Channel, the Martha Stewart Show, and the Today Show have showcased his acrobatics and pizza baking talents. What better way to position the Huntsville, Alabama, area pizzeria than through its owner, who has received such acclaim in the industry? The pizzeria’s logo depicts Carlucci tossing dough. The employees wear red sports jerseys with No. 1 and Famous Joe’s in white or a long-sleeved t-shirt with “Fastest Pizza Maker in the World” on the front. It’s a built-in marketing vehicle at Famous Joe’s. His name carries a lot of weight in the suburban community of Madison, where his shop sits in a commercial retail building in front of a large grocery chain. In its first year, the 72-seat Famous Joe’s pulled just over $1 million in sales in 2011. Before opening Famous Joe’s, Carlucci got a taste for Huntsville’s southern hospitality when he consulted for Joe Moore at Tortora’s on the other side of town. He liked what the South had to offer so much that he stayed on as a general manager at Tortora’s, while continuing to consult, for two years before venturing on his own.
Carlucci has plenty of effective marketing tools in his arsenal, from community involvement to social media. Famous Joe’s is going beyond the traditional means of word-of-mouth. A local television reporter had just left Famous Joe’s when Pizza Today visited the pizzeria in February. The Internet was buzzing for the week prior about a Carlucci creation: the Tim Tebow Pizza. Without divulging his secret method, Carlucci created a portrait of Tebow on the top of the pizza. And it went viral. The pizzeria was able to capitalize on a Tebow mania that has flooded the Internet for the past several months. Carlucci doesn’t just plan to put famous faces on his pies. He sees a gold mine in its application. Instead of simply hosting a birthday party, he plans to offer portrait pizzas to his customers. “We’re going out and saying, ‘Hey, if it’s your son or your daughter’s birthday, get their face on a pizza,’” he says, adding that portraits will be used for other occasions like Valentine’s Day. He’s constantly reading about and studying the industry. He says he always thinks of ideas to better his pizzeria. “It’s just being one step ahead of the game,” he says. “I eat, sleep and drink pizza 24/7.” Carlucci and his pizzaiolos perform for a crowd of Famous Joe’s fans on Monday nights. It’s kids night. Kids 12 and under get to not only eat free, but also get their own dough to throw with the pros. The night pays off big for Carlucci. Parents having a great time and buying a beer or glass of wine more than pay for the 50-cent pizza that Famous Joe’s gives away, he says. “Would you rather have $3,000 on a Monday or $1,200,” he says, adding that he has earned returning customers by giving away $200 worth of kid’s pizzas. With more than 26,500 homes within a five-mile radius, Carlucci has targeted the area with direct mail. Carlucci sets high expectations for his pizzeria. The first year, Carlucci was focused on being a fixture in the growing community. “This year, I’m raising the bar even more.” He launched Famous Joe’s online ordering, text ordering and released an app for the iPhone and Droid. He also recently beat out a top chain to get contracts with the area’s parks and recreations by providing incentives to the departments of 10 percent back on the pizzas they sell. With a new high school being built a mile away, he is working with area schools to provide school nights and pizza parties. He’s also in the process of completing a nutrition menu so that Famous Joe’s can provide school lunches on Fridays.
The pizzeria menu sells itself. “The menu is a blend of my grandmother’s recipes and my recipes,” Carlucci says. Born and raised in upstate New York, the New York style pizza reflects his passion for flavor combinations. “The Grant” is a meaty favorite with seasoned sirloin steak, peppers and onion, house-made marinara sauce and mozzarella for $15.95 (12-inch). Famous Joe’s specialty pizza menu features pies like the “Haley” with Italian sautéed clams, bacon, roasted garlic and mozzarella at $16.95 (12-inch). There is also the top-selling “Tony G. Margherita”, a tribute to his mentor Tony Gemignani, who he says has helped drive his industry success. It’s a Neapolitan-style Margherita only available in the 12-inch size at $15.95. Carlucci takes as much pride in his other menu items as he does his pizza. House specialties include the Lasagna al Forno, ($9.95) a 20-year-old recipe; Chicken Scarpariello ($12.95); Chicken Sorrinto ($11.95); and Baked Manicotti ($8.95). Famous Joe’s has debuted a gluten-free menu, sparked by customer demand and his own health (Carlucci has recently been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, he says). Before launching a full gluten-free menu, Carlucci tested the market, running a few gluten-free pasta specials with great success. There is a separate oven in the back for the gluten-free items and the dough is brought in from Gemignani’s in San Francisco. The new gluten-free menu, he says, doesn’t really affect Famous Joe’s 28 percent food cost since it’s such a small offering. “It’s only six items,” he says. “It’s a couple of pastas, a couple of pizzas to let it work itself in.”
Carlucci streamlined his labor costs to 30 percent, including his salary. After a bumpy beginning of manning the pizza line himself every shift for three months and a high staff turnover, he put a freeze on hiring to focus on cross training. Servers can make salads and the dishwasher can make pizzas. Carlucci says he holds training sessions on Saturdays before opening. Here, crew members learn certain aspects of the restaurant, from stretching dough to phone etiquette. There are two desired effects for Carlucci: cross-training not only gives the pizzeria help in a pinch, it also demonstrates the value of employees who can perform multiple duties. As for the owner, Carlucci says he performs every duty in his shop. “You’ll see me cooking with my chef or doing dishes,” he says. “What I learned is you shouldn’t open a restaurant if you can’t do every single thing. You don’t have to do it everyday, but you have to earn and show [employees] the respect that you can do it.” After 15 years in the pizza industry, Carlucci has experienced both success and failure. “Without failing, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says. He’s happy with his single store operation, though he investigated expanding into the space next door. “I did a cost analysis of how much it would cost and how many people we would have to bring in and how much more labor would have to be, and it didn’t work out,” he says. For now, Carlucci says he has his sights set on continually moving forward with Famous Joe’s and helping other operators optimize their operations. u
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.
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