If you plan to utilize secret shoppers, be sure they answer the following questions:
• Were you greeted with a friendly smile when entering the pizzeria?
• Was the restaurant clean?
• How long did it take for the food to be served?
• Was the pizza hot and presented attractively?
• Was the service prompt and friendly?
• Did the wait staff try to upsell other menu items such as salads and desserts?
The Visible Owner
Be seen and heard — your customers want to know you
BY NORA CALEY
PHOTO BY RICK DAUGHERTY
“I think you need to have a strong presence in the front of the house,” says Frank Mininni, who owns Scusa Mi Pizza & Catering in Downers Grove, Illinois. “People need to see the owner is operating the restaurant. If there is an issue, they need to feel they have someone to talk to.”
However, it’s important not to be too visible in the restaurant. Sometimes there is a drawback to having people recognize you.
“People feel they only want to order through you,” Mininni says. “I can’t tell you how many times a day I’m with a customer, and someone says, ‘Hey Frank, you have a call on line one,’ and it’s someone who wants to order a pizza.”
He pays people to answer the phone, Mininni says, but customers want to feel special. They might think that by knowing the owner, their order will be handled with extra care. “Being at the front of the house is important, but at the same time you have to set limits,” he says. “As much as I’d love to sit there and rub elbows with every customer, I cannot financially afford it.”
So he trains the staff to answer the phone and field the routine calls themselves, while he does the many other tasks owners do. If the caller has a complaint or a comment, Mininni will place a courtesy call to the customer later.
Mininni knows it’s important to be seen and heard by customers, especially since Scusa Mi is still a relatively new place at just over two years old. That’s why the restaurant sponsors charitable functions such as the annual Toys for Tots collection, a local food pantry drive, and fundraisers for a breast cancer organization.
Other owners agree that the place to be visible is outside the restaurant. That’s especially true for independent restaurants, says Tony Mancini, who owns Giovanni’s Pizza in Huntington, West Virginia. “Small guys have to put a face to the place,” he says. “You’ve got to put yourself out there. People want to see a hands-on guy. They want to see a person who lives in the community, and who cares about the community.”
He adds that when he’s in Giovanni’s, he needs to work, not schmooze. “Mainly, I stay in the back cooking and doing a lot of dishes,” says Mancini, who has owned the restaurant for 13 years. “A lot of times if we are extremely busy the dishes get backed up or the phones do, so I do a lot of that stuff.”
Giovanni’s sponsors kids’ sports teams and other community events. He doesn’t just send money though. He attends the games and says hello to people. “People want to know who’s writing the checks,” he says.
Terry Black, who owns Jimmy & Joe’s Pizzeria, says he used to spend most of his time in the restaurant when he opened his first location in Chandler, Arizona five years ago. “When you start, it’s make or break, so I cooked every day for a year and a half, and then I could step back and hire people,” he says. “Now I go in during the lunch rush and the dinner rush.”
Black says he does what used to be called guerilla marketing, and is now called grassroots marketing. He brings pizzas to charity car washes, hands out free slice coupons to people who work at other small businesses such as coffeehouses and dry cleaners, and gives gift cards to teachers and principals. When Black opened his second Jimmy & Joe’s Pizzeria in Mesa, Arizona in 2010, members of a local school’s girls’ softball team came in for dinner. “I said, ‘Give me your schedule,’ and then I brought them pies after a game,” he says. “All my customers know me because I’m out in the community. People see me and they wave at me.”
They do more than wave. Black says much of the goodwill has led to sales, including purchase orders from schools. Teachers have bought multiple pies from him when they wanted to reward a class.
Mininni has also noticed positive results from his charity work. Customers sometimes tell him they found out about Scusa Mi at a fundraiser a year ago, and are coming in now.
Mancini says when he is outside the restaurant, he has to be on his best behavior all the time. “You’re never off the clock,” he says. “You could be doing something with your family, and someone comes up to you and says, ‘Why don’t you take reservations?’ Or, ‘We tried this topping in Florida, what do you think?’ ”
As the owner, he is representing Giovanni’s, even when he is running errands or doing something that is not restaurant related. So that means he can’t yell at a barista for getting his coffee order wrong, for example, and he can’t beg off conversations. “You can’t say, ‘I’m just pumping gas,’ or ‘Let me watch the game,’ ” Mancini says. “People frown on that.”
Wear It On Your Sleeve
If you want to be visible in the community, the easiest thing you can do is wear your restaurant’s logo shirt. People will start conversations, says Terry Black, who owns two Jimmy & Joe’s Pizza restaurants in Chandler and Mesa, Arizona. “I wear the Jimmy and Joe’s shirt every day,” he says. “I want to wear it to church but my wife won’t let me.”
He has found that people recognize the brand even outside Arizona. Black was driving the Jimmy and Joe’s Pizzeria truck on a road trip to San Diego. He stopped at a red light and someone started honking the horn at him. He turned to look. “The other driver flashed his Jimmy and Joe’s VIP card and gave us a thumbs up,” he says. “We have a good product, and we have raving fans.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.
PHOTO BY JOSH KEOWN
Patio dining. Some restaurant operators say their business wouldn’t be the same without it. Barbara Reeve, general manager for the Tivoli Restaurant in New Milford, Connecticut, is one of them. The three-year-old restaurant sits right on the large New Milford Green. Inside, there’s seating for 90, and the covered and screened-in patio (the screens can be rolled up in good weather) adds another 50 seats. There’s also a wrought-iron gazebo next to the patio that holds 15. Open — and busy — year round, the patio’s more popular than the inside, says Reeve.
“Especially in the spring and summer,” she says. “People call ahead of time to reserve patio seating. We’ve actually had people leave because there wasn’t outside seating available, even when a table was open inside.”
Mattie Cardenaz, general manager for Pizza Solo in San Luis Obispo, California, also describes their patio as having big appeal. Located in front of the restaurant, with seating for about 25, it’s the first thing passersby see.
“Patio dining is completely effective in getting random new faces into the restaurant,” says Cardenaz. “People may not have been planning to stop in, but they see the outdoor dining and they come in.”
But it’s not a matter of “build it and they will come.” Without the proper amount of thought, offering patio dining can work against you, says Ron Santibanez, CEO of Profit Line Consulting, Inc. in Moreno Valley, California.
“Having outdoor seating is a big advantage; there are a lot of pluses to patio dining,” says Santibanez, whose company works with restaurants across the country. “But for some reason it seems to be an operational issue for many restaurants.”
The biggest downfall? Not paying sufficient attention to an area that — unless easily visible from the inside of the restaurant - is too often out of sight, out of mind, says Santibanez. The consequences of this neglect are tables littered with leftover food, overflowing trash receptacles, paper blowing about the patio, and irritated, overlooked customers.
This is less likely to happen during peak times when (hopefully anyway) there’s staff assigned specifically to the patio, he says. The biggest danger comes during off-peak times when it’s likelier that employees will have to split their attention between inside and outside areas. The remedy for this? Training and establishing specific requirements mandating how often the patio will be checked, says Santibanez.
“You do have to train to keep it at top of mind, especially if it isn’t visible from the restaurant,” says Becky Black, senior vice president with Shakey’s USA, Inc., headquartered in Alhambra, California. The chain has 65 sites; five offer patio seating.
“You need to integrate the patio into staffing and deployment; someone has to be accountable for it,” Black continues. “It’s important for managers to demonstrate this front-of-mind by moving inside and outside, speaking to the guests and reminding staff.”
Black says they decided to give patios a try, looking for a way to increase capacity without increasing rent and common-area maintenance fees, since the patio is usually not part of the rented square-footage of a space (their patio capacity is typically 50 to 60 people).
There’s another benefit, she adds. “Shakey’s is a gathering place,” Blacks explains. “We wanted to be able to accommodate groups and to be able to segregate them from the general population. When dealing with large parties, the patio is a definite draw.
“For small groups, outside seating isn’t as much fun,” she continues. “They can feel a little disconnected from what’s going on inside, because it’s such a group experience inside.”
Disconnect isn’t an issue for Pizza Solo; its year-round patio is easily viewed from the inside and sits out in the open. In fact, part of it isn’t even sectioned off from the sidewalk, says Cardenaz, adding that it isn’t uncommon for non-customers to grab a chair for a bit of people watching. That aside, there are other challenges that come with this kind of seating arrangement.
For example, she has to train employees on city and fire regulations, and to monitor the outside with these in mind, since customers will often move the tables around, potentially running afoul of these restrictions.
“We also serve beer and wine and the alcohol can’t go beyond a certain point,” she explains. “I have to constantly remind the staff to tell the customers and to watch to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Patios and alcohol can prove a troublesome combination, Black says. “As a restaurant you’re accountable for what happens. With alcohol, you need safeguards in place to ensure nothing is happening with alcohol that shouldn’t, such as being handed over a fence or underage drinking.”
To combat this, Shakey’s has installed live camera monitors they watch to make certain that guests behave.
It’s important to pay attention to the details, says Black. Make sure the furniture’s comfortable. Plumb for heating rather than using butane tanks; if these run out of fuel mid-meal, the guest experience can be ruined. “You need to make sure guests feel it was worth it because the prices are the same inside and out,” she says. “There’s no patio discount.”
Guests can linger longer on patios than you’d like, reducing turns and impacting wait times. You don’t want to rush customers, but you do want to maintain a good pace. Barbara Reeve says during peak times she assigns only experienced waitstaff to the patio. They can handle a fast pace, expertly tend to customers, and keep things moving along.
Other speedy strategies? Pay attention to the patio’s layout and ease of access, says business consultant Ron Santibanez. Consider:
Are the doors wide enough for servers to easily get through?
How heavy are they?
What kind of obstacles might the furniture present? For example, if you use umbrellas, do servers have to duck under them to interact with customers or to avoid eye-level (and hazardous) prongs?
What about bussing stations and trash receptacles? Their location makes a difference in terms of quick clean up and keeping the area inviting and guest-ready.
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.
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