EDDIE'S PIZZERIA CERINO - CLEVELAND, OH
On the Edge
Cleveland Pizzeria Breaks Traditional Restaurant Mold
BY MANDY WOLF DETWILER, MANAGING EDITOR
PHOTOS BY JOSH KEOWN
Not according to Eddie Cerino, who owns and operates an upscale pizzeria in Seven Hills, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Cerino, whose name is a familiar one in the area thanks to his family’s restaurants and bakeries, cut his teeth in the family businesses before setting out on a course of his own with Eddie’s Pizzeria Cerino, a dine-in concept that partners quality food made by hand in an upscale setting.
Cerino has certainly had a plethora of learning curves. Aside from his youthful adventures in the family businesses, he is a Culinary Institute of America graduate, opened his first restaurant at age 25 and helped charter the San Francisco Oven, a fast-casual concept that he started with a partner in 2000. After opening 27 stores in seven states, Cerino calls it an educational experience but ultimately realized he didn’t want to be a franchisor –– he missed the hands-on intimacy of running an independent restaurant and returned to his roots with Eddie’s Pizzeria Cerino, which opened in January 2009.
“We knew we wanted something that had quality food, was simple and had authentic Italian food using authentic Italian ingredients,” he says. “We wanted it (to be) affordable and we wanted it to be creative (and) inspired. We wanted an atmosphere.”
That meant going beyond the traditional red-checkered tablecloths commonly found in the industry. He designed the restaurant to be open, modern and inviting, and says it exceeds customers’ expectations. Initially, the 3,100 square feet of space didn’t include a bar, and the restaurant served beer and wine only. Starting small allowed them to hone their menu and fit the economy, and “we were very busy right from the get-go,” Cerino says. “But then I’m wondering, the honeymoon period –– when’s that going to end? For the first eight months, we just stayed busy. I then committed to add another 1,100 square feet … the landlord was very generous helping us out, and we added the bar on. That’s what really put us over the top with our sales.”
The bar increased sales by nearly $300,000 (not only in liquor sales but also with the addition of 40 new seats), and the restaurant recorded $1.6 million in sales last year.
The average guest check sits at $15 to $16. Cerino initially thought pizza would comprise the majority of food sales, but that hasn’t proven true. “There aren’t many places in Cleveland where you can get a pizza, a glass of wine and a really good salad in a dining-room experience,” he says. “We initially thought pizza would be the mainstay of our menu, but it’s actually reverse. We do about 30 percent (in) pizza sales and about 70 percent (in) pastas and plated dinners.”
He attributes that to the restaurant’s high-quality preparation and ingredients. “I think the thing that makes us special is that we still cook,” Cerino says.
They make their meatballs fresh everyday, sauce is made with San Marzano tomatoes, and soups and bread (a foccacia that takes two days to rise) are made in-house –– even the lettuce is cut by hand. Pizza dough is crafted with a poolish, a wet sourdough starter that gives it a unique finish that sets it apart from other pizzerias. What they don’t make in-house –– the pasta, for instance –– they source as high in quality and as locally as possible.
“That really gives us the creative license to really make us a step apart from the competition,” he says. The Lemon Parmesan Chicken ($11.95) is a big seller, as is the traditional Bolognese ($7.95 for a half-portion and $10.95 for a full). “It’s straight out of Verona and is definitely one of the highlights of our menu,” Cerino says.
He also credits his hearth-bake oven for his great-tasting pizza, and “one thing I’ve learned with hearth-baked pizza is that it doesn’t lend itself to carryout. It just doesn’t. Hearth-baked pizza, to me, is still the No. 1 delicious (pizza), but you’ve got to eat it right out of the oven. It doesn’t sit well if it’s going to sit for a 10- or 15-minute car ride,” Cerino says. They don’t offer delivery, and carryout makes up 20- to 25-percent of sales.
As for competition, Cerino says there isn’t much locally in the full-service dine-in category. “And, we really have beaten them because of the value perception. We just don’t charge as much as we could, I think. We keep our prices economical, we try to give (customers) value, and it’s worked well for us.
“We’re very competitive in our wine sales and our wine marketing. You can get a great bottle of wine for $18. … The whole idea is that we’re not going to gouge you on anything. We’re going to make a fair profit, we’re going to run the most efficient operation we can and we’re going to keep the savings and the value perception as high as possible.”
Cerino’s wife, Elisha, is a local designer and photographer, so they have the built-in capability to produce excellent flyers and advertisements beyond the black-and-white Xeroxed menu. They utilize local newspapers as well as social media outlets like Facebook, “so we get a big bang for our buck,” Cerino says. “We put new pictures up (on Facebook) constantly, change our seasonal specials with pictures –– it works very well for us.”
Cerino says the restaurant does not discount, and they had a poor experience with a Groupon promotion last year. After the local sales rep encouraged them not to cap the promotion (a $30 coupon for $15), 2,600 coupons had been sold resulting in $75,000 in discounts. “It was not a good experience,” Cerino says. “It did bring some new customers in, (but) you still get those customers who come in and spend the minimum and don’t tip on that. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t do the $15 for $30. I’d do $7.50 for $15 and cap it at 1,000.” Last November, he still had 1,000 vouchers yet to be redeemed and feared a rush at the end of the promotion. Legally, he is obligated to accept them.
Still, marketing is crucial, and he says he spends about one-and-a-half percent of his budget on it. Advertising gets customers in the door, but it is then up to the employees to get them to return. “You’ll never see a single ad of ours that talks price,” Cerino adds. Instead, he focuses on the food and quality, which makes their marketing timeless.
He also expects his staff to serve as marketing agents for the restaurant by being knowledgeable in wines and up on the daily specials. “If somebody asks you what a poolish is or ‘What’s a San Marzano tomato? Why is that better?’ I expect them to know. … If the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ it should be followed up by ‘but I’ll find out.’ ”
Cerino has been approached to open a second store but instead plans to open an upscale concept in nearby Lakewood that will feature bourbon and desserts –– an idea spearheaded by son Ed Jr. (Ed Jr. maintains the spirits side of the business and daughter Elise has a fashion design background and has helped with interior design and uniforms. Both are hands-on in day-to-day operations.) He’d like to open more pizzerias, perhaps with the help of his family, but he’s content as an independent and isn’t in a hurry to franchise again. After all, he’s navigated those waters before. “I didn’t care for the franchise business at all,” he says. “I hate to say it, but you almost have to dummy down your concept (and) dummy down your recipes.” For independents, it’s all about the creative edge.
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.