2009 April: Best of the Best

2009 April: Best of the BestAfter 20 years of being voted “best of the best” of pizzerias in Tucson, Magpies Gourmet Pizza is expressing its gratitude to the voters. The award was bestowed by an independent newspaper, the Tucson Weekly.

Local diners, rather than restaurant critics, journalists or industry insiders, polled their taste buds to make the decision. They cast the crucial ballots that named the pizzeria best over about a dozen others in the city.

Mike Acedo, vice president of Magpies, which has five locations in Tucson, said the award is more than just a nice compliment. It is a well-known mark of excellence that diners in Tucson recognize. “It’s very meaningful,” Acedo said. “It’s gotten to the point where everybody votes on it. You get some status from it. And that issue (of the Tucson Weekly) is probably their most sought issue of the year.”

While Magpies has never pursued awards, other pizzeria owners do. Some operators believe it is better to receive an award voted on by consumers. Others insist a national industry award that recognizes culinary excellence has more credibility. An award means little, however, until a pizzeria capitalizes on it in their advertising, operators agreed.

Take Magpies as an example. Being named Tucson’s best of the best of pizzerias is a focal point of their advertising. “It’s the basis of a lot we do,” Acedo said. “Mostly we do print and direct mail. We also put it on our Web site, on our boxes and our flyers.”

Recently, the award became an even bigger part of the campaign when the company decided it needed to step up its marketing efforts. For the first time, they are expanding their advertising to run ads on local television. “We need to advertise. We’ve seen a dip in sales because of the economy,” Acedo said.

“Our campaign (which launched in January) is going to thank the people who, for the last 20 years, have voted us the best of the best of Tucson.”

Capitalizing on awards is especially important for independent operators and smaller chains who need to stand out from big chains, said George Hadjis, president of Oggi’s Pizza & Brewing Company which has 20 stores in southern California and Arizona.

simplyTheBest02“In the pizza industry, there is a lot of competition,” he said. “We gravitate toward any way we can differentiate ourselves. Branding yourself with awards really works.” His company has won numerous awards for both their pizza and their beer. Some have been consumer-based, such as one of his stores that won best pizza in Huntington Beach, California, and others have been industry awards. “I know we value both sorts of awards as bragging rights. That’s why we go after them,” he says. One competition he is particularly proud of winning was the Brewers Association’s 2004 World Beer Cup — which recognized the chain from thousands of others as the best small brewery. That award and others have been part of the company’s advertising on television, radio, in newspapers and on their Web site. The campaign also features LaDamien Thomlinson, a star football player for the San Diego Chargers.

“When you have someone of that stature pushing championship beer and award-winning pizza and beer, it all connects,” Hadjis said. Another frequent competitor for awards is Dave Smith II, owner of Smith’s Pizza Palace Plus in Emporium, Pennsylvania. He enters about six national competitions a year. These culinary contests are offered at events like the International Pizza Expo, which is held annually in Las Vegas. Smith acknowledges that few of his diners know the significance of the Pizza Expo or would recognize other industry organizations that bestow awards. Despite that lack of name recognition, he insists such awards are viewed by diners as seals of approval.

“If they see that you’re doing well in the eyes of the pizza industry, then they know that your pizza must be good,” Smith said. When he wins an award, he places the plaque in his restaurant and sends a news release about it to the local newspaper. “That’s the beauty of it,” Smith said. “It’s free publicity. The newspapers eat it up.”

Both Hajdis and Smith said they see sales increase after an award is announced. “Besides the pride, we get better sales,” Hadjis said. “I know our sales spike at all of our stores. I know our sales stats and there is an increase of about 20 percent.” Like Smith, he also makes sure plaques won at competitions are hung on the walls of all of his company’s stores. The awards also build camaraderie and pride among franchise owners who look forward to competitions.

“All of our franchisees wait every year to hear if we won an award,” Hadjis said. Pizzeria owners who worry about returning from a competition without a first place and a shiny plaque to put on their walls should not be concerned, Smith and Hadjis agreed. They say that operators can choose to publicize their awards or not.

Letting the world know about your achievements is the beauty of winning an award. In a market where consumers have so many choices, Hadjis says it gives a pizzeria instant credibility. “Pizza is a very subjective thing,” Hadjis says. “There are so many pizza restaurants and styles. How can you argue that your pizza is best unless you’ve won an award? Branding yourself with awards really works.”

With entrance fees, airfare and hotels, Smith estimates he spends at least $600 or $700 for each industry based culinary competition he enters. He says the free publicity he gains when he lets local newspapers know about an award he has received makes the cash outlay worth it.

“It’s about what you’d spend if you put an ad in the newspaper,” he says. Independent pizzerias like Smith’s need to find creative ways to market their businesses and awards are one way to do it, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicagobased restaurant consulting firm.

“I think it’s always going to be a positive. The negatives are minor,” Tristano said. Awards are even more important as technology offers new and different ways to advertise, he says. “I think awards are becoming more important because we’re seeing a shift to on-line for people to find out about places,” Tristano says.

Text messages are another way that pizzerias may get the word out about an award to diners. Tristano said the only negative to a pizzeria winning an award could be for loyal customers who have a hard time getting a table after one is announced. “If some loyal customers have to wait or can’t get their favorite table, that could be a downside,” Tristano said. “As the trendiness wears off, you’re going to want to keep those loyal customers.” ?

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance journalist based in Willowbrook, Illinois.