2009 August: Independentof the Year / Pizza Shuttle

2009 August: Independentof the Year / Pizza ShuttleIt’s been six years since we last visited Pizza Shuttle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This time around, it was with a greater purpose –– the company has been named Pizza Today’s Independent Pizzeria of the Year. Of course, you’re probably wondering how many stores they have to have to receive such an honor, and you’ll be blown away by the answer: one store, with sales of $5.6 million. And yes, owners and childhood friends Mark Gold and Louis Siecinski still have a heavy hand in the management of their pizzeria (when they’re not in-house they have a trusted team of hand-picked managers). But beyond its obvious high profits, how has Pizza Shuttle managed to keep its success with just one store?

First and foremost, the old saying that location is everything certainly sits well for the company, which began in just a 500-square-foot unit in 1985. Today’s Pizza Shuttle, located across the street from the original location, is perched between the downtown business district and nearby university campuses in Milwaukee’s lower East Side. It’s just a block away from Lake Michigan and located in an eclectic neighborhood in what used to be the stables for the lakefront mansions.

Apartments have sprung up all around, and Gold says rent has skyrocketed in the area. “I wouldn’t even be able to come here if I didn’t own my building,” he says. “It’s a lot of young people, a lot of professionals, but not many families. I think the mean age is 24. We have a lot of energy here. We’re near a campus, we’re near downtown, you have people who graduated college who are making a little more money and they rent an apartment and have a lot of disposable income.”

And then there’s the experience of its owners. Siecinski and Gold spent their formative years working at Primo’s Pizza in Detroit –– Gold was later employed by a Domino’s Pizza unit –– and when they began to kick around the idea of opening up their own shop, they realized that the Detroit market was over-saturated. They looked at several markets before settling in Milwaukee. “We could have gone anywhere, but we really like this city. And the great thing is that nobody knows about it,” Gold says.

The first Pizza Shuttle started with used equipment, and within 20 months Siecinski and Gold were up to three stores. “We made money, but we were young and cocky,” Gold admits. “That was crazy. We didn’t know how to run them. We had experience running one, but I wasn’t a supervisor at Domino’s to learn how to run a store, so we learned on our own money. We were successful very quickly. We made money from the first day.”

Within the next six years, Siecinski and Gold had sold two of the stores and today run one high volume operation. One or the other is typically in-house daily. “That’s the benefi t of being a higher-volume store with good people,” Gold says. “If I had to be in the store every day, it would be rough.”

Why so hands on? Over the years, the pair has faced many hurdles, including slow business and employee retention and training. “It’s volatile, this business,” Gold says. “It’s funny how much I learn just by being here.” Siecinski says they did have some growing pains initially –– including navigating a small kitchen and very little storage space. (They have to lease square footage in the building next door for offices and storage.)

In light of the economy, Siecinski and Gold have made a move contrary to industry norm –– they actually lowered their menu prices. “Last year was the first year (sales) were even,” Gold says. “It’s the first year I haven’t gone up in 16 years … our goal is to basically have more orders to keep the clientele coming in. Right now, commodities are cheaper. We try to do our menus in six-month increments, so between June and December, we’re counting on low cheese and fl our (costs). We lowered our prices to get more customers because right now, even if they like you, they need a reason to order.”

The company recently conducted a Web survey asking patrons to consider cost as a factor in their purchasing habits and found that customers are willing to pay more for a better product but at a fair, competitive price. “What’s great about being an independent is we can change (prices) pretty quickly,” Gold adds. When it comes to the menu, pizza accounts for 65 percent of sales. That’s why there are so many toppings –– 50 in all, including 30 freshcut vegetables –– and nearly a dozen sauces offered. “Whatever we have for other food, why not put it on a pizza?” Gold says. “People like choices, especially vegetarians. That’s a big market.”

Dough is made in-house, and they grind their own cheese. Even the vegetables are cut fresh daily. “Our slogan is ‘real pizza for real people at real prices,’ ” Siecinski says. Pizza Shuttle has more than 20 specialty pizzas, including the Denver Breakfast Pizza (100-percent mozzarella cheese, garlic, potatoes, bacon, onions, green peppers, scrambled eggs and nacho cheese) and the Philly Cheesesteak (100-percent mozzarella, garlic, Parmesan, peppercorn, Philly cheesesteak meat, onions, green peppers, mushrooms and crushed red pepper. The top seller is the Southern Barbecue Chicken Pizza, which boasts mozzarella, Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce, onions, grilled marinated chicken, jalapeños, tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese.

“Everything we do, we try to do high-end,” Gold says. “Sometimes, it’s hard because you want to get cheap. But if you can’t do it right, you just don’t sell it. In this business –– pizza –– you don’t have to get too fancy.” There are also five crusts: original handtossed; a thick and chewy Chicago-style; wheat; a thin and a square Sicilian pan. Beer is available, but “I don’t have a lot of alcohol sales,” Gold adds. “I would like it, to off-set some of the food costs, but that’s not what we’re known for.” They hold a full liquor license, but even wine didn’t sell. Daiquiris are under consideration even though the restaurant offered them with low results a few years ago. “Five years ago, that might have been a different clientele,” he says. Surprisingly, the company does quite a business in super-premium ice cream. They made their own custard for 14 years before switching to selections from The Chocolate Shoppe in Madison, Wisconsin. “With custard, you only have vanilla, chocolate and the flavor of the day. We have 16 flavors at all times now. We thought giving customers more of a variety would increase the sales,” Gold says.

Why offer ice cream at all? “My partner has a sweet tooth,” Gold says. “I would never have thought of custard. That was his idea. Then you think, ‘Ok, this could help sales.’ We probably sell 100 shakes a day, and some ice cream companies don’t even do that.” They also deliver ice cream along with their menu items, increasing add-on sales. Dine-in accounts for about 20 percent of the business, with delivery carrying the bulk at 70 percent. “I can see people now choosing the less expensive route –– like the $5 Subway subs,” Gold says. “People don’t want to spend too much (due to the economy). A lot of people stopped vacationing. They’re not going. Now they can go to the lakefront and grab a slice of pizza and it doesn’t cost them hardly anything. Why not buy a pizza and go to the lakefront with your friends rather than go and spend a lot of money on a trip to Chicago and spend hundreds of dollars?” To increase family traffic, they’re adding the opportunity for kids to make their own pizzas. “On a little silver platter, there’s an 8-inch, already slapped out dough,” Siecinski explains. “They’re going to have a cup of sauce, a cup of cheese and (toppings). They’ll make it at the table and we’ll cook it for them. It’s going to be really cool.”

Amongst Pizza Shuttle’s greatest draws is its kitsch. Taking center stage is the original Andy Warhol cow silkscreen bought at auction and bar lights the owners sourced at a tradeshow. Large mirrors fl ank the walls, and there’s even a photo booth that gets plenty of play by customers of all ages. Televisions are commonplace in many pizzerias, and they’re found at Pizza Shuttle as well, but “we don’t draw a large sports crowd, though I’d like to,” says Gold. Bright, original artwork splashes color on the walls while a nearby jukebox pumps out hits, giving Pizza Shuttle an overall feeling of fun and with good reason –– dine-in is rising.

The carved oak molding framing the menu board was pulled from a historical mansion, and the large bench in the lobby was sourced from a county courthouse. During a recent lunch hour, we spotted a family with little kids, two UPS drivers on their lunch break and a pair of elderly women with a toddler in tow. Gold pauses, looked around the dining room and says: “I have people here right now who probably never come here at night when it’s a whole different place. Right now it looks kind of normal, but as the night goes on, it evolves. It’s louder (with younger people) … you’ll have tattoos, and piercings and mohawks –– urban kids and kids who drive in from an hour away because they really have nowhere to go.”

It’s a fact that Pizza Shuttle’s late-night hours (they’re open until 3 a.m. daily with delivery until 4 a.m. on the weekends) help sales volume –– and although it does create some difficulties, “it is what it is,” Gold shrugs. “I could probably stay open 24 hours, but we’re getting a lot more residents now. That used to be a parking lot next to me. Now it’s a condo. You’ve got to take (residents) into consideration.” Part of the allure is the fact that so many of Pizza Shuttle’s employees are familiar faces. Gold estimates that the average tenure of their employees is seven years, “and that’s pretty good,” he says. “They get paid better than minimum wage, but they’re not highly paid. They’re good restaurant workers, and they’ve worked here a long time.”

The company takes pride in customer input and they heavily rely on their employees for suggestions. “They’re our customers, too,” Gold explains. With nearly 100 employees, that’s a lot of ideas. They expanded their dining room to add more seating, a move that both increased sales and took the heat off the vibrant late-night business. “For one, we didn’t have enough room to put our customers,” Siecinski says. But with crowds come security issues, so Pizza Shuttle posts an unarmed bouncer/guard at the front door on Friday and Saturday nights. The doorman scans patrons’ IDs as part of Pizza Shuttle’s security measures.

“These are guys who are well-trained in understanding crowd control (and) in understanding how to diffuse a situation,” Siecinski adds, “because it does get busy in here. It can be like a can of sardines. One little bump can create an issue. They’re not armed, but they’re here for crowd control.”

Aside from the funky physical attributes of Pizza Shuttle, that kitsch flows into the company’s marketing as well. Word-of-mouth is still the best method of advertising, Siecinski says, and with the sheer number of customers, that’s a lot of buzz. Still, they try to go beyond mailers and newspaper ads by utilizing their on-hold voice system using Gold and Siecinski’s voices thanking customers for holding the line. They also have a large e-mail list and ping customers twice a month. “We answer every single email that somebody sends us,” Gold says. They text message four times a month, but they make it fun: a Thanksgiving text offered a $5 large pizza –– but only if customers said, “Gobble! Gobble!” to the phone or register person. Tracking showed that 2,000 people opened the text message and 3,000 people redeemed the offer, illustrating the power of both texting and customer buzz.

After a quarter of a century in the industry, is Pizza Shuttle ready to launch more stores? Its owners say franchising isn’t in the cards, but they’d eventually like to consult. “It’s a way to make extra money using the experience we have,” Gold says. They’ve helped a couple of employees open their own stores. “Maybe if we were 10 years younger, we’d open up our own pilots,” adds Siecinski, “but we have families.” Says Gold: “Every decision we’ve made was based on just enjoying life.” ?

Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.