2009 March: Il Pizzaiolo: Black Rock Pizza Co.

Every now and then, we come across a concept that just seems to be doing everything right. Was it born under a lucky star? Rarely, but with the right infusion of marketing, quality control and dedication, it somehow seems to flourish even in an ever-weakening economy.

Meet Sparks, Nevada-based Black Rock Pizza Co. Its creative menu, heavily involved ownership and emphasis on fresh ingredients has earned it annual sales of just over a million dollars. The concept –– based on its desert roots –– is the brainchild of owners Dave and Linda Winchester, Wyoming transplants who once owned a chain of convenience stores.

 

After 30 years in the convenience store industry, the couple found themselves burned out. Their stores had been known for their deli and roasted chicken as much as for the retail and gas side of the business, and the Winchesters began looking at other options. “We’ve always been food-oriented,” Dave Winchester says. “We’ve always been has a passion for food. Linda has always been a great cook and had a passion for cooking, especially baking.”

Before giving up the convenience business, Linda began taking culinary classes and refining her skills in the kitchen, and the couple loved dining out.

So they decided to open their restaurant, and with limited capital, settled on pizza. “Gourmet pizza was something that was not heavily done in this area,” Winchester says. “There had been some gourmet pizza places (but) most of them were quick-serve.”

The Winchesters based their concept on one of their own personal favorites, Montana-based MacKenzie River Pizza Company, located near their eldest son’s university. They wanted their own restaurant to be exciting and fresh. “I don’t want to just run a food business,” Winchester explains. “I always want to be in your memory after you come here. You can always remember the places you’ve been where you had the ‘best of” something.”

The early days were difficult, Winchester concedes. “At fi rst it was what you read and hear –– it was a lot rougher than we thought. Way rougher than a convenience store. You build a convenience store, most residents will give you a chance early on. Restaurants aren’t necessarily so. I figured if we had good food and worked on the service –– we didn’t know that much about service –– that people would come.”

They realized it would take more than great menu to succeed –– (“I can remember the $200 day. It was heartbreaking,” Winchester says.) so they hired a consultant and formed a game plan to step up marketing and tighten operations.

“If you invite people in, then it has to be good,” he adds, “and our food is good. I don’t say that because we say it’s good – you’re always talking to and getting a feel from the customers. Otherwise, you can delude yourself … you only have the best pizza if the customer says so.”

Sales began to climb steadily and the Winchesters added more staff to handle their 25 tables.

Today, marketing plays a heavy hand in Black Rock’s success, thanks in part to the Winchesters’ creativity at designing promotions that foster repeat business. They created a database and a rewards program (boasting 3,300 members) and market directly to those customers. Past promotions include a “no peek” envelope in which customers won a prize by returning with the envelope during the month of January. That boasted a return of 49 percent.

They also handed out pieces to a 1,000-piece puzzle and put one together themselves, pulling out a few pieces. The customers who matched their piece to a hole in the puzzle won a prize. Recently, Black Rock has added a large, branded catering truck able to pump out 180 pizzas an hour using a rotating oven versus the more traditional 90 an hour with impingers. They’re hoping to step up site-based catering which will expose more people to its offerings.

The company doesn’t offer delivery, and Winchester said that while it is “almost a must for some types of pizzas, gourmet pizza doesn’t hold up as well. In gourmet, reputation is everything. … Another thing is –– and I’m not a control freak –– but we still work this restaurant. We’re here 60 to 80 hours a week. Once that thing hits the door, it’s out of your control and you’re talking about losing that ability to satisfy the customer. That’s a real issue.”

Black Rock’s menu includes appetizers, salads, gourmet pizzas, sandwiches, pasta and desserts, and everything –– including the mouth-watering cakes and pies –– is made in-house save for a raspberry vinagrette and a Basque chorizo they import and smoke themselves. The top seller is The Smoke Creek, featuring fresh turkey sausage, shredded pepperoni (a major point of differentiation from its competitors), crumbled bacon, smoked red onion, smoked Roma tomatoes, and green bell peppers topped with Romano cheese. The diversity in the menu –– 30 signature pizzas on two types of crusts and seven different sauces –– ensures that repeat customers can always find something different. The relatively small sizes of the pizzas (an 8-inch single and a 12-inch double) encourage sharing.

“We cut everything small so that every bite has every ingredient in it,” Winchester says. “I think that is so important that when you take a bite of pizza, all those flavors and all of that freshness comes out.”

Black Rock uses specialty cheeses on all the pizzas, fi lling ingredients to the very edge of the dough –– Winchester says he hates to see plates of uneaten crusts coming back into the kitchen. Pizza accounts for 50 percent of Black Rock’s sales. All of the meats are smoked in-house, including tri-tip beef and pork shoulder, and “it’s one of the things that makes us unique in a Western way,” Winchester adds. “We want to be Navatan. We’ve always live in the west and we want to be Western.” Aside from the meat, many of the menu items take their names from the western culture, such as Rattlesnakes” –– thin strips of sirloin steak, marinated in buttermilk, drizzled with chipotle sauce and served with ranch dressing on the appetizer menu and the “Wagon Tire BBQ” –– garlic studded tri-tip steak, mushrooms, sauteéd onions, provolone and the company’s own barbecue sauce a multigrain roll).

Now that Black Rock has established a name for itself, are there any plans for growth? Winchester said he’s looked at opening another store, “but the catering will have to be successful for us to be able to afford to. One of the things we learned in the convenience store business is when you open up another location, you lose control unless you’ve got a heck of a system and are able to hire super people. It takes years to develop people. I don’t know if I have the years left in me.” Instead, if the catering takes off, he’d rather put his attention and focus there. “I love this concept of being able to go out and handle a thousand people. I know it’s going to be a heck of a job, but I’m excited about being able to roll in there, kick out those pizzas, pack up and go and know that everybody’s happy.” ?

Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.

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