2009 March: Il Pizzaiolo: Pizza Plus

Often, restaurants go overboard when it comes to menu planning. From a laundry list of tired appetizers to a plethora of pizza styles and desserts fresh from the freezer, some menus can stretch into several pages. But is it really necessary? And can a pizzeria subsist on just a handful of favorites? If Sparks, Nevadabased Pizza Plus is the example by which operators should consider, then yes. Here you’ll find a list of tried and true pizza staples, ever-popular wings and a handful of appetizers designed to enhance the overall meal –– not just to increase check totals.

Owned by Dan Blake who originally partnered with his then in-laws, the first store opened in 1981. His in-laws had been looking for an investment and Blake had experience working at a Shakey’s Pizza franchise when he was a teen. “We kind of jumped in not really knowing what was going on,” Blake admits. It was a “very slow beginning. It took several years to get going.

“One of the worst things is that we were under capitalized, so we really had no advertising but word-of-mouth. That’s a very slow advertising. It takes time. It took us probably three to fi ve years to build up a strong core business. We discounted things we shouldn’t have discounted. It was just a learning experience.”

 

Being a primarily family-run business, Blake brought on board Dennis Cain as director of operations in the company’s infancy to strengthen its center, and sales soon started to rise. Today, the company sits at about $5 million with four stores in the Reno area.

Blake credits some of his initial success to partnering and sponsoring local sports teams. “Then they would come in after the games,” Blake says. “That was one of our building blocks.”

As the company’s business began to pick up, Blake and his team decided to take a hard look at Pizza Plus’ menu, adding a set list of combos designed to feed crowds. For example, one of the most popular –– and the one Cain credits for a sharp rise in sales in the late 1980s and early 1990s –– is a large two-topping pizza, two and a half pounds of chicken wings, steak-cut fries, carrots, celery and dip for only $29.99 (the order feeds four to six people). Combos comprise about 65 percent of sales and more than 7,000 pounds of wings are sold in the four restaurants every week.

“We really combined pizza and wings,” Blake says. “That’s our jingle –– ‘It’s Our Thing … Pizza & Wings!’ and we really wanted to brand that. We really wanted people, when they think of pizza and wings, they think of Pizza Plus.”

Aside from the combos, Pizza Plus offers a short list of specialty pizzas ranging in price from $12.99 for a 10-inch small to $24.99 for an 18-inch “mondo.”

Dough is made daily at one store and shipped to the three other locations and the rest of the prep, including grating the cheese and making sauce, is done in-house.

Beer and wine are available and used to make up as much as eight to nine percent of sales; in recent years, however, thanks in part to the increase and success of sports bars, alcohol sales account for only one percent of sales. “Over the years, pizza parlors were the places to go after games and sporting events,” Blake says. “I think the national awareness of groups like M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and the public awareness probably (also) have something to do with it.”

As a result, Pizza Plus targets kids’ sports teams, families and groups and leaves the major alcohol sales to the casinos and bars in and around Reno.

Pizza Plus added delivery in the mid 1980s, which also helped to increase (and now comprises roughly 25 percent of) sales. “Slowly but surely we grew to the point where we had to open another store,” Blake says, and in 1993 they opened the second Pizza Plus store. Since then, two more stores have been added.

Recently, the operators began to take a harder look at how to weather –– and conquer –– the slumping economy. “

At the end of 2007, we began to see signs of what was happening –– that the bubble was about to burst,” Blake says. “Early in the year we got hit with the wheat price increases –– we went from $10 a bag to $25 overnight.”

They attended a seminar on recession-proofing a business held at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. “Before that, all I was hearing was hunker down, cut expenses, just try to ride out the storm,” Blake says. During the seminar, he realized that it is up to operators to increase business rather than simply relying on the status quo.

“You have to stand out (and) learn how to be a zebra in a crowd of regular horses,” he says. “You’ve got to be the one that stands out. What do your customers know you for? What are you famous for?”

After the seminar, Blake came to understand that Pizza Plus didn’t exactly have a brand, so they created an icon of a pizza guy and began using it in the marketing and on their menus. People then began identifying the icon with the company.

A further new addition was the creation of a customer loyalty program to encourage repeat business. Customers have a card that is swiped, and they get e-mails and newsletters once a month with special offers. The VIP program “gives us a format to kind of reach out,” Blake says.

The positive results of the branding and the addition of the loyalty program created a rise in sales last year even as Pizza Plus’s competitors have begun shuttering some doors. “I like to think that’s certainly because of the efforts we put into the customer service part of it and the marketing program,” Blake adds. “We’ve changed completely what we were doing.”

With four stores in the Reno area, is franchising in the company’s future? Blake has considered it, but believes it is a step he needs to learn more about before taking the leap. “It would possibly be a great way to grow,” he says, “but in this economy right now we need to stay focused on profit margin and making sure when this thing turns around, we’re in a good position. I think anybody left standing is going to be in a fairly good position.” He cites at least eight pizza shops that have closed in his area recently as part of the reason for holding right now.

Instead, the company took over the concession stand during the Pop Warner football season last year at the Golden Eagle Regional Park, a multiple use sports park that brings in more than one million visitors a year. The move correlates with Pizza Plus’ emphasis on working with teams.

“We always sponsor a lot of teams, but this year we sponsored more,” Blake says. “It’s a good community give-back and tie-in program. There’s been a lot of recognition and response.” ?

Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.

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