2010 February: Il Pizzaiolo: Hideaway Pizza

We knew we’d stumbled onto something good when both our waiter and the hotel valet put a hand over their hearts and each proclaimed, “Oh, I love Hideaway Pizza!” And with that, we set off to find out what makes this Tulsa mainstay such a heartfelt favorite.

 

 

 

 

Darren Lister and Brett Murphy own 10 Hideaway locations. Founder Richard Dermer initially sold the rights to three of his former managers with no franchise fee, and the first autonomous Hideaway opened on Tulsa’s Cherry Street in 1993. (Dermer still operates his own independent Hideaway Pizza in Stillwater, Oklahoma, serving up his thin-crust pizzas.) Current owners Brett Murphy and Darren Lister bought the company in 2006. Sales for 2010 are predicted at $20 million company wide and Hideaway employs roughly 500 people.

Each store has its own independent look and feel that corresponds with its neighboring community, and despite the company’s growth, “we’re trying to stay away from the corporate look,” Lister says. “We try to keep it as joint-y as we can.”

At the company’s newest location in Broken Arrow, the restaurant’s ceiling glitters with tiny twinkling stars in the roomy waiting area. It’s a replica of the night sky on the day the store opened –– complete with three shooting stars.

At the rear of the restaurant is a large picture window that offers customers a glimpse of the kitchen’s behind-the-scenes work. “The way we laid this out, it’s centered around that,” says Murphy. “We had to rearrange the kitchen from the old (designs) so we could display this more. It’s been a huge hit. (Customers) will be four-deep just watching them.”

Adds Lister: “We take it for granted because we get to make pizzas all the time!”

There’s a small carryout area, and “if anything, this is too small,” says Murphy. Up to 40 percent of the restaurant’s business is carryout.

 

 

The original Stillwater location’s dough remains intact, but a traditional hand-tossed was added to the menu two years ago to add versatility. Adds Murphy: “Other than that, we try to keep it as seamless for our customers as possible.”

Delivery is not available because “we’ve both been in the delivery game. We used to own Mr. Gatti’s franchises,” says Lister, “and you train your customer on couponing. It’s who’s on the door the most, wins. It cheapens the product. We don’t want to cheapen our product. He and I firmly believe –– and we stand on this and always will –– you’re going to get your best product here in the store. It comes out of our oven to your table in just a few minutes.”

Five years ago they added catering and a fl eet of nine catering trucks. In all, catering comprises three to four percent of sales, and once the newest location’s fl edgling operations are set, they plan to add a tenth delivery truck there.

Beer and wine are available and comprise eight to 10 percent of dine-in sales.

Specialty pizzas are king here, with cleverly titled pies ranging from the top-selling The Around the World, or The ATW for short (the company’s signature red sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, diced green bell peppers, diced red onions, black olives and fresh sliced mushrooms) to The Big Country (red sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, polish sausage, hamburger and cheddar cheese). A large specialty pie is priced at $20.19. New menu items are sourced creatively –– each store holds its own internal pizza contest and the winners face off against one another. “If they make it on to the menu, they’ll bump (another item) off onto what we call the bench,” Lister says, “but we’ll still make it forever and if you come in and have your favorite pizza we’ll still make it.” The move keeps their menu from becoming overwhelming.

This year, however, they did a Twitter promotion that brought in hundreds of potential menu items. The winning pizza, dubbed The Tweetza, hailed from Oklahoma City resident Ryan Shimp and features pesto sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, minced garlic, artichoke hearts, chopped basil and is topped with feta cheese. It will become a permanent addition to the menu this year.

Two doughs are made in house, a thin crust and their chewy traditional style, and sauce simmers on the stove for a minimum of three hours daily. And, yes, they even grate their own cheese. As an added convenience for their customers, they’ll even do a half-and-half for undecided diners.

“There’s some difficulty to it,” says Lister, “but you know what? We give our customers what they want.”

Aside from its pizzas, the company is known for its Famous Fried Mushrooms. They’re breaded in-house using a special machine, fried until just golden on the outside and served with red sauce and homemade ranch dressing. “We only sell like a hundred thousand pounds a year,” says Lister.

What has factored into Lister and Murphy’s decade of success and growth?
“I would have to say that we’re hands-on, hardworking and we pay a lot of attention to detail in our operations,” explains Lister.

“We listen a lot to our employees and our customers,” adds Murphy. “We go out in the field. It really is a bottom’s up approach. They are with our customers every day. Who else better to tell us what’s going on out in the marketplace than our employees? We’ve tried to instill, since we bought the company, a conduit through which they can communicate. So many restaurant companies operate from the top down. We’ve tried to reverse that.”

Lister says that store managers are given liberal control of day-today operations and have decision making opportunities. “We would actually like to train them and prepare them for a (future) managing partner program where they could open some stores and be partners with us,” he says.

Lister and Murphy hope to open another location by the middle of 2010, and they may branch out into another community in the near future. Lister says keeping them within the easily managed 90-mile Oklahoma City/ Tulsa markets allows them to be more proactive and hands-on, and they have two directors who oversee each market. A director of operations ensures consistency across the brand. “We haven’t changed in 53 years, and we don’t plan on changing,” he says.

With 10 stores already, Murphy says they’re getting close to saturating the market, but “Tulsa is kind of unique in that this store is in Broken Arrow, we have one on Cherry Street which basically draws off of downtown and the central part of Tulsa –– we’ve just gone to different trade areas of the city. Has there been a little bit of cannibalization? Sure. You’re going to lose 4 to 5 percent because people coming to Broken Arrow were going to Cherry Street or they were going to Fontana. In the end, we’re still doing more than we began with.”

Fifteen stores total are projected for Oklahoma, and they may look at building smaller models of their business plan in communities of less than 30,000.

And as they grow, keeping a finger on the pulse of their clientele will hopefully keep their customers from considering them as “just another chain.”

“We’re going to try to stay away from that,” Lister says. “We’re not going to be on every street corner. We’re really more of a destination place. … We’re special. People drive to us. You listen to some of our testimonials and we have people who drive from Wausau into Tulsa all the time. It’s 18 miles, but they’re going to drive here to get good pizza. … If you have one on every corner, it takes the specialty out of it.” ?

Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.