2010 March: Shape Up, Ship Out

A couple of years ago, Pappardelle’s, a small, family run pizzeria in Bethpage, New York, decided to expand its delivery service to the national level. Shipping pizzas was the quixotic idea of Pasquale and Vincent DiMartino, the brothers who manage the restaurant. The rest of their family thought they were nuts, Pasquale DiMartino recalls.

They weren’t. Pappardelle’s tapped into a national market hungry for authentic New York pizza: the restaurant now receives 60 to 70 online orders a month, each for between 1 and 10 pizzas. Its pizzas have been served in Hawaii and London. “We just had a guy from California who ordered $750 worth of food,” DiMartino says, amazed.

Shipped pizza, even frozen parbaked pizza, may seem impractical at best and unappetizing at worst. Can a food as fragile as pizza survive a trip across the country? And even if it could, would anyone be willing to pay the shipping? Surprisingly, pizzerias like Pappardelle’s answer both questions with a resounding yes.

“It’s a good money maker,” says Giovanni Mineo of Mineo’s Pizza House in Pittsburgh, which began shipping pizzas in the late 1990s after a skeptical Mineo overnighted a few frozen pizzas to a friend in Florida. The result was unexpectedly impressive: pizza that was still recognizably Mineo’s, a half-century-old Pittsburgh staple that often sweeps the city’s best of awards.

What began as a novelty — a favor to customers who swore by Mineo’s pizza — has morphed into a revenue stream. “Especially with this economy, anything you can do now to help your business is a good thing,” Mineo says. Last year, the pizzeria sent over 400 packages to customers around the country; each package included anywhere between two and 20 pizzas. (That’s without accepting credit cards: Mineo’s still only takes money orders.) Far flung orders soared when the Pittsburgh Steelers played in the Super Bowl, and the day after the game, Mineo’s made The New York Times: the paper ran a photo of a Pittsburgh native in Tampa reheating a Mineo’s large on his engine block. (He finished it on the grill.) Pittsburgh residents have a strong civic identity and Mineo’s sends many pizzas to customers who miss the taste of home. But it ships just as many to people who only lived in town while at the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon. “A lot of people who aren’t from here end up loving the pizza and then they leave and apparently can’t get any good pizza,” Mineo says.

Shipping pizzas is likely to stay a small sideline for Mineo’s. But at Lou Malnati’s, the Chicago deep dish legend, sending pizzas across the country is a highly profi table mail order business: the company ships a staggering 250,000 pizzas a year. “It’s a little larger than our largest restaurant in terms of sales volume,” says Mindy Kaplan, Malnati’s director of marketing. The company first offered shipping 20 years ago for the holiday season. The idea became so popular that six years ago it founded Tastes of Chicago, a mail order operation that sells Malnati’s alongside other iconic Windy City foods. “Just like any mail order business, 60 percent of our sales are gifts,” especially during the holidays, Kaplan says. “The other 40 percent are people who moved away from Chicago but still need their Malnati’s fix.” To serve that market, Malnati’s offers a Pizza by the Month package.

Any shipped pizza has to arrive in good condition and taste even better. There’s a surprising number of opinions about how best to do that. When DiMartino of Pappardelle’s began shipping pizzas, he tested various options in his (very warm) garage. His system: after par-baking the pizza and freezing it overnight, he vacuum seals it inside a pizza box and then places that box, covered by large frozen gel packs and shrink-wrapped, inside a Styrofoam box. UPS picks the pizzas up at 7p.m. and DiMartino says they can withstand 3 Day Select delivery, although after Tuesday he’ll only ship 2 Day or Next Day.

Lou Malnati’s exercises extra caution: They pack their pizzas in an airtight Styrofoam cooler with dry ice and require delivery by 48 hours, often using UPS’s Next Day Air Saver service, which guarantees delivery by 7p.m. Mineo’s, on the other hand, simply par-bakes the pizza, transfers it to the deep freeze and then sends it priority overnight; FedEx makes the pizzeria its last stop before the airport. Although Mineo’s doesn’t add dry ice or gel packs, it has successfully shipped pizzas as far as Hawaii.

Shipped pizzas may be an expanding market, but that trend could be reversed by a declining economy. Mail order business in general has been hit relatively hard, and last year Malnati’s had a slight fall-off in shipped pizza orders. “It’s the only year we haven’t seen growth,” Mindy Kaplan says. On the other hand, Pappardelle’s and Mineo’s, both relative newcomers to shipping pizzas, continue to see their orders grow. ?

Want to ship? Consider:

? College Towns. College students live on pizza, and if you have built a loyal collegiate following, you might have a base of out-of-town nostalgic customers. A shipped pizza is a cheap trip back to campus.
? Bulk. It’s expensive to ship a single pizza. But larger orders cut the price per pizza dramatically and make the concept of cross-country pizza much more cost effective. Market your pizzas as party fare. For many pizzerias that ship, their bestseller is a special four-pizza pack.
? Timing. Don’t ship at the end of the week. Not every location has Saturday deliveries and no one will be happy with a pizza that’s spent the weekend in a warehouse. In fact, some pizzerias only ship on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
? Marketing. Customers for cross-country pizza come by reputation or Web traffic. If you’ll be relying on the latter, optimize your Web site to increase its rank in Web searches. If it works, you’ll see a dramatic rise in orders

Nicholas Day is a freelance writer who covers food and drink for a variety of publications. He resides in New Haven, Connecticut.

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