2010 October: A Pizza My Mind

2010 October: A Pizza My MindI heat my home with wood. I have a boiler backup system, but firewood is a natural byproduct of living in the middle of 40 acres in the forest. Wood fires need attention; nature abhors a vacuum. When the fire burns down to coals, I either watch the flames go out or stir things up by adding a little fresh air and fuel into the chamber.

I’ve consulted with dozens of mature pizzerias this year. They have been in business for years. Many are landmarks in their markets. Many of them report same or declining sales and are feeling the pinch of the recession. Owners are scratching their heads trying to figure out what has happened. These aren’t the good old days.

Three very recent events are top of mind this issue, and are driving this article. The first event was a quick assignment for a client back in my old ‘hood of Detroit. I spent the day with a young couple in the store their family opened when I was a teenager. I still remember this mini-chain and how busy they were. The pizzas were made with love and everyone smiled. All the way to the bank.

Those days are a memory of days gone by. The stark reality in the current economy: what used to be a money machine in bygone years has dried up. The second-generation owners are slowly dying a death from a thousand small cuts. They are struggling to make their monthly payments to Papa and Mama for their retirement. I see this scenario from coast to coast. So many places are frozen in times gone by.

I recently pondered a quote attributed to Fred DeLuca, founder of Subway Restaurants. It was thought provoking: “The world doesn’t stand still, and we don’t deserve to be where we are unless we stay ahead of things and take the necessary steps to remain competitive.”

His second quote hit a nerve as well: “I tell my team all the time, ‘The biggest chain in the world used to be Howard Johnson. Now no one eats at a Howard Johnson.’ ”

I had the opportunity to go back to pizza school this summer. I enrolled to spend a week in San Francisco at Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza. I really didn’t know the first thing about true Neopolitan or Classic Italian Style other than the fact that I fell in love with them the first time I went to Italy. I tried to duplicate these pies unsuccessfully. After years of trial and error, I gave up and stuck to what I knew.

Yet, while in San Francisco, Tony walked a small class through the hands-on as well as book theory. What an enlightening time. Our class cleared out of the kitchen when the customers started to come in. Tony’s staff took over and almost effortlessly created hundreds of masterpieces.

Fred DeLuca nailed it. Be proactive in your thinking, or your customers will one day abandon you. You are only as good as your last hit record. When is the last time you wowed your customers with anything they could get excited about, other than a $2 off coupon?

If you and your menu are burned out, like my wood stove, feed the fi re. I’m your customer; amaze me.?

Big Dave Ostrander owned a highly successful independent pizzeria before becoming a consultant, speaker and internationally sought-after trainer. He is a monthly contributor to Pizza Today and leads seminars on operational topics for the family of Pizza Expo tradeshows.