2011 July: Main Street Pizza

When Rick Smith was 24 years old, he started Main Street Pizza & Noodle in the skiing mecca of Park City, Utah. At that time, he says, a low-cost dining option did not exist in the city. The first night wasn’t exactly a barnburner — Smith served six customers. The second night, however, 600 patrons came in thanks to the opening ceremony of a major ski event. As a result, Main Street has been profitable from the start, a rarity in this business.

“About 55 percent of our business comes in winter, from December to March,” Smith says. “This town thrives on skiing.”

This year, Main Street will top $2.1 million in sales. The company’s results have stayed pretty even since 2009 despite the recession that hit other restaurants hard in the first half of 2010. But when the recession was really deep in 2008, Main Street experienced a 12-percent increase.

“Everything else around us is fine dining, so it seemed like people were coming to us instead,” says Smith. “Our volume went way up.”

While the move down from high-end restaurants was nice, Smith also took some proactive steps that helped ensure Main Street grew despite the economic downturn.

“For one thing, we hired differently,” Smith says. “We used to have 103 people, now we have found a way to do it with 90. The employees are working more hours for us. But the recession did affect Park City as a travel town — people booked shorter vacations. Instead of seven-day ski vacations, people took three- and four-day ski vacations.”

Other keys included negotiating with suppliers line item by line item. That turned out to be a major boost, Smith says, because Main Street “cut costs and also increased volume. Even though our sales went up 12 percent, our profits doubled. We took a lot of measures that I thought were prudent, and they did in fact end up helping us out quite a bit during the recession.”

Laura Munarriz, who has been the Main Street general manager for a decade and is a partner in the operation, says the pizzeria has expanded dramatically over the years.

“It went from 4,000 square feet to 7,000 square feet now,” she says. “We can run with as few as two people on to as many as we need. Sometimes we may only need a cashier and a cook, then we’ll have a Saturday where we need 43 people working a shift.”

Main Street has roughly 30 full-time employees and 60 part-timers. Munarriz says the restaurant’s operational procedures help make scheduling decisions less hectic than one might expect.

“We’re kind of a hybrid here,” she says. “We seat you and get you menus and tell you how things work and get you comfortable. But then the customer goes to the counter to order and a food runner brings the food out to you.”

According to Smith, who has been involved in the ownership of about 35 different restaurants over the years, Main Street serves more than 175,000 customers annually. Pizza accounts for 50 percent of food sales, while pasta weighs in at 40 percent. The menu also offers salads and sandwiches. The average guest check is nearly $12.

“We make almost everything from scratch,” says Smith. “One really good restaurant is all you need to have to make a great living if you give people food they want and enjoy. For us, it’s about quality. Not every single item on our menu is from scratch, but a lot of it is. Certainly the majority.”

Take pasta, for example. Smith says the process is easier than many operators would think.

“It’s very simple — there really are only two ingredients: semolina flour and eggs. In the winter we have three full-time guys making pasta.”

In evaluating line items recently, Smith discovered that cheese (no surprise to any pizzeria owner) accounts for his largest purchasing expense. To help offset that, he’s going to dramatically change his ordering procedures.

“We’re getting ready to start buying our cheese by the ton,” he says. “We own a warehouse for storage. Because cheese fluctuates so much, I don’t know yet if this will be the way to go long-term. But cheese is our biggest purchase, we’re going to try it out.”

Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at Pizza Today.