2011 May: Man on the Street

Last year, I ordered pizza from no fewer than 350 restaurants. The bulk of it was the result of my involvement with a statewide survey of pizzerias in New Jersey, performed on behalf of the state’s largest newspaper. The mission was unprecedented. Over the course of six months, we visited roughly 10 percent of the state’s pizzerias — and we followed the same protocol every single stop.

With the help of our trusty GPS, we called each pizzeria when we were three miles away, in hopes of placing our order anonymously while still arriving in time to catch the pizza as it emerged from the oven. The routine was simple: one large pizza, half cheese/half sausage, and one large pizza based on the pizzeria’s suggestion. Sounds simple enough, but I was shocked at how hard it was to get a clear recommendation.

The usual answer was something to the tune of, “We have a buffalo chicken pizza” (a violation of our no chicken rule) or even worse, a list of all the usual toppings available at every pizzeria on the planet. In those cases, we often threw the phone operator a bone by asking about standards like a Margherita pizza or Sicilian pizza. The response was so poor it made us wonder if these people had ever eaten at their own restaurants.

The real kicker came when we arrived and the owner realized we were reviewing her pizzeria, only to discover that we had ordered the wrong pie (i.e., the pie she wished we would review). Usually, the owner would try to convince us to taste the shop’s golden goose — but we had to decline. We had our orders, and rules are rules. After all, we called our order in like anybody else, ate like anybody else and paid like anybody else. In short, we were real customers.

Not only did many pizzerias show their lack of coordination by revealing disconnects between the phone person and management, but they also missed out on a great sale. Think of all the marketing dollars you put behind your business with the simple hope that someone will pick up the phone and place an order. Don’t drop the ball and lose them at the most critical moment. If your staff is informed about your unique ingredients, special preparation, featured dishes and culinary accolades, they’ll be well equipped to complete the sale in the most effective way possible. The more they know about your product, the more comfortable I, as a customer, will be with their recommendation.

We all know food preference comes down to personal taste, but it’s still possible to guide your customers when they ask you for advice. When I ask for a recommendation, I’m giving you the opportunity to sell me the pizza you eat after closing time and secretly wish everyone would order.

And don’t forget that anyone with a mobile phone is a veritable food critic, beaming photos and descriptions instantly to a sea of your potential customers. Make sure your team is ready to help people like me have the best experience possible — because you can be sure everyone we know will hear about it.

Scott Wiener is Pizza Today’s ‘Man on the Street.’ The most enthusiastic pizza fanatic you’ll ever meet, Scott owns and operates Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City. His column will appear regularly.

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