2011 October: STAYING ON TOP

When someone mentions Bloomington, Indiana, two words come to mind for many Indiana University (IU) grads of the past three decades: Mother Bear’s. Situated across the street from several IU residence halls, the traditional panstyle pizzeria has experienced a lot of success in a small college town dotted with dozens of pizza options.

“We’ve managed to climb to the top of the heap. Our volume, reputation, and accolades indicate to me that we are on top,” says owner Ray McConn.

Mother Bear’s has ranked in Pizza Today’s Hot 100 for five straight years, coming in at No. 57 in 2011 with $3.4 million in sales. Over the years, the restaurant has racked up a number of acclaims: 2010 best pizza in Indiana by USA Today, best pizza in Bloomington by the local and college newspapers several years running and named “One of America’s Top 9 Pizzerias” by People in 1982.

Rising to No. 1 is only half of the battle for McConn. “Now it’s a matter of staying on top,” he says. “It’s a matter of doing things to guarantee our continued success.”

Pizza Today made a visit to Bloomington earlier this year to get an inside look at Mother Bear’s. The single store’s sales are impressive. Even amid economic downturn, its revenue continued to experience up to a sevenpercent increase, McConn explains. “It’s just incredible,” he says, adding that for a period from 2001 to 2009 sales increased 20 percent per year. “Last year was about eight percent and this year, we are looking at 12 percent.” IU spring commencement week is a big one for Mother Bear’s and sales were up 20 percent over 2010.

With its prime location, Mother Bear’s is one of the most popular spots in Bloomington. It has an old-school pizzeria style with high, dark wood booths and multi-colored, stained glass lamps at each table. In two of its three dining rooms, the walls and booths are sprinkled with writing that McConn says provides entertainment to his patrons. “It’s a fun place to come to,” he says. “This isn’t five-star fine dining with linen table cloths. If writing on the walls is fun for them…then why not?”

McConn’s facility has adapted to handle larger and larger volume. Able to seat 125 today, he says it’s common to have a four- to five-hour window on Friday and Saturday nights with up to one-hour waits.

Dine-in waits haven’t always been the case. In the mid-1980s deliveries were half of Mother Bear’s sales. “Now our dine-in business represents probably, I would say, at least two-thirds of our business,” McConn says, adding that delivery is about 20 percent with the remainder derived from carryout.

The shift to more dine-in business comes as McConn has nearly tripled his pizzeria’s square-footage in the last several years. Until 2005, Mother Bear’s had a single, narrow dining room. “When our customer count overwhelmed our seating, we took over another room,” he says. In 2005, the restaurant expanded into a neighboring room, followed by another section in 2007.

To keep his operation streamlined, McConn has spent time and money on Mother Bear’s kitchen and prep areas. “In the last 10 years, we’ve put a lot of money back into the place, upgrading it, remodeling it,” he says, adding that increasing the size of the prep area and moving the outside freezer into a indoor walk-in has provided great efficiency. Added in 2007, the two-deck, conveyor ovens offer flexibility and speed. “The ovens are great because not only are there two decks,” he says, “There are two belts per deck so you can program the different topping loads per belt.”

Mother Bear’s ovens are well-equipped for its variety of crusts with traditional pan-style, deep-dish and thin-crust pizzas. Pan is the most popular, with deep dish also having a strong following. The newest thin crust, added to the menu three years ago, is building demand at 10 to 15 percent of sales. “It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to keep it,” McConn says, noting that it’s not cannibalizing other menu items. “We are getting a certain amount of new patrons in here because of that, which increases our sales.”

Though pepperoni reigns supreme, gourmet pizzas have found their following at Mother Bear’s. McConn says that The Deluxe with pepperoni, sausage, onions, mushrooms and green peppers ($13.85 for a 10-inch) is a house favorite.

McConn brought The Divine Swine to International Pizza Expo to compete in the International Pizza Festiva (predecessor to the International Pizza Challenge) in 2005 and 2007 and was twice recognized as a finalist. The meaty pizza is loaded with pepperoni, sausage, ham and bacon ($12.75 for a 10-inch).

Another recognized favorite is The Dixie Two-Step, topped with southern style BBQ sauce, chunks of chicken, onions and cheddar cheese ($11.65 for a 10-inch).

McConn attracts customers with complete meal specials, utilizing slow times, as well as delivery and carryout specific offers. The Munchie Madness, available for delivery and carryout only, includes a 10-inch one-topping pizza, breadsticks or cheese bread, a two-liter bottle of soda and two homemade brownies for $9.95. He says food costs for the special run 40 to 42 percent. “Because of the volume it draws, I’m fine with that,” he says, noting a key is in its labor effectiveness. “Everything is in a large box — so the delivery guys are happy,” he says. “They grab a box and a two-liter and they go.”

Another carryout and delivery only offer, the Snack Attack Pack, caters to individuals with a six-inch one topping pizza accompanied by a half-order of breadsticks, a 20-ounce soft drink and two homemade brownies for $8.35.

McConn says he tries to target times when they need more sales for dine-in, carryout or delivery. The Early Birds catches the time before the dinner rush from 4 to 6 p.m., offering a free order of breadsticks or cheese bread and a free soft drink with the purchase of a 10- or 14-inch pizza.

Another special available to dine-in customers is the Mom’s Favorite: a 10-inch, one-topping pizza, two soft drinks and two house salads or an order of breadsticks.

Thanks to a POS system McConn purchased in 2007, he’s able to track the discounted items. “It’s amazing the amount of sales that are generated from that,” he says. “Our coupon expense would be a success story for most businesses.”

Besides its specials, Mother Bear’s maximizes the college market, which is about two-thirds of the company’s customer base, by accepting IU’s CampusAccess card that serves as ID, facility access key and meal card for students, faculty and staff.

With thriving word-of-mouth and pedestrian traffic, McConn says he doesn’t invest much into advertising. He refers to himself as an “old Pete” when it comes to promoting his business. “We don’t do electronic media advertising,” he says, opting instead to advertise in the local and college newspapers.

McConn admits the advertising that has generated the most bang for the buck is late night cable television. “It hits the audience we want — students,” he says. “After midnight, you can buy a commercial on ‘Discovery’ or ‘Comedy Central’ and it’s like $4, extremely cheap.” Every four years he cycles in Mother Bear’s popular and humorous Fairy Godmother Bear commercials to a new crop of IU students.

These days, McConn says, he spends maybe two percent of his sales on marketing. “That is one of the great values of being such a high volume, popular restaurant — you don’t really have to advertise as much,” he says. “You want to pick your spots and you want to advertise, but you don’t have to splash it like you used to, spending several thousands of dollars more a year on advertising.”

What’s next for Mother Bear’s? With any luck, McConn hopes to expand again to accommodate large parties. After 38 years, he is always looking for opportunities to improve the restaurant, whether it is the facility, operations or menu. He moves forward saying, “Every day is a new challenge to keep doing things as well as possible.”

Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.