My Turn: Michael Bausch — Andolini’s Pizzeria, Tulsa, Oklahoma

2013 March: My TurnWhat movie would you rather see: one on the life and times of Babe Ruth or one about Barry Bonds? I think even the most ardent Giants fan wants to be in with the original. Think of other originals and their imitators: the Beatles to the Monkees, “Baywatch” to “Acapulco H.E.A.T,” “Armageddon” to “Deep Impact,”and everything in between. Then ask yourself: “Is my pizzeria a true original or an imitation?”

We see it all the time in movies, TV and music — and we call it out as phony. What we seem to not call out is when it happens in the restaurant industry. Exactly the same generic Chinese joint, the same enchiladas at Señor Fill-in-the-Blank’s and the same stock photos on the wall at every pre-packaged pizza place. Even Original Ray’s ain’t original.

You may be an independent, but is your business independently minded? Are you buying the same stock items from your food vendor and doing the same stock things with those items that every pizza place is doing? Saying: “But we use grated Parm instead of shredded!” is not a real differentiator. Maybe you’re lucky and you’re the only one in town doing it (now), but if someone could open shop and duplicate everything you do, including using grated Parm, then you are anything but safe. Just being “Home of the_____” is not enough. You need to dig deep and be the original You — and have your brand follow that lead.

That’s why YOU have to build a brand, and then respect that brand. Cultivate that brand: what are the ideals of your brand? What does it say about what’s important at your place? Figuring out if it says anything at all at the moment would be a good place to start.

In 2005, Andolini’s Pizzeria hit a point where money was tight. Anyone could buy the same frozen raviolis, throw some sauce on them and –– boom!, we would become just another pizza and Italian place. Facing that reality, we decided instead to make everything from scratch.

Along with that we decided to come up with food items that no one else was doing. We were always asking ourselves: “What would we need to do and be to survive the New York or San Francisco dining scene?” and not just simply to make it in Tulsa.

That strategy has paid off for us and I write this not to say: “Hey look at me! I think I’m fancy and special.” No, I write this because I wish someone said it to me the day Andolini’s Pizzeria opened and saved me some heartache. I wish someone had reminded me that being an individual is why you opened this place. Don’t try to do your competition’s brand better than they do; try to invent a new brand identity that has never been done. At the very least, that hasn’t been done in the place you’re operating.

When someone copies you, know that it’s a sign of desperation. Don’t be desperate yourself and return the favor. Just be you. I don’t remember the Beatles trying to cover “Daydream Believer.”

Here’s where to start: what is generic about your store? The menus, the pizza names, even the pepper shakers — what have you seen already? Now slowly change that in your image. Does your logo and name inspire confidence or does it perpetuate clichés? Is it instantly recognizable as you? There is no one right answer to this other than to say if someone plopped into a seat at your restaurant in Anytown America, when he left, would he know and remember where he had just been? Or would he (or she) more likely say: “Yeah, I’ve think I ate there once. It was pretty standard.” If you got into this to make fantastic pizzas, then I applaud you. Get that idea and goal out to as many people as possible by increasing and bettering your brand.

Michael Bausch owns Andolini’s Pizzeria in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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