March 1, 2012 |

2012 March: The Visible Owner

By Nora Caley

Pizzeria owners know they need to be visible to customers and to the community. That means not only greeting people at the restaurant but also participating in local events. The trick, operators say, is to balance your visibility with putting on an apron and making pizza.

“I think you need to have a strong presence in the front of the house,” says Frank Mininni, who owns Scusa Mi Pizza & Catering in Downers Grove, Illinois. “People need to see the owner is operating the restaurant. If there is an issue, they need to feel they have someone to talk to.”

However, it’s important not to be too visible in the restaurant. Sometimes there is a drawback to having people recognize you.

“People feel they only want to order through you,” Mininni says. “I can’t tell you how many times a day I’m with a customer, and someone says, ‘Hey Frank, you have a call on line one,’ and it’s someone who wants to order a pizza.”

He pays people to answer the phone, Mininni says, but customers want to feel special. They might think that by knowing the owner, their order will be handled with extra care. “Being at the front of the house is important, but at the same time you have to set limits,” he says. “As much as I’d love to sit there and rub elbows with every customer, I cannot financially afford it.”

So he trains the staff to answer the phone and field the routine calls themselves, while he does the many other tasks owners do. If the caller has a complaint or a comment, Mininni will place a courtesy call to the customer later.

Mininni knows it’s important to be seen and heard by customers, especially since Scusa Mi is still a relatively new place at just over two years old. That’s why the restaurant sponsors charitable functions such as the annual Toys for Tots collection, a local food pantry drive, and fundraisers for a breast cancer organization.

Other owners agree that the place to be visible is outside the restaurant. That’s especially true for independent restaurants, says Tony Mancini, who owns Giovanni’s Pizza in Huntington, West Virginia. “Small guys have to put a face to the place,” he says. “You’ve got to put yourself out there. People want to see a hands-on guy. They want to see a person who lives in the community, and who cares about the community.”

He adds that when he’s in Giovanni’s, he needs to work, not schmooze. “Mainly, I stay in the back cooking and doing a lot of dishes,” says Mancini, who has owned the restaurant for 13 years. “A lot of times if we are extremely busy the dishes get backed up or the phones do, so I do a lot of that stuff.”

Giovanni’s sponsors kids’ sports teams and other community events. He doesn’t just send money though. He attends the games and says hello to people. “People want to know who’s writing the checks,” he says.

Terry Black, who owns Jimmy & Joe’s Pizzeria, says he used to spend most of his time in the restaurant when he opened his first location in Chandler, Arizona five years ago. “When you start, it’s make or break, so I cooked every day for a year and a half, and then I could step back and hire people,” he says. “Now I go in during the lunch rush and the dinner rush.”

Black says he does what used to be called guerilla marketing, and is now called grassroots marketing. He brings pizzas to charity car washes, hands out free slice coupons to people who work at other small businesses such as coffeehouses and dry cleaners, and gives gift cards to teachers and principals. When Black opened his second Jimmy & Joe’s Pizzeria in Mesa, Arizona in 2010, members of a local school’s girls’ softball team came in for dinner. “I said, ‘Give me your schedule,’ and then I brought them pies after a game,” he says. “All my customers know me because I’m out in the community. People see me and they wave at me.”

They do more than wave. Black says much of the goodwill has led to sales, including purchase orders from schools. Teachers have bought multiple pies from him when they wanted to reward a class.

Mininni has also noticed positive results from his charity work. Customers sometimes tell him they found out about Scusa Mi at a fundraiser a year ago, and are coming in now.

Mancini says when he is outside the restaurant, he has to be on his best behavior all the time. “You’re never off the clock,” he says. “You could be doing something with your family, and someone comes up to you and says, ‘Why don’t you take reservations?’ Or, ‘We tried this topping in Florida, what do you think?’ ”

As the owner, he is representing Giovanni’s, even when he is running errands or doing something that is not restaurant related. So that means he can’t yell at a barista for getting his coffee order wrong, for example, and he can’t beg off conversations. “You can’t say, ‘I’m just pumping gas,’ or ‘Let me watch the game,’ ” Mancini says. “People frown on that.”

Wear It On Your Sleeve

If you want to be visible in the community, the easiest thing you can do is wear your restaurant’s logo shirt. People will start conversations, says Terry Black, who owns two Jimmy & Joe’s Pizza restaurants in Chandler and Mesa, Arizona. “I wear the Jimmy and Joe’s shirt every day,” he says. “I want to wear it to church but my wife won’t let me.”

He has found that people recognize the brand even outside Arizona. Black was driving the Jimmy and Joe’s Pizzeria truck on a road trip to San Diego. He stopped at a red light and someone started honking the horn at him. He turned to look. “The other driver flashed his Jimmy and Joe’s VIP card and gave us a thumbs up,” he says. “We have a good product, and we have raving fans.”

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.