April 1, 2015 |

A Conversation with Michael Shepherd

By Pizza Today

Michael Shepherd 600 Downtown

Michael lets us in on proven ways to increase check averages


Six Hundred Downtown
Bellefontaine, Ohio

Owner Michael Shepherd is a four-time World Pizza Champion, eight-time world medalist. He is also a pizza industry speaker, author and Pizzeria School of Management Instructor.


Honestly, increasing check averages and upselling is all about getting customers to spend more money with me on each visit. Whenever I can get a customer to spend a few or many more dollars on the same visit it translates into huge gains on the bottom line. A larger sale with no additional overhead, marketing and minimal labor can be the difference between a good night and an awesome night and at the end of the year it can be the difference between a profitable year and a loss.

I like to tackle increasing check averages with a combination of direct and indirect methods including proper server training, marketing materials, upselling contests for servers/phone staff, manager monthly bonuses based on average tickets, menu engineering, and some stealthy tactics. Just one tactic doesn’t do the job. We have to be doing all things at all times to be effective.

Upselling is an awesome way to increase check averages if it is done right. I dislike anything that is or can be perceived as high pressure or blatant selling. We want our customers to enjoy themselves –– not feel like they are being pushed into buying anything. The customers should never realize we are trying to increase their check average. We practice three different types of upselling techniques based on the attitude of the customer and the circumstances:

  1. Matching up. We like to match up certain menu items with other complementing items. Garlic knots always go good with a pizza, ranch always goes good with wings, a salad goes with pasta and desserts come after everything else. Often times customers didn’t realize they wanted these until we made the suggestion. Some things are meant to be together and when we make these suggestions to customers it is usually an easy sale.
  2. Value-adding. Pointing out to a table or a carryout order that a large is only $3 or $4 more than the medium or that the large order of mozzarella breadsticks is twice as big for only $3 more is an easy way to not only help the customer get a better value, but for us to gain a higher check average.
  3. Food on Parade. We use this stealthy tactic for our dine-in customers. Some of our menu items are not only awesome to eat, but they are also a pretty awesome site to see. Our Detroit-style pizza, signature drinks from the bar and desserts are some of the items that we will make up and “take the long way” through the dining room to be sure that everyone gets a good look. Sometimes we will even “accidentally” take it to the “wrong” table so they can get a better look and smell while they are waiting. It plants the seed in their head, piques their interest and gets them hungry! Shortly after a “parade” of food we can be about 99-percent sure that we will soon be selling some to those who caught a glimpse in the dining room.

Of course an upselling contest for staff and a bonus for managers makes this all come together much easier.


More Web-exclusive Conversation with Michael Shepherd


On biggest boosters to increase check averages…

Appetizers and beer are the single biggest items on the menu that helps boost the average check. Our best selling appetizers are our Garlic Knots and this is by design. For less than $4 a table can share an appetizer than has food cost of about 10%, takes seconds to prep, and only a few minutes to bake. Customers choose it because it is inexpensive, fast, and filling. Both of us win.

When it comes to beer we have built a selection that consists of 11 taps of mostly local craft offerings. These are beers that they may not be familiar with or have been searching out, regardless they are often not concerned about the price or have no basis to price compare (we are selling apples and our competitors are selling oranges). This allows us to markup our beer a little more than if we were offering common brands. Of course the best part is that there are no free refills on beers.


On front-of-house staff…

The bulk of the burden rests on the FOH staff. We can setup the menu and place marketing materials in the right spots, but it usually comes down to a nudge from the staff. I like to see my servers and phone people be in control of the transaction. We are here to guide the customer into having the most enjoyable and delicious experience possible. I spend most of my marketing efforts on generating Word Of Mouth. With many of my customers coming in from outside the immediate are because they heard about us from a friend or on social media means they are often wanting the full “Six Hundred Experience”. This means that FOH staff should be making recommendations for appetizers, asking the table what they like and making suggestions, offering desserts at just the right time and working in some masked upselling. It takes some significant training and constant motivation, but it is cheaper and more effective use of dollars than marketing for new customers.


On internal and external marketing…

I like to tie everything together as much as possible. The external marketing such as Social Media and Direct Mail that I use is backed up by the internal such as menus, in-store flyers, tables tents, and suggestions from staff. The external works to pull the customer in and then it is up to the internal marketing and the staff to close the deal. Recently we added four new local craft beers on tap. We did a great social media campaign that pulled people in. Once they were in my pizzeria I had to make sure the beers were on the menu boards, on the drink menus, and the serving staff could explain the details of the beer to customers who were interested.

Additionally, the menu in itself is the largest piece of internal marketing material that we have. We engineer our menu to make it easy for customers to choose the pizzas, appetizers, and drinks we want them to order. We make them progress through the order making experience in a way that nudges them into ordering an appetizer, buying a pizza that will give them some leftovers, and pick a dessert to take home – all carefully guided by the server. Add ons and companion items are also suggested on the menu as well.