Business as usual is anything but for a pizzeria fueled by one of the largest attractions in America. We Cook Pizza and Pasta is situated a mere two miles from the entrance to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the tiny Arizona town of Tusayan — population nearly 600.
“There are a lot of unique situations at the Grand Canyon,” says general manager Brian Ciesielski, from the altitude and drastic temperature changes to business limitations and employee housing. Amid its challenges, the 2013 Pizza Today Hot 100 Independent Pizzeria (No. 99) grossed more than $1.8 million in sales last year. We Cook thrives on its peak seasons, totaling just five months a year.
Last fall, Pizza Today trekked to We Cook Pizza & Pasta for an inside look at this unconventional pizzeria. We sat down with Ciesielski and his wife, Verna, who have been running the pizzeria for owners Wayne and Margie Cook since 1995. The Cooks opened We Cook in 1981.
We Cook is literally the last business before passersby reach the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. You can’t miss it with its large, yet simple exterior signage and awning emphasizing the word “Pizza.”
Inside, the pizzeria seats 200 at massive picnic-style seating. The tabletops are actually old hotel room doors that Ciesielski salvaged. “We extended our seating by three-and-a-half feet per table by using doors,” he expands. “We have to get new covers every once in a while, but it saves a $100,000 remodel that we can’t afford today.”
Moreover, the picnic tables are part of We Cook’s key strategy centered on quick table turns. “We only make money a certain number of months so we have to jam it in as much as we can,” Ciesielski says, adding that they shoot for 20- to 25-minute turns. “We are a fast food restaurant that servers beer and wine.”
Though beer and wine are big sellers, Ciesielski says they don’t actively promote We Cook’s alcohol program because it also encourages lingering. Flat-screen TVs and NFL Ticket were also removed. “We are not a sports bar,” he says. “People used to hang out…
Once again you are not turning tables and you’re not selling many pizzas.”
Within its peak season, We Cook has what Ciesielski calls its “Power hours” from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The pizzeria has been able to capitalize on its rush by implementing several other strategies. Four years ago, We Cook invested in high-output conveyor ovens, able to handle their order volume of more than 300 pizzas a night.
Faced with town connectivity restrictions, the pizzeria’s only Internet connection is dedicated to its POS system, able to run credit cards in 2.5 seconds. It significantly reduced line waits for the counter-service restaurant.
We Cook’s employees — 45 workers during peak season and 30 off-peak — are a major driving factor to successful power hours. And it starts with night shift managers Katrina Garcia and the Ciesielskis’ daughter Danielle. “Danny and Katrina are experts at making people feel wanted,” Ciesielski says.
Verna agrees. When it comes to the hectic powers hours, they are rock solid and do not waver.
The Ciesielskis also looks to their experienced kitchen crew to stay on top of order volume. “We demand such a high level of respect toward each other that there is no room for huge egos in our kitchen or anywhere else in our restaurant…hopefully the result is harmony and balance, just like our pizzas,” he says.
We Cook’s two “dough boys” — as Ciesielski calls them — also have to adjust the house-made dough for the altitude. “At 7,000 feet, it goes from prep to freezer so it doesn’t blow out,” he says.
Even with its seasonality, 90 percent of We Cook’s employees have been with the restaurant for five or more years. Such low turnover is a feat considering the limited housing in Tusayan because it’s surrounded by federal land.
“Employers have to provide housing for their employees,” Ciesielski says. Since We Cook cannot afford apartment housing, many of its employees —mostly part-timers — also work and live at other town businesses. “We do have six employees in We Cook housing — that’s three percent off of the top,” he says of the housing expense.
“People want to work here,” Ciesielski says. “Pizza’s fun. That’s one reason we wear tie-dye — to remind us to not get too serious about what we do, because it’s easy to do when you get as busy as we do.”
How do you know what a diverse traveling public wants from a menu? We Cook offers a little something for everyone with 14 specialty pizzas — including a pre-made gluten-free option, four calzones and a dozen pasta dishes. Taste preferences are pretty varied with its customer base of American and international travelers and locals.
Verna finds that the international guests go for the cheese pizza or We Cook’s version of a Margherita, which uses part-skim mozzarella instead of fresh mozzarella and sliced tomato replaces the San Marzano tomatoes on their traditional, hand-tossed dough ($20 for a 16-inch). Americans lean towards pizzas like the Meaty Cook ($28.95 for a 16-inch) and the Bacon Cheeseburger ($26.95 for a 16-inch).
Locals tend to go for variety. The Spicy Shrimp and Broccoli Pasta ($16.95) is a local favorite. The hot wings are so popular that the Ciesielskis came up with a well-received Hot Wing Pizza ($26.95 for a 16-inch).
The one menu item that both locals and tourists appreciate is We Cook’s salad bar. Dressings are made in house and the bar is replenished about every 20 minutes. “There aren’t that many salad bars out there and ours is huge and fresh,” Ciesielski says, adding that at $5.95 for a single trip, the salad bar is a highly profitable item.
“The locals have a lot to do with our success,” Verna says. “They really keep us going in our slow season.”
We Cook’s devotion to locals is evident as cashiers know residents by name and order. It pays off in more ways than one. People go out of their way to greet the Ciesielskis during their visits.
“They are our sales force,” Ciesielski says. “We roll out the red carpet for them.” VIP packages with water bottles, magnetic calendars, key chains, a 20-percent discount — even in the nearby cities of Williams and Flagstaff — and personal service keep the locals coming back. When a traveler asks a local business owner where to eat, Ciesielski hopes they say “We Cook.” It’s a word-of-mouth strategy that works well for the pizzeria.
The tourism culture of the tightknit Tusayan community was rocked by the government shutdown of Grand Canyon National Park in October 2013, typically a busy time for the area. Many town businesses closed. We Cook remained open, but sales were as meager as its slowest winter months. “Nobody recovered, employers or employees alike — very underreported in the news,” Ciesielski says.
As We Cook embarked on the new year, Ciesielski says, “We’re busy now evaluating the menu, looking for a price change — first in five years — and maybe a new item or two. This is our ‘Gear up for next season’ time.”
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.
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