June 22, 2015 |

Respecting the Craft: When Customers Don’t Understand Quality

By Tony Gemignani

Tony Gemignani headshot

World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento

Three days ago (at the time of this writing), I opened a new restaurant in Las Vegas. It was in a hotel and casino that has been around for a very long time. We saw that during the day the visitors are in the age range of 55 and older. At night, the demographic is more diverse. People are price conscious, so developing the menu was very strategic. I added menu items like wings, BBQ, ham and pineapple pizza, mozzarella sticks and several others that aren’t on practically any menus at my other locations. These were items I was doing 20 years ago. I didn’t install a wood-fired oven because I didn’t feel the clientele would get it.

Penne_Chicken_PestoI made other changes as well. For example, I moved my usual 13-inch pizzas to two sizes: 9 inches (so we had more options in the $8-10 range) and 16 inches (for families). I added a “customize your own pasta” category so that customers could configure a dish for around $9. I didn’t change the quality, but I did change the sizes (smaller portions) and altered the ordering process.

These moves all worked well to attract customers. But what happened next was definitely unexpected. On opening day our first customers ordered a 9-inch pizza. The server taking care of their table found me and said, “two guests would like to speak to you.” I went to the table and asked how everything tasted. One of the diners started yelling at me for about six minutes. He wanted me to look at the bottom of the crust (he thought it was too dark). He pointed out that the natural-case pepperoni was crispy on top (it’s supposed to be). He said the sauce had too much flavor, the sausage should be more bland and that the combination of ingredients weren’t right. As he told me I didn’t know what I was doing, his friend “explained” the yelling in detail and told me that I should visit a pizzeria in Massachusetts. It was embarrassing because the guy wouldn’t stop. I was going to throw him out, but I decided to just deal with it.

What’s interesting is that the pizza (an award-winning one, I might add) was perfect. It had a great bake and the ingredients were spot on. These two customers just didn’t understand it. A few customers later, however, we had another issue: a customer said our homemade pesto was too green. She felt like it should be whiter with a greenish tint. We explained that you could have a pasta that has a touch of cream, but typically it should be much more green than white. She said: “that’s a little too authentic for me.”

It got worse. We had people asking for salads without mixed greens and arugula — they only wanted Iceberg lettuce. As we moved forward through the day we had a couple customers that didn’t like fresh pasta or pasta cooked al dente. They preferred overcooked pasta that was almost mush — and that’s exactly how they explained it. Garlic and spicy items were another issue on certain foods. We make our Ranch dressing in-house, and a customer wanted it from a package!

Funny thing: this was only an issue from 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. These were all high quality items customers had issues with, and these similar items are in all of my restaurants and we have very few problems with them. When these disgruntled diners mentioned certain restaurants they have been going to, I understood that for years they have had really cheap, frozen, low-quality and sub-standard food. My solution is to be more cautious when customers are ordering and to give them a better explanation of menu items. Sometimes when you think you have it figured it out, something new comes up that keeps you on your toes!

RESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento.  Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail jwhite@pizzatoday.com and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.