Gusto Pizza Co.

Cutting-edge social media and homegrown ingredients reap a harvest of profits for this Iowa pizzeria.



Located on the edge of downtown Des Moines, Iowa, Gusto Pizza Company (gustopizzaco.com) opened in January 2011 when friends Tony Lemmo, Josh Holderness and Joe McConville banded together to realize a common goal: make delicious pies using local ingredients. 

All three owners have a background in pizza: Lemmo previously owned a small 20-seat pizzeria and still maintains a separate upscale Italian restaurant, while Holderness and McConville had worked for other pizzerias, helping to open several operations. The trio labored together off and on and, with their combined years of experience, decided it was time to break away and do their own thing. The result was Gusto Pizza Co., an innovator in Des Moines pizza cuisine that helps keep local farmers in business. 

Gusto’s sandwiches, salads and pastas have their own unique flair, but the pizzas are the real standouts on the menu. In addition to the classically themed Spartacus, which boasts Italian sausage, pepperoni, cremini mushrooms, banana peppers, mozzarella and red sauce, Gusto’s menu teems with mouthwatering specialty options, such as the #24, prepared with jalapeño creamed corn and beef brisket, and the Thai Kwon Dough, which features Thai peanut sauce, cilantro, chicken, bean sprouts and carrots. Gusto’s pizza chefs prepare every menu item from scratch daily using local ingredients.

 

Chef McConville provides some interesting insights on Gusto Pizza’s success and its approach to marketing and day-to-day operations.

How long did the three of you work on your business plan?

We worked on it for about a year. Since we all had experience in opening restaurants for other people and Tony owned a few places of his own, we knew some things already. While doing our own research and testing out ideas, we figured it out.

What demographic or target market were you trying to reach?

Everyone. We didn’t want to exclude anyone. Since everyone eats pizza, that’s our market. Our place reaches people of all ages. You’ll see a wide range of diversity on any given night. College kids, families, older folks, customers of all races and ages seem to fill the place up. Our personality shows through our food, and we like taking classic flavors that would show up in regular meals, that most people recognize, and putting them on a pizza. Our guests relate to it, so there’s an instant connection.

What about vegetarians?

We cater to vegetarians and vegans. Also, not everyone likes meat all the time. We also have gluten-free crusts and vegan cheese made with rice milk. This sets us apart in the progressive food scene and helps us stay ahead of the race.

What strategies do you use in your marketing approach?

We wanted to use some of the social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube because they’re free, so you’re not paying some radio
personality to say how good your food is when they haven’t even tried it. A year before we opened, we set up accounts and started getting the word out. Our fans (more than 27,000) post real, honest opinions, and word-of-mouth is the best advertising. We also used YouTube to show videos of ourselves
moving stuff in to the restaurant while we were under construction. We would record goofy videos of ourselves moving ovens in, and they showed the progress we were making and created a buzz. As a result, we didn’t have a soft opening. We opened a few days before we had planned to. We had everything prepped, then we all looked at each other and asked, “Want to open?” We said yes, posted a message on Facebook, and we had a line forming outside two hours later. We sold more than 300 pizzas in a few short hours.

How do you currently use Facebook and Twitter to promote Gusto Pizza? 

We post daily specials, goofy videos and our hours of operation, and we connect with the public by responding to questions and comments on something we call “Ask a Chef.” We also use it for other information we feel the public may need to know. It’s a form of entertainment that younger people can relate to.

Has the green movement affected your marketing strategy in any way?

Yes, it has. We are a farming community. I come from a farming family, and I’m proud of that. So we wanted to showcase local ingredients from the community. They haven’t traveled thousands of miles or touched too many hands. We try to support our community, people we know and those who live
within 15 minutes away from us. We also promote and are part of Buy Fresh, Buy Local, a local group that supports fresher, better products. We’re big on using farmers markets and Graziano’s, a local Italian grocery store that’s the last of its kind. We make our own pepperoni, and we use a local prosciutto from La Quercia that’s the best I’ve had. This ensures that we have a good product, and it promotes local businesses. When a local business provides us with its product, they’ll tell their friends, and then 20 people will come to try that specific product.

What kind of coupons or specials do you offer?

We offer Gusto Bucks for people who respond to our tweets. We also offer half-price slices from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., and we have grab-and-go Prontos, which are ready-made pizzas for pickup. We do specials that start on Thursday and run through the weekend if supplies last. We do a Chef Extra, which is a daily special that could feature a slice of pizza, sandwich, soup, salad or pasta. Sometimes we’ll do something crazy; I once made a pizza that had watermelon and prosciutto on it.

What are Gusto Bucks?

Gusto Bucks are gift cards. We issue them for Social Share Mondays. These are for nonprofit companies or foundations that are worthwhile causes we support. It’s a way to give back a little to the community for something we believe in.

How else are you involved with community or school events in the area?

We are not currently involved in any school events, but we do participate in some community events. We have a mobile kitchen truck that is fully equipped with ovens, coolers, freezers, running water–everything you need to cater and travel with–and we bring this to events around town, like music festivals or carnivals. We are unable to do this on a fulltime basis because the city doesn’t allow it. We also travel to other communities in the area and sometimes to towns a few hours away.

Do you involve staff or guests with creating menu items?

Yes. We did a March Madness bracket like the NCAA does. We had different pizzas face off in a competition, people voted for them, and the winner made it onto the menu. We also encourage our staff to come up with ideas. If it sounds good, we’ll try it. Some ideas make it to the menu, and some resurface as a special. Then we’ll throw a pizza party for that staff member and 20 of his or herfriends. This approach showcases the employee. We have fun with it, and this creates a fun atmosphere for everyone.

Where do the humorous names of the dishes come from?

Our first five pizzas had been on the menu at Tony’s pizza place. We’ve kept some of them, and some have left. Some of the photos on our walls can explain that. There are photos and paintings that we’ve commissioned, called pizza tiles, like the Vincent Van Goat and the Duke, named after John Wayne, who was born 45 minutes away. There’s also a dish named after an old Heisman Trophy winner from the 1930s who was a World War II hero.

What’s your slogan?

Our T-shirt slogan is “Divine Pie.” This showcases our progressive thinking and our strategy to stay ahead of the race.

Does competing with the Big Three concern you at all?

No, because we’re doing our own thing that appeals to people. We have some classic dishes that other places offer, but we put our own spin on them.

Sean Adams is a freelance writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. 

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