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With 18 stores in two states to promote, Vinnie DiNatale of Grotto Pizza still knows how to stay personally connected to his customers.

NASCAR promos, football contests and a high-powered loyalty program help create top-of-mind awareness for this 55-year-old company.

Dominick Pulieri co-founded Grotto Pizza in 1960 when he was just 17 years old. Today, the company boasts nearly 20 locations.

Photos provided by Grotto Pizza


Grotto Pizza may have opened in 1960, but it’s not resting on its laurels when it comes to marketing. Weekly specials, big-time giveaways, a high-tech loyalty program and two mobile kitchens keep Grotto’s director of marketing Vinnie DiNatale busy.

With 21 locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, DiNatale has been handling the marketing for 18 stores located in Delaware and Maryland since January 2012. “I started as a server at Grotto when I was in college getting my marketing degree,” says DiNatale. “I was the marketing manager at Grotto for three years and then left to explore different restaurant groups in Philadelphia and New Jersey in between my time as marketing manager and director of marketing at Grotto.”

PMQ sat down with DiNatale to find out what it takes to juggle marketing for multiple stores while still staying personally connected to customers.


PMQ: What is the most successful promotion you're currently running?

DiNatale: I think it’s our loyalty program, the Swirl Rewards Club. It’s something that’s ongoing. Using the loyalty program, it’s much easier to measure the results and see not only how well the program is doing overall, but also different aspects of the program. For example, for our birthday rewards program, we offer a free junior pizza on your birthday that’s good for 14 days. So it goes out on the Monday of your birthday week. I can go in through Paytronix, and I can see those people who received it two weeks before and two weeks after and see the lift in business—more visits and more spend. You can see their buying behavior before the email and after the email. It’s a really nice tool to be able to ask, “What are we doing, and is it working?”

Switching from an e-club to a technology-driven rewards program helped Grotto increase same-store sales by 20%.


PMQ: How does your current loyalty program compare to what you were using before? How has it affected business?

DiNatale: We previously had an e-club, which was just a one-time transaction. We’ve now gone from the early days of email marketing to the most current technology for marketing and engaging with our guests. Looking at just the month of October during the past three years, when we were pushing the Swirl Rewards program for National Pizza Month, we had more than a 20% increase in same-store sales.


PMQ: What is Community Pizza Night?

DiNatale: We’ve been offering Community Pizza Nights for nine years. You have to be a 501(c)(3), a not-for-profit organization, to participate, and there’s an entry form/contribution request form on the website. Each organization can select three different dates and a location, and we look to see what’s available. We hold Community Pizza Nights Monday through Thursday, and the organizations receive vouchers where 20% of the sales from each check turned in with a voucher goes back to the organization. The best results are when schools do it.


PMQ: How many customers attend Grotto's Trivia Nights, and how long have you been hosting them?

DiNatale: We’ve been hosting general trivia nights for about 15 years at different locations. We have third-party companies that we work with, so a host comes in and sets up, etc. Our most successful one is our Grand Slam in Lewes, Delaware. In the summertime, 60 to 70 people come in for the trivia night. A lot of the same teams come in, and there’s some fun competition that goes on. They really get into it. The prizes are Grotto Pizza gift cards—$50 for first place and $15 for second place.

It's not unusual to find 60 to 70 people at Grotto's Grand Slam Trivia Night in Lewes, Delaware.


PMQ: Tell us more about your National Pizza Month contest in October.

DiNatale: Every time a customer used their Swirl Rewards Club card, they automatically won a reward—either $3 off a large pizza, a free slice, buy-one-get-one-free calzone, etc. They also were entered to win $1,000 or an iPad. Additionally, we ran a contest internally with our servers to see who could register the most customers into the loyalty program during the month, with prizes of $300, $200 and $100. The winning server had 43 registrations in October.


PMQ: How do birthday parties work at Grotto Pizza?

DiNatale: For kids parties, we do goodie bags for all the kids and can also let them make their own pizza—either just the birthday boy or girl or the full group. We also do that for Boy Scout troops and elementary schools. They get to come into the restaurant before it’s open and learn how to make pizza. It’s fun for the kids to do.


PMQ: Is it true that you give away NASCAR all-access passes?

DiNatale: We have a really good relationship with our beer distributor, Standard Distributing in Delaware. Through Coors Light, we can give away all-access passes to the Dover Race, which includes the drivers’ meetings, going on the infield and walking around pit row. You get to be there when they present the pole. We’ve done that giveaway twice a year since 2012, and guests just go online to enter to win. We’re also a sponsor of the race and sell our pizza there as well.

Events centered around sports, fun, and the local community continue to attract Grotto fans.


PMQ: How long have you had your mobile kitchen? How does it help you market Grotto?

DiNatale: We have two mobile kitchens, and we go to events such as the Delaware State Fair and the Firefly Music Festival, which is becoming the premiere East Coast music festival. We rent out the units for private events and weddings, and we’re just getting into the food truck realm and hope to start attending the local Food Truck Friday events. Twice a year at the Dover Air Force Base, they do a NASCAR Social on the Friday before the big race; for the last 15 years, we’ve been taking the mobile unit there and giving away pizza to the military and their families. There’s also an event called Slam Dunk to the Beach in Lewes, Delaware, that we sponsor in December. It’s one of the premier high school basketball tournaments. We take our mobile unit there, sell slices for a dollar, and everything we sell we donate back to the school.


PMQ: How many guests fill out your online/secret shopper survey?

DiNatale: We’ve offered this survey online for six years and usually have two or three people per day fill it out. It’s great for us to get that feedback. It’s mostly positive, but if someone has a negative experience, we can find out that way, and we can address that with our guests and then use it as a teaching tool for our employees. With every check we drop off in the restaurant, we bring a flier that says, “Fill out a survey for a chance to win a $100 Grotto Pizza gift card.” This encourages people to go to the website and fill out the survey. We want that feedback and want to address any issues right away. When they walk out the door, we want them to remember that they had a good experience.

“Don’t try to do everything at once. If you’re going to do a direct mail campaign about specials during the week, focus on that. If you do too many things at once, you’re going to fail across the board.”
—Vinnie DiNatale, Grotto Pizza


PMQ: What's for sale in the Grotto gift shop?

DiNatale: You can purchase gift cards there, which is great because some of our locations are very seasonal, so people can send cards to guests who visit at certain times of the year. We also sell guzzler jugs, towels, hats, T-shirts and more.


PMQ: What types of promos do you run for the holidays?

DiNatale: We run a Cyber Monday promotion—if you buy a T-shirt online, you get a free large cheese pizza card. We did that promotion for the first time last year, and it was by far the busiest day we’ve ever had in the online gift shop. We’ll run the same promo this year. We also have a gift card promo: Buy $50 in gift cards, and you get a $10 bonus card that’s good January 1 through March 31.


PMQ: Tell us about the free trip to Las Vegas you've offered.

DiNatale: We do a Vegas giveaway for the Super Bowl. It’s something we do all football season long, and you can enter online. We select finalists who come to our Dover location and put out pizza boxes with either “Winner” or Grotto Pizza gift cards inside so everyone gets something. Then they all open them at the same time. Besides the trip to Vegas, we run other food and beer specials during football season and Pigskin Pick ’Em, which is free to play. You just pick which team you think will win and turn it in by Thursday before the game starts. At each of our 10 sports bar locations, the winner at the end of the regular season gets a $500 cash prize.

Every football season, Grotto runs a contest to win gift cards or a grand-prize trip to Vegas.


PMQ: What's your advice to pizzeria operators who may be struggling with marketing and promotions?

DiNatale: Prioritize your goals. Put your plan together and focus on two or three goals at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once. If you’re going to do a direct mail campaign about specials during the week, focus on that. If you do too many things at once, you’re going to fail across the board. Do a few things and do them right, and you can build off of that.

Liz Barrett is PMQ’s editor at large and author of Pizza: A Slice of American History.


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