What’s Your Story? Mert Sunnetcioglu, Mia Mia’s Pizzeria
How this ex-engineer quadrupled sales at his pint-sized pizza shop in just over three years.
After immigrating to the United States from Turkey, Mert Sunnetcioglu studied to be an engineer, but food was always his first love.
When Mert Sunnetcioglu came to the United States from his native Turkey to study engineering, little did he know that his culinary hobby would turn into a career. Since purchasing Mia Mia’s Pizzeria in 2015, he has transformed the pint-sized Providence eatery into a thriving business, thanks in large part to his methodical use of marketing technologies. PMQ recently caught up with Sunnetcioglu to learn more about his journey—and the keys to his success.
Mia Mia’s Facebook followers can win a $25 gift card (complete with oversized check) by taking part in the restaurant’s “Like-Share-Tag” contests.
PMQ: Tell us about your background and how you became involved in the pizza business.
Sunnetcioglu: I came to the States nine years ago to get my master’s degree in engineering. When I was growing up in Turkey with my mom, our beach house was right on the Mediterranean coast. I grew up watching my mom and how she cooks. When I started going to college, I watched YouTube and tried to imitate the chefs on there—seeing how they cooked, what they did—and my friends would come to my house, where I would cook for them. They would joke with me, “I think you should study culinary arts.”
Long story short, I couldn’t pursue my culinary arts dream in Turkey, because at that time there weren’t many opportunities to do that there. But when I came to the States, I was going to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and working at a local pizza place. I watched those pizza guys and how they did things. When I finished my master’s degree, I went to work at Pizza Hut for more than two years and learned the corporate culture, observing how they work. Then I said to myself, “It’s time to buy my restaurant.” I bought Mia Mia’s and opened on July 21, 2015. My first Friday, I was open 17 hours and got only 17 orders. It was brutal. But, since then, we’ve been selling great food with great customer service. We are open until 4 a.m. on the weekends, and we do late-night deliveries.
PMQ: What are the keys to your success at Mia Mia’s?
Sunnetcioglu: I try to serve the very best ingredients. I go shopping every single day. If I run out of an ingredient, I don’t mind saying to a customer, “I’m sorry, I’m out of that ingredient today.” I don’t want to over-prep or serve food I wouldn’t eat. At the same time, I keep my food costs low and bring more customers in.
In 2019, everyone loves to talk about their bad experiences on social media. It’s difficult to get people to talk about the good things. In order to do that, first you have to serve good food, which I believe I do. We also have great customer service. My delivery guys go above and beyond to make all of my customers happy. When a person comes into the restaurant, we call them by name. I’ll say, “Hey, Mr. Bill! How are you doing today? How is everything? Nice to see you!” It’s all about the customer service.
PMQ: What menu items make Mia Mia’s stand out?
Sunnetcioglu: Rhode Island is a small state. In Providence, there are about 36 pizza places, but everyone does the same thing over and over again. What makes Mia Mia’s unique is that we think outside the box. For example, in the morning, people are looking for breakfast, so we have the Hangover Pizza, with bacon, sausage, mushroom, cherry tomatoes, a sunny-side up egg, and scallions. It sounds weird, but why not? Why not think outside the box? It brings more people in and brings us more attention.
We have different toppings, like goat cheese, which most of the restaurants around here don’t have. We have corn, prosciutto, arugula—all fun toppings. We prep all of the dough in-house and make our sauces in-house. We mix our own blend of cheeses. We spend a lot of time on food preparation. When people hear my accent, they say, “You’re not American. You do things different from other pizza places.” That’s correct. Every time I do something, I take pride in it.
The morning after never tasted so good, thanks to Mia Mia’s Hangover Pizza, made with ham, sausage, bacon bits, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, scallions and sunny-side up eggs.
PMQ: Tell us about your approach to customer service.
Sunnetcioglu: Everyone here takes pride in what they do. People want to feel special. If you go to Las Vegas, everyone knows you’re going to spend your money there. But if they treat you like a king, whether you have $100 in your pocket or $100,000, you feel comfortable spending more money. You feel like you’re home. At Mia Mia’s, we treat everyone like they are a king or queen. I have repeat customers, so I know what they’re going to get. When they call in, I say, “Mr. Charles, just give us 20 minutes and your food will be ready,” and boom! Every time he comes in, his food is always there.
PMQ: You have a pretty aggressive marketing strategy. Tell us more.
Sunnetcioglu: For the millennials, we go crazy on Facebook and Instagram. I take pictures with a professional camera and put them on Facebook. I run ads on Facebook, and I designed my own website. When you visit our website, a message pops up: “Follow us on Facebook. Follow us on Instagram.”
The third-party online-ordering service I’m using, ChowNow, is $149 per month, which is a good flat rate. It’s a great deal for a small business owner, allowing you to order directly from Facebook or Instagram. I generally get 10 to 15 Facebook orders on a weekday and 25 to 30 orders on Saturdays and Sundays. When a customer orders with ChowNow, his information is sent to the business owner, so I can email them or call them with a special. I’ve been using that a lot, and I’m happy with it. We’ve had 20,000 orders placed on that platform. It’s also available as a smartphone app and not complicated to use. Customers just log in one time, so they don’t have to worry about a password or credit card; it stores that information. As long as you have your phone on hand, you can order whenever you want. And they don’t sell the information to other businesses. I currently have 1,379 registered users who either downloaded the app or who order directly from our website or Instagram account. We also have a mailing list. If they sign up, we will give them a free medium pizza, and we provide them monthly deals as well.
PMQ: What was it like training for one profession and ending up in another?
Sunnetcioglu: It’s a dream for me to come from overseas. I had a dream to be an engineer, and when I realized that’s not what I wanted, that I wanted to cook, I just kept following my dreams. Engineers look for high quality, low labor, and low cost of goods. I try to incorporate those principles into my restaurant. We try to make everybody happy. So far, I’m doing well! After that first Friday night with 17 tickets, I’ve been here almost four years now, and my Friday nights are almost 200 tickets. In less than four years, I’ve almost quadrupled my business, and I’m just a little corner store in a low-income neighborhood, with one table—it’s basically a takeout and delivery joint. If I do that much business in that little store, I think I’m doing something right.
Bill DeJournett is PMQ’s contributing editor.