A big fish in a small town

I recently took a “pizza pilgrimage” across Middle America, visiting several pizzerias run by guys I know from the U.S. Pizza Team and discovering amazing bits of knowledge. First, some of the best pizzas in the country don’t come from large metropolitan areas; they come from small towns that most people never hear about, such as Fredrickstown, Emporium or Valley City. Second, these small-town operators remind me of what the daily grind is like for business owners: interrupting interviews to make deliveries, spending 30 minutes talking to an elderly lady who loves your food (even though you’re already pressed for time) or going to pick up an employee whose car won’t start.

One of these guys is David Smith II, who owns Smith’s Pizza Palace Plus in Emporium, Pennsylvania. Dave won the American Pizza Championship in Orlando last year with his Cajun Chicken Pizza and will be representing the United States in The America’s Plate at PMQ’s New York Pizza Show in March.

The Competitive Spirit

Smith bought his pizzeria more than seven years ago after working in a factory for almost 20 years. “I went home a little disgruntled one day and was talking to my wife, asking her about her day,” Dave explained. “She told me that she’d gone to eat pizza and that the owner was talking about selling the place. I didn’t have the greatest day at the plant and thought that it was time to make a change, so I asked how much. About a year later, I had the place and, with six months of crash course training, the place was ours.”

As with many new owners, especially those without restaurant backgrounds, beginning can be tough; you spend a lot of time searching for the one thing that can put you over the top. Dave found this in competitions. He says that the bulk of his marketing dollars, outside of community involvement, is spent going to competitions.

“It took a few years in the beginning to get comfortable,” Dave said. “In that time, we noticed a trend of tourists and hunters coming in and talking about how good the pizza was. It was then I decided that maybe I should enter one of these contests, so we went as spectators to one of PMQ’s pizza contests at a trade show. We watched the acrobatic contest and the cooking contest. I thought I would start by entering the acrobatic contest, so I entered one in Pittsburgh and took fi rst place in fastest pizza making and third in largest stretch. After that, I started looking for contests, and that led me to Orlando to enter the American Pizza Championship. I can do pretty well in the acrobatic contest, but that doesn’t get your door pounded down. I told my wife that I wanted to win just one contest and see how it affected business.

You hear about people like Jason Samosky (PMQ’s previous American Pizza Champion), how winning made their sales just take off, so I went and won in Orlando, and sales shot up real fast. “The pizza I won with in Orlando was the Cajun Chicken Pizza,” he continued. “We were looking for a different pizza to try. I modified our wing sauce to use as a pizza sauce. It has a few more spices but is similar to a buffalo sauce. We wanted to make a pizza that we didn’t have to buy extra product to make and keep. I added bacon, blue cheese and celery, mimicking the buffalo pizza with a few modifications. Funny thing is, I never even tasted that pizza before the contest, because I’m a bit biased. The first thing I did was offer it to my employees and then customers. Sometimes employees will tell you what you want to hear, so it’s important to get feedback from customers (the people who will or will not pay for it). The customers will tell you the truth.”

In a Small Town

The town of Emporium has only about 2,100 residents, so I had to ask how a restaurant owner can make it in a small town. There are only so many potential customers, so how do you get them all in—and attract others from surrounding communities? Community involvement is the answer. “If you want members of the community to support you, you have to support them,” Dave said. “Fortunately for us, we bought a restaurant that was already established, and you can’t put a price tag on that. If I opened from scratch somewhere, it would be a whole different story. As far as sustaining 

customers, you have to have a good product. Over the years, as food costs have gone up, we have never decreased the amount of cheese or started using a lower-grade product. You keep the product the same and increase prices if that’s what it takes to be consistent. If you have to, be the most expensive pizza in town; but be the best pizza in town.”

Dave stays involved in the community in several ways. “As long as I can see a benefit to the community, I have a hard time saying no. I won’t give cash; I’m in the promotional business, so I will give a certificate to sell or use for fundraisers. I want to get people in the door—that’s marketing.” Dave works with the fire department for a fire hall promotion. He decided to get the fire department, which has two trucks, to do deliveries for the pizzeria one night. The firemen, in full gear, delivered pizzas out of the fire trucks, and Dave donated half of all sales to the department (with the other half, he was able to recover his costs for food and labor). He donated all of the delivery charges ($1 to $2) and all of the tips to the fire department. The department did all of the promoting, and Pizza Palace Plus benefited from giving to the community while earning free publicity.

Smith also stays involved in the community by incorporating his past experience with pizza acrobatic contests. “I only know enough about acrobatic dough tossing to be dangerous,” Dave says. “But I know enough to teach the little kids, so I take this cart, loaded with acrobatic dough, to the school, and I bring enough pizza to give each kid a slice. While they’re eating, I do a large stretch. Right before I leave, each kid gets a refrigerator magnet and a certificate for another slice and a free slush with a dine-in purchase only. They end up coming in to redeem their coupons and bring Mom and Dad; I see coupons coming in that day. As far as the community goes, I focus on the kids more than anything, because that’s my future.”

Menu Ideas

Dave has some sound advice about adding or changing a pizza menu. He says that even now, his award-winning Cajun Chicken Pizza isn’t on the regular menu. Because he had just printed menus before winning the American Pizza Championships, the new pizza wasn’t added. And because he’s constantly working on new combinations (and reprinting menus is very expensive), he instead created a separate sheet for specialty pizzas and experimental ideas, and he adds to it from time to time. This way, his basic menu remains the same, while his specialty/gourmet pizza menu can change when he deletes or adds new items and makes a few copies. Some of the more popular pizzas have been the Margherita, Broccoli Chicken Cheddar, Buffalo Chicken, Shrimp Alfredo and Taco.

Wing Promos

On Tuesdays, Dave does an all-you-can-eat wing night for $9.95, or 35 cents per wing (he gives customers the option). “There is not a lot of profit in wings to begin with, but I am getting people through the door, and they’re buying sodas and other things. Wing Night works. Since we started, wing sales are up, especially after we won Best Wings in a countywide contest. Contests also work.” As many of you know, being in a small town poses as many challenges, if not more, than operating in a larger area with tons of competition. But owners like Dave have found a few tricks that can work in any area: school demos, creative menu ideas and community involvement. If you would like to learn more about Dave and Pizza Palace Plus, be sure to check out the full video interview, which includes tips and advice that don’t appear in this article, at PizzaTV.com. And the next time you find yourself in a small town, stop at a local pizza joint; you may be surprised at how good the pizza is. I was.

Tom Boyles is the publisher of PMQ’s Pizza Australia.